but Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven.” Matthew 19:14
Another version of this passage reads, “suffer little children, and forbid them not…” And I think that’s how we older folks treat them sometimes, both in church and in the home, we put up with the inconvenience of having them around—we suffer them. Or, we shuffle them out of service as quickly as possible, or assign a room or class just for them, ostensibly, so the tired parents can concentrate and attend to worship, or, arrogantly, so the pastor isn’t interrupted by the competition. I’ve been in services where an usher was standing by to put a guiding hand on the shoulder of a parent with a noisy infant, leading them out to a cry room or, at least, out of ear-shot.
As a minister this practice drove me a little crazy. Our church always welcomed the little ones and I would regularly put parents at ease, encouraging them with this verse and others, to let them know their little ones were welcome, our church cherished little ones in all their fidgety, busy-ness.
Based on this verse, there are at least three parts to this command. And if we want our lives and the life of our church to be weatherproof, strong enough to withstand any storm of life, we would do well to heed God’s voice.
Let the little children come to me.
At the height of Jesus’ popularity there were tens of thousands of people coming out from towns and villages all over Palestine and beyond to hear Him, touch Him, and, if possible, talk to Him. Many were desperate, many were learned and yearned to ask hard questions. The disciples, trying to help facilitate, figured to separate the women and children so the men could have a proper audience with Jesus. But Jesus put an instant stop to this practice—“No, let the children come to Me!”
Jesus wants children close to Himself, that’s where they belong. He can handle their wiggling and simultaneously forgive your sin and heal another’s burden—He is God. If Jesus would be present in our services then little children should be welcome there with Him. I love seeing families worship together with parents encouraging their little ones to sing with joy at the top of their lungs. I love to serve the little ones communion and know the grace of His presence in the elements is for them as much as me or anyone else. So Jesus begins with the directive, let the children come to me.
And do not hinder them…
Hindering a child, or putting a stumbling block in their way, so they aren’t encouraged to worship, is addressed by Jesus in the previous chapter. He says:
but whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in Me to stumble, it would be better for him to have a heavy millstone hung around his neck, and to be drowned in the depth of the sea. Matthew 18:6 NASB
Now we would not intentionally cause a little one to be hindered or to stumble away from Jesus, but how about when we make it clear that they are not “allowed” in the main service, “big church” or “worship”? Parents that want their family to worship together can feel unwelcome, unsupported. If our service or liturgy is a gathering of the body to join with heavenly worshippers in God’s presence, our voices lifted up with believers across the globe, then we should all be there, down to the youngest soul, with children learning from their parents how to conduct themselves before God in adoration, repentance, and joyful praise.
For to such belongs the kingdom of heaven.
We tend to teach that grown-ups must become child-like in their faith in order to receive the kingdom of God, and that’s true. But it’s not that the kingdom doesn’t belong to actual little ones, on the contrary, it already belongs to them, so they don’t need permission to enter God’s presence, they are already with Him. It is usually us older folks that struggle to prepare childlike hearts, empty of ourselves, humbly ready to approach the risen Lord in worship. But not children, where they are, He is—and where He is, they should be welcome to be, or, honestly, He probably won’t be there if the little ones are prevented from being with Him.
Dear ones, babies, infants and toddlers aren’t a problem for the church that needs to be solved with creative programming, they are gifts to be honored, loved, instructed and learned from. Clearly, a particularly fussy little one might need to go out for a bit to settle down, but being a little noisy, learning to worship, listening to psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, participating in the eucharist, watching their family, and, by extension, the uncles, aunts, other children, and loving grandma’s and grandpa’s that make up the body, is where they need to be.
And just a word about how this verse applies to weatherproofing our lives away from the gathered body of Christ. Jesus is also present in our homes, cars, and everywhere we go. Life is a sacrament where His presence turns the ordinary into the extraordinary. The Lord will do amazing things in your midst if you spend intentional time together. Don’t pacify the babies with electronics, spend time with them. Put the personal devices away and make your living room, or kitchen table, (or both) technology-free-zones, and communicate with one another. Let the mind of Christ be in you always, listening for what He is saying, invest those precious evening and weekend hours into the lives of each other, especially the children. Show them what mom and day are really made of, make your family a dwelling place for God in the Spirit in worship, in play, in work, in laughter and in tears.