Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Tough Texts – Jesus and the Little Children

Mark 9:34-37 34 But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest. 35 He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, "Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all." 36 Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, 37 "Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me."

Mark 10:13-16 13 People were bringing little children to him in order that he might touch them; and the disciples spoke sternly to them. 14 But when Jesus saw this, he was indignant and said to them, "Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. 15 Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it." 16 And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them.

One of my all time favorite moments in teaching teenagers Confirmation Class came the week that they were assigned to read the entire Gospel of Mark in preparation for an intense discussion about the Jesus of the Gospels. The very first comment came from one of the girls: "How come no one ever told me that Jesus was so mean?" This comment was ripe for a variety of discussions and led to a very good day in class, but the first thing I said to her was, "I'm sorry."

The apology was for not having given her a bigger picture of who Jesus was, beyond a sweet gentle man who lets children come and sit on his lap. Yes, we teach children the miracles of Jesus and the parables of Jesus, and we hang pictures in our Sunday school classrooms of Jesus gathering children around him - representations of the passages above. We teach them the stories of his birth, his baptism, and even his passion, death and resurrection, but often fail to give them much context for understanding why anyone would want to put to death a man who celebrates children and calls adults to be more child-like.

In their reading of the Gospel of Mark my students could have come across a variety of elements that would give a somewhat shocking impression of Jesus of Nazareth. The Gospel is characterized by two things that are very non-Sunday school Jesus. First, he is constantly moving on. There is no pastoral moment - no lingering. There is also a theme in Mark of secrecy - he is always telling people to keep quiet about the things he has done and who he is.

In this Gospel Jesus is also easily frustrated with those who don't believe and don't understand, from disciples to Pharisees. He calls them faithless and ignorant of the scriptures. It also doesn't help that he disowns his own family - a passage that doesn't sit well with too many who read it.

So how can we as parents have a fuller understanding of who Jesus was, beyond the Sunday school Jesus and the off-putting prophet, and how do we explain that kind of radical and biblical Jesus to our children?

  1. You can do exactly as my confirmation students do and read through the entire Gospels. I know that may sound intimidating, but you really don't get a full picture of Jesus and his teachings and his interactions with those who were in power and with those who were powerless (including children) without reading things in context. I recommend starting with Mark, because it is the shortest and most likely the earliest of the Gospels, but you can't stop there. I would venture that any parent who has read through all four Gospels will be more than equipped to talk to their children about who Jesus was.  
  2. You can help children have a historical and geographic understanding of who Jesus was. Show them on a globe or world map where Palestine is. Remind them that he lived 2,000 years ago in a different culture – you might also want to mention that he was Jewish. You would be surprised to know how many children raised in the church never make that connection until they are teenagers. It can be a complicated concept for them, and the response I usually get back is – didn't he believe in himself? It took me about 45 minutes to explain to my confirmation students this past year what the difference was between a Jew and a Gentile. Talking about these concepts early with children when we talk about the Bible and Jesus means that they don't need to go through a paradigm shift when they reach Eighth Grade. 
  3. You can help children remember that Jesus loved and valued children, especially in a culture that did not. Jesus is different than Barney, the Wiggles and Mr. Rogers who celebrate and connect with children in a culture where children are cherished. Jesus valued children in a time when they represented powerless people in society. This is a great way to talk to children about how Jesus always supported the underdog.
  4. You can talk to children about how Jesus told the truth, even if it meant hurting feelings, or getting in trouble; that Jesus stood up to bullies that everyone else was afraid of. You can also tell them that Jesus expected a lot from people, especially when it comes to how we treat each other
While Jesus can come off as radical and edgy, his teachings represent (at least from my perspective) exactly the kind of values that most of us are trying to teach our children – humility, generosity, honesty, advocacy for those in need.

It is also important to note that while most people read the above passage about becoming like little children as a call to return to innocence like children, it is also possible to read it as a call to become curious like children, enthusiastic like children, forgiving like children, capable of immense love like children, even blatantly honest like children. To become child-like and Christ-like is not all that different.

I would love to hear if you too have had eye-opening experiences of Jesus through the Gospels or even if your own children have asked you difficult questions about who Jesus was.

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