If the disciples were trying to show others how to make people feel welcome, they failed spectacularly! We don’t know exactly where this story takes place, but it doesn’t really matter. It could have been on the side of a mountain or on the shores of Lake Galilee. It could have been in the marketplace or in a synagogue. The important thing is that the disciples were behaving badly, and this did not sit well with Jesus.
As the story begins parents and grandparents are approaching Jesus and asking him to bless their children and grandchildren. It’s not unlike what happens here every Sunday at Abiding Savior. We want our children and grandchildren to see and experience the love of Jesus. We want them to be blessed and to feel welcome in this place.
But the disciples are having none of this. In the midst of what is supposed to be a beautiful and meaningful encounter with Jesus, the disciples loose their minds and begin micro-managing the situation. Mark tells us that they “spoke sternly” to those who brought their kids to be blessed by Jesus. I checked out the original Greek and it actually says that the disciples “rebuked” them. You’ve got to be kidding me?
This is more than just saying they’re not welcome here. It’s the same verb that is used when Jesus rebukes the wind and the waves, “Peace, be still. Be muzzled. Shut up.” [Mk 4:39] It’s the same verb that is used when Jesus rebukes an evil spirit, “Be silent and come out of him!” [Mk 1:25] It’s the same verb that is used when Jesus rebukes Peter because he could not understand that Jesus would be crucified and rise again on the third day, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” [Mt 8:33]
So make no mistake about it, saying that the disciples “spoke sternly” to these people, is an understatement of epic proportions. The disciples were being rude and demeaning. They were telling these people that the little ones they brought were not worthy of Jesus’ time. He had far more important things to do. They were not welcome to receive his blessing, nor be in his presence. It’s hard to know what to say about the disciples’ attitude in this story. It’s not exactly their finest moment.
The fact that this story even appears in the gospels leads me to believe it’s most likely true. I’m actually surprised that the disciples were willing to describe this incident to others. One would think they’d like this story to disappear from the pages off history. But it’s here in all it’s self-righteous ugliness.
Maybe, the reason why it’s here is that it was a valuable learning experience, a transformational moment for the disciples. At the very least, it’s here because it speaks to the truth that we’ve all been guilty of “speaking sternly” to others through our words and actions. We’ve rebuked them and made them feel like they are not welcome to receive Jesus’ blessing, nor be in his presence.
This story is as much about our behavior, as it is the disciples’ behavior. So, don’t be in a rush to identify with Jesus in this story. the truth is we are more like the disciples than we care to admit. We need to sit with their “speaking sternly” to people and remember how we’ve been guilty of doing the same thing.
In Sunday School, we’ve been studying a portion of John Pavlovitz’s book “A Bigger Table: Building Messy, Authentic, and Hopeful Spiritual Community.” Last week we had a lively discussion on Chapter 9, entitled “True Diversity.” Our discussion revolved around how difficult it is to pull this off.
Here’s what Pavlovitz has to say about the subject: “Every church on the planet claims to desire, seek, and welcome diversity—until real, messy, diverse diversity shows up at the door, looking for a home, and then there’s suddenly no room in the inn.”
In case you haven’t figured it out by now, our gospel lesson is about much more than making children feel unwelcome. It’s about much more than rebuking parents for bringing those children to see Jesus. This story challenges us to look at all the people we “speak sternly” to, either out loud or passively-aggressively in our hearts. It challenges us to name those whom we see as less than worthy of receiving Jesus’ blessing. It asks us to name those we would exclude at the table of Jesus’ love, forgiveness and mercy.
If we think we don’t have anyone who meets that criteria in our lives, we are not being completely honest with ourselves. Our sinful human nature judges people all the time. We like to label others and assume we know everything about them because of the label we’ve placed on them. I don’t need to give you examples of the kinds of labels we place on others because we’ve been talking about this subject a lot lately. We’ve been wrestling with how to be kind, inclusive and inviting in a nation that is deeply polarized and boiling over with hostility.
So let’s be honest. In the game of US vs. THEM, we all have people we put in the THEM category, whether we care to admit it or not. We usually feel really good about this division. I’m certain the disciples thought they were doing a good thing when they spoke sternly to the people who wanted Jesus to bless their children and grandchildren. However, the sobering reality of our story is that Jesus is not happy with them at all.
In fact, when Jesus sees what the disciples are doing, Mark tells us that he is “indignant” and says 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.”
This word “indignant” is an even stronger verb than “speaking sternly” to someone. The KJV is rather kind about Jesus’ response and says he was “much displeased.” But, trust me, Jesus was indignant. And we don’t like Jesus being indignant to us. but sometimes, it’s absolutely justified.
The origin Greek also means that Jesus was “greatly afflicted,” as if his heart had been wounded by what the disciples had done. According to the dictionary, being indignant means “showing anger or annoyance at what is perceived as unfair treatment.”
So Jesus was indignant when the disciples spoke sternly to others. he was angry at their exclusions and he moved to include those who were being excluded. “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs.”
The kingdom that Jesus was building was one that had no walls to keep some people in and others out. It had bridges that made it easy for everyone to accept Jesus’ invitation to come and dine at God’s table of grace. The challenge of the gospels is that Jesus set a wider table than anyone was comfortable with. He welcomed folks to be blessed that even the disciples had a hard time blessing. Our challenge, of course, is to act more like Jesus and less like the disciples. Our challenge is to do less “speaking sternly” and more welcoming and blessing.
This is something that has to go way beyond our Reconciling in Christ designation. It has to go way beyond our Welcome and Mission Statements. None of these are important if we cannot embody what they say. So the task before us is a difficult one. We need to continually challenge ourselves to go beyond our comfort zones and reach out to others we would rather avoid altogether. We need to bless those we would rather curse and let our love for others be as expansive and as inclusive as Jesus’ love was. It sounds easy in theory, but we all know it’s difficult to do.
So, how do we pull this off? Well, John Pavlovitz’s book has some wonderful suggestions for how we set a bigger table. Perhaps the best one is to practice the art of listening to others. Here’s what John said about it: “The Church tends to do a whole lot of speaking and a whole lot less listening these days. Things began changing for me as a pastor and as a person of faith when I began to see ministry more as sitting with people and listening to their stories, rather than standing at a distance and trying to dazzle them with brilliant words. That simple act of sharing space with people is a sacred offering, and in a world where most of us are content to shout our opinions at relative strangers from a safe space, the radical hospitality of Christ pulls people closer together and demands that we see and hear them. And once we view a person in the illuminating light of actual relationship, we cannot help but see the God in them; we feel the presence of the Divine; we welcome Jesus in our midst as we meet with them”
So, Friends in Christ, let’s practice the art of listening this week. Let’s try to hear other people’s stories without judging them. Let’s try to understand their pain, they joys, their hopes, and their fears. We may discover that we have more in common with them than we could have possibly imagined. AMEN.
Copyright ©2018 by David Eck