Earlier this summer, I was asked to prepare a paper for a workshop at the Baptist World Alliance in Zürich, Switzerland. The topic was children and justice: how biblical perspectives on children can inform our larger work of justice for all humans. My study and preparation took me on an amazing journey.
First, I was reminded that we are called to minister with children, not merely to them. Regrettably, too many churches focus on children’s ministry as a means to an end (“Let’s go after the kids and then we’ll get their parents”) instead of seeing them as an end in themselves — human beings in the image of God, with much to teach us. Getting past sentimental and dismissive attitudes toward little ones requires hitting a reset button. In the words of Joyce Ann Mercer, children are not window dressing (see her book, “Welcoming Children — A Practical Theology of Childhood”). Nor is the Sunday children’s sermon just a clever way to say something memorable to adults.
But beyond that, my study taught me that our attitudes toward children reveal much about what is in our own hearts regarding all marginalized and devalued people. Since children are without social agency, they become a mirror for us. Our approach to these little ones shows us how we really feel about other excluded and weak persons. Furthermore, these boys and girls become a portal for us. Through their innocence, curiosity and lack of pretension, we experience the Kingdom of God more authentically.
Bible stories which reference children are not intended as saccharine to sweeten otherwise dull Sunday School lessons. Quite to the contrary, scripture’s accounts of children provide subversive stories which expose pride, hatred and entrenched, institutionalized evil. In Jeremiah 32:35, the prophet addresses the horrendous practice of child sacrifice. He warns Israel not to offer up her daughters and sons to the local god, Molech. Can our culture hear this message in a fresh way? In what ways are we sacrificing our children on the altar of success, marketing and greed?
Matthew 2:13-23 is often overlooked in our traditional Advent and Christmas readings and sermons, mostly because this story is so unspeakably violent and sickening. A paranoid, power-crazed King Herod slaughters innocent, defenseless babies for no other reasons than to secure his hold on power and terrorize anyone who gets in his way. Meanwhile, the Christ Child (the real king) is a homeless, undocumented immigrant on the run, with an assassin’s target on his tiny back. Of course, the larger story is that this pathetic pseudo-king dies and the Baby King still reigns. Talk about a counter-cultural gospel!
But the subversive work of children is not limited to the first gospel. According to Joyce Ann Mercer, the Gospel of Mark is rich in counter-cultural claims for children and all who are oppressed or neglected. Chronologically first among the gospels, Mark challenges the imperial extension and abuse of the Roman Empire. When Jesus opens the Kingdom to children, he also invites the poor, diseased and socially excluded. Richard A. Horsley points out that in ancient Palestine, children were viewed as not-yet people. If you’ve ever been discriminated against or made to feel invisible, perhaps you know the feeling of being treated as a not-yet person.
In Mark 10:13-16, we read the amazing story of Jesus (a male) taking children in his arms. In doing so, he demonstrates that caring for children is NOT women’s work. He thus uproots yet another deeply entrenched patriarchal assumption. He also invites the disciples to bless children who are not their own, making the point that caring for and blessing children is the Church’s vocation. In other words, it’s everybody’s business.
Andrew Lester has pointed out that very few pastors have relationships with children, except through their parents or guardians. We have much to learn from children, if we will only listen. Jesus was thoughtful toward children and generous with his time and attention. He received them, blessed them, validated them and lifted them. And he loved them — for who they were, not only for what they would become.
Doyle Sager is lead pastor of First Baptist Church in Jefferson City, Mo.