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Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Why Does the Kingdom of Heaven Belong to Children?

A Syrian refugee boy, carried by his parents. Image source.

Let’s read Matthew 19:13-15:
Then people brought little children to Jesus for him to place his hands on them and pray for them. But the disciples rebuked them.
Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.” When he had placed his hands on them, he went on from there.
So here’s the question: why does Jesus say the kingdom of heaven belongs to “such as” those children?

The standard Christian answer is that children have really strong faith. If you teach them to believe in Jesus, then they REALLY REALLY REALLY believe in Jesus. And, yes, people have pointed out that kids question everything- they won’t just believe everything you tell them. That’s true, but. When I was little and I questioned everything, it usually wasn’t because I thought the things that I was taught were not true. No, I believed they were true, and I was trying to understand them better. Just because kids ask lots of questions doesn’t mean they’re not going to pretty much believe whatever is taught to them by adults they trust.

But I’m not really a fan of this whole understanding of faith. I don’t think it’s a good thing to have “simple” and “childlike” faith that’s naïve about the way things actually work in the world. And I don’t think that children are naturally Christian and it’s only if they’re taught wrong or they grow up and start becoming more skeptical that they end up believing in something other than Christianity. That is a Christian-supremacist belief. Besides being factually incorrect, it’s just mean to non-Christians. And therefore it’s not loving and has no place in the kingdom of God.

So I don’t want to interpret this “let the little children come to me” stuff to mean something about faith. Instead, let’s consider the position of children within society.

Here is an article from 2012, about children in the US who live in poverty. A relevant quote:
Determining the exact number of children living in poverty can depend on what Census calculation you go by. More than 16 million children, or roughly one in five, were living in poverty in 2011, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s official poverty measure (pdf). That is higher than any other age group. Among 18- to 64-year-olds, the poverty rate was 13.7 percent, while among seniors the rate was 8.7 percent.

The Census Bureau’s official figures fail to paint a complete picture, though. The formula the government uses to calculate the poverty rate was designed in the 1960s, and does not account for expenses that are necessary to even hold a job — such as transportation costs and child care. Nor does the formula account for government programs for the needy, such as food stamps and the Earned Income Tax Credit.

When the Census Bureau factors in (pdf) those types of variables in a new experimental formula the number of children found to be living in poverty falls to 13.4 million.
That article also includes statistics about how children from single-parent homes and children of color are more vulnerable, more likely to be in poverty.

Furthermore, this article about from the UK gives statistics about the long-term effects of childhood poverty. It affects education, health, everything.

This article from the UN says that "Children constitute about 41 percent of the world’s refugees." This one from World Vision gives more information about the children among Syrian refugees:
How does the war in Syria affect children?

Read about how the war is affecting Syria's children in a special report from the World Vision magazine, "Syria Crisis and the Scars of War."

1. Children are susceptible to malnutrition and diseases brought on by poor sanitation, including diarrheal diseases like cholera. Cold weather increases the risk of pneumonia and other respiratory infections.

2. Many refugee children have to work to support their families. Often they labor in dangerous or demeaning circumstances for little pay.

3. Children are more vulnerable to sexual abuse and exploitation in unfamiliar and overcrowded conditions. Without adequate income to support their families and fearful of their daughters being molested, parents — especially single mothers — may opt to arrange marriage for girls, some as young as 13.

4. Between 2 million and 3 million Syrian children are not attending school. The U.N. children’s agency says the war reversed 10 years of progress in education for Syrian children.
Here's a 2004 article from UNICEF about how, in places which lack access to clean water, children are the ones who suffer the most. Here's another article about deaths from diarrhoea, which says, "In 1998, diarrhoea was estimated to have killed 2.2 million people, most of whom were under 5 years of age (WHO, 2000)."

And here's a bunch of statistics about child abuse in the US. On average, 4 to 7 children die each day from abuse or neglect.

Because children's brains are still developing, experiencing a natural disaster can have a greater psychological impact on them.

And black children suffer because of systemic racism in the US. They are more likely to be suspended from school than white children. And here's an article called 7 Ways Racism Affects the Lives of Black Children. Yeah. It's not okay. Tamir Rice, who was only 12 years old, was shot and killed by police for playing with a fake gun.

And you can go look up more statistics if you want. For any large society-wide problem, children will be the ones to suffer the most from it.

Jesus says in Matthew 25:40, “whatever you did for one of the least of these, you did for me.” Children most certainly count as “the least of these.” On average, the world’s children are very vulnerable. They are the weakest members of society. In Matthew 25, Jesus identifies himself with those who are “least.” And in Matthew 19, Jesus says the kingdom of heaven belongs to children.

That’s pretty amazing. Children- who are dependent on others for their survival, who suffer the most when disaster strikes- the kingdom of heaven belongs to them.

And I believe the kingdom of heaven is a real thing. Someday the kingdom of heaven will come to the earth, and until them, our job as Christians is to work to build the kingdom of heaven. This means creating a world where people are treated with respect and love, where there is equality, where no demographic is treated as “less than.” (*cough* feminism *cough*) This isn’t just “oh isn’t that nice, Jesus is saying a nice thing about children because usually they’re not treated very well”, no, this is a real thing. We must work toward creating a world where children are safe. That’s the kingdom of heaven. That is what Christians must fight for.

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This post is part of a series on the gospel of Matthew.

Previous post: It Doesn’t Actually Matter What Jesus Said About Divorce (Matthew 19:1-12)

Next post: White Privilege and the Rich Young Ruler (Matthew 19:16-30)

Click here to go to the beginning of the series.

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