Relationship Over Rules

Back in May, in the normal course of my job duties, I found myself being chased by a bunch of wet two, three, and four year olds. They threw water balloons, attempted to hug me while soaking wet, and splashed water from the bounce house and the pool. It was water day at Children’s Morning Out on their last day of school for the year and I had simply come over to say hi and see how things were going. The children, however, had other ideas! Needless to say, I had a blast.

Our Children’s Morning Out program has begun again, fresh for a new school year. We founded the program in January, 2020, because there was no part-time daycare option in Dodge County. So far, it has been a wonderful addition to the ministry of this church!

I love to wander over on some days and play with the kids for a moment. Most of the time, there’s no threat of me getting wet; but there are always conversations to have, toys to see, balls to toss, or any number of other activities. I’m blessed by being around these children. 

In our minds, a scene like this is what we think of when we hear the story of Jesus summoning the children to come to him; what we’ll examine in our scripture this morning. Especially because so many depictions of this moment show Jesus looking very pastoral and calm, children gathered around him and on his lap, smiling and listening intently to them. It’s a beautiful, poignant, scene. 

And not quite right. Let’s hear that story from the gospel of Mark. It’s found in chapter 10:

Scripture 

The children are allowed to see Jesus and Jesus, in blessing them, says that to receive the kingdom, you must come as a child. What exactly does that mean? 

Does it mean we are to come humble, compliant, and trusting without questioning authority. That’s what one biblical scholar said in my readings around this scripture: children are humble, compliant, and trusting without question. I thought to myself that this guy obviously hadn’t met many children! 

Plus, his image of children is our modern conception. We treasure children, we honor them, we put them on a pedestal, we see them as gifts from God, and love on them immensely. All of this is good, right, and true, whether we’re talking about our own children, grandchildren, nieces and nephews, or the children who come to this church. 

But this is not at all what the ancient conception of children was. 

People were more or less indifferent about children. Their mothers for sure cared about them but even mothers were known to withhold affection and keep a distance from their children. Fathers saw their children as future inheritors of land or the family business, if they were sons, and potential investments through dowries if they were daughters. Children were seen by those outside of the family as having investment potential: they were the future labor force and as early as they could use tools, they were engaged in some form of labor. The state looked at children and saw future soldiers. 

What this means is that children were valued by ancient society for what they could become, not valued for simply being children. That’s far different from our modern conception. 

This ancient conception often led to an emotional distance between parents and their children. Some say this is because of the high rate of child mortality. The death of children was common. As a self-protective measure, parents, relatives, and friends, would often keep an emotional distance from children because otherwise the pain of loss would be too hard to bear. Indeed, they lived in a cruel world where death was all around them, especially in their families. 

So when people come bringing children to see Jesus, hoping that Jesus would touch them, it’s reasonable to think that they’re hoping Jesus has powers that will keep their children alive. I’m sure there were many motivations that day for bringing children to Jesus, but knowing the frequency of childhood death, it seems likely that many were wanting a life-saving touch from Jesus. 

But the disciples won’t have it. They try and bar the children from seeing Jesus, which was normal practice for their time considering that children were not highly valued. Jesus allowing the children to come see him is yet another way that Jesus breaks down barriers: being inclusive of all instead of exclusive as their society would have dictated. 

In his inclusion of these children, he makes an astounding statement: to receive the kingdom, you must come as a child. Clearly, he doesn’t mean coming like that Biblical scholar said: humble, compliant, naively trusting. There’s something else here. 

Something else that goes beyond this touching moment of Jesus receiving these children, laying his hand of blessing upon them. 

What does it mean to receive the kingdom of God as a child?

Prior to this moment, Jesus has been arguing with the pharisees. A crowd has gathered to hear Jesus’s teaching and the pharisees show up hoping to trap Jesus, exposing him as a fraud or, hopefully, a heretic. They ask him a question in front of the crowd, believing that they will ensnare him. Their question is pertinent to the crowd and pertinent to us today: is divorce acceptable? Is it lawful? Is it moral? 

And in characteristic fashion, Jesus answers them in a way that is both correct according to the law of Moses and still confounds the pharisees, proving that he is the better teacher and cannot be ensnared by their traps. 

The pharisees are concerned about believing the right things and only the right things; they are highly concerned with being moral. They ask the question about divorce wanting to prove Jesus is immoral in his beliefs; hoping that will divide Jesus from his disciples and cause the crowds to dissipate. 

The disciples are concerned with being moral, too. After this encounter, they ask Jesus about divorce at a house where they are staying. Jesus repeats himself and complicates things more in his answer to them. But then, before the disciples can pry more, people start bringing their children. The conversation is interrupted. And Jesus dismisses this conversation about divorce and orthodoxy in order to be with the children. 

It seems odd that Jesus would interrupt such an important conversation. The disciples are asking an important moral question!

And we have these kinds of questions, too. I get asked sometimes about divorce; if it’s moral or not. We have questions about whether or not it’s moral to drink, to swear, or other mild things. Then there are greater issues of morality to discuss and debate so that we can determine and adhere to right belief. Is abortion moral? What about various kinds of sexuality? Whether at home, at church, or in the public arena, we have moral debates like Jesus with the pharisees and the crowd here in Mark.

We do because we want to make sure we believe the right things. We want to make sure that we espouse the right morality. It plays out in our politics in those contentious debates about abortion and sexuality, among other things. It plays out in our community around drinking and swearing. It plays out at home when our children choose to believe or do things we think are immoral, leading to arguments.

We are very concerned with believing the right things. And it is important. Part of being a Christian is to believe the right things. But of course, not all Christians believe the same things. We’re human and come to different conclusions even if we use the same basis, like scripture, to justify our beliefs. 

Sometimes, we’re able to disagree and debate without trouble. But too often, these disagreements over moral issues lead to contentious debates that do harm. We lose relationships with people because they believe differently than us, whether in politics or at home. Sometimes valued friends or families are separated because we believe things that we cannot reconcile or, more often, because we refuse to even attempt to reconcile. Sometimes people leave a church they love over these kinds of disagreements, including the pending division of The United Methodist Church over disagreements about human sexuality. And then there are the culture wars that seem to do more harm than good. 

Our disagreements on moral issues, quite often, lead to discord and division, whether between family members or among denominations or even in our country. 

We all know this. We’ve experienced the kind of division the pharisees were trying to create when they attempted to entrap Jesus with a question about divorce. The pharisees succeed in getting the disciples riled up, wanting a definitive answer from Jesus. But then Jesus summons the children to him and declares that to receive the kingdom of God, we must be like these children. 

What does it mean to receive the kingdom of God as a child?

Doubtless the children were there while the pharisees were trying to entrap Jesus, unnoticed by the adults who were too busy arguing to see the need. These children and their caregivers had traveled from their homes in a time when traveling was always difficult, usually on foot, and fraught with danger. They’ve taken on risks to bring these children to Jesus for him to touch them. And the pharisees are blind to it. 

The pharisees, and the disciples for that matter, are blind to the people who have need, who have come to see Jesus, hoping he will address their needs. The pharisees don’t see them because their arguments over morality blind them.

And I wonder, when we’re busy debating about the morality of things, who are we blind to? 

Who needs our loving touch or a blessing from us and we miss them? We don’t see them? Because we’re too busy trying to be right.

I’ve been there and done that. So often, when someone comes to me with a question about whether or not something is moral, there’s a deeper issue at play. If I’m asked if divorce is okay, it’s often because they themselves or a close family member are divorced. What they’re really expressing is love and concern for themselves or that family member. They’re not so concerned with making sure they believe the right thing. But if I get too focused on telling them what the right thing is, and ensuring that they believe it, I can miss the real need. 

We do this with our families and friends, too. When we’re debating with them about issues of morality, becoming more discordant and divided, we can miss the other people in our families or friend groups who need a blessing from us; a loving touch, a listening ear, a caring soul, a helping hand. When we’re busy debating morality with other churches in our community, we collectively miss the people in Eastman and Dodge County who need a blessing from those same churches. Our politics is ensnared in the culture wars as they debate morality, causing our government to fail to help the people who need it the most. 

Debating issues of morality can often lead to blindness: failing to see who needs us the most. 

But not for Jesus. He sees the need and keeps debates about morality in perspective. What the pharisees want to know is important. But not more important than coming to the Kingdom of God as a child, coming just as you are, being willing to express your needs. 

And that’s what Jesus means by receiving the Kingdom of God as children: to come to the Kingdom just as we are, bringing our needs before God. We don’t have to believe the right things in order to be accepted in the Kingdom of God. We don’t have to prove that we’re moral. We come just as we are, presenting ourselves just as we are, just like these children. 

And we come with our needs. The people who brought these children came with need. We come to the Kingdom unafraid to say our needs. Maybe we’re struggling with a particular sin. Receiving the kingdom like children means to bring our needs, our sins, before God just as we are, knowing that we, like the children here, will receive a blessing from Jesus; the healing touch that Jesus offers to all who call on his name. 

When Jesus says to receive the kingdom of God like a child, he means this: come just as you are, bringing all your needs before God to receive the healing touch of Jesus Christ that blesses our lives. 

Jesus recognizes that giving of this blessing is more important than determining correct morality. Loving on people and helping them discover the Kingdom of God is more important and more impacting than proving that we believe the right things. In other words, Jesus shows that relationships matter more than rules. 

This is the second point to receiving the Kingdom of God like children: once we have been so blessed, after we have known how God has met our needs, we are to go and meet the needs of others. Children are many things but, in my experience, they are often very generous. They give of their attention, their time, their affection, and their love without worry and fear of return. Many children I know also give of what little money they have in their allowance, wanting to bless others. 

In this way children demonstrate this truth of the Kingdom of God: we are blessed to be a blessing. The call on our lives is to go and bless others, giving of the blessing we have received from God by going to meet the needs of others; being a listening ear, a healing touch, a loving presence, in our relationships and with those we meet.  

But we can get so wrapped up in trying to be right that we miss the needs of those around us. Consider the culture wars in our politics. If churches in this country spent the same amount of energy on meeting the needs of the people in their community as they spend fighting that culture war, the country would be changed. There’d be healing. There’d be wholeness. There’d be more Christians than there are right now. We’d be growing instead of declining as a faith in this country. When we get too focused on making sure we believe the right things, and forcing those beliefs on others, we end up like the pharisees: blind to the needs of the people around them. 

These children remind us: we are to be a blessing before we are to be right. Relationship with others matters more than rules, a maxim you’ve heard me say often. Pursuing morality is always secondary to being the hands and feet of Christ, going to where there’s need and laying hands on those who need attention, care, and love.

This morning I wonder, what are your moral hot-button issues? What gets you riled up? Then, when you get riled up, whom are you missing who needs a blessing from you? What divisions are you creating where God desires unity? How do you become blind to others in the pursuit of being right. 

And then a hard question: do you value being right over being in relationship with people who believe differently from you?

Then I wonder, what sins are you carrying around? What immoral things have you done that you think prevent you from knowing God’s love? Confess those and present yourself before God just as you are. God is ready to receive you like one of these children, just as you are, regardless of whether you believe all the right things or not. 

To receive the Kingdom as children is to come to the Kingdom just as you are. Then, it means to go and be a blessing to others, remembering always that relationship matters more than rules. 

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; Amen.

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