Matthew, Christ and the children
Recently our church has renewed its concern for ministry among children. The burgeoning enrolment figures at our local public school made it an obvious area of focus; we’re trying hard to know our own context and respond accordingly!
Of course, we knew that Jesus allowed suffering children to come to him; he did say something like that, didn’t he?
It so happens that in recent weeks I’ve been reading Matthew’s Gospel, and in my reading I’ve been struck by Christ’s repeated references to children. Not just once, but a few times they enter into the narrative, sometimes at the bidding of Jesus himself, other times because of their parents, sometimes on account of their own behaviour.
The impact of these references was to underscore in my mind just how important a focus on children is for the local church – regardless of full or empty public schools. Let me show you what I found.
Jesus saw children as an example of discipleship
First of all, Jesus sees children as a means of teaching us about humble discipleship. Inviting a child to stand with them, Jesus warns his proud disciples “unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the Kingdom of Heaven” (Matt 18:3).
As we reminded ourselves while celebrating the Reformation anniversary last year, entry into the kingdom is something we cannot engineer ourselves. We remain helpless before God and can only receive his benefits as beneficiaries of his grace and mercy – just like a child receives life and sustenance from those charged with her guardianship! Children have a role in reminding us of such humility each and every week as we gather with them.
Children also remind us of how ministry is practiced in weakness. Matthew tells us that part of the cacophony that was aroused when Jesus cleared the temple was the children shouting out, “Hosanna to the Son of David!” (Matt 21:15). The Jewish officials were indignant, yet Jesus answers their objections with words from Psalm 8: “From the lips of children and infants you, Lord, have called forth your praise” (Matt 21:16).
How extraordinary that it’s the words of children and not those of the teachers of the law that are correctly interpreting the situation! When the Holy Sprit speaks he uses some unexpected mouthpieces – ones we might be tempted to overlook as we seek to conduct our ministries (cf. 1 Cor 1-2). Whenever a child raises a hand to answer a question in a family service, be ready to be reminded of this fact!
Children are capable of saving faith
But aside from their ministry among us, children are valued by Jesus because they themselves are capable of saving faith: “If anyone causes one of these little ones – those believing in me – to stumble, it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea” (Matt 18:6).
Interestingly, the fact of juvenile belief is presented by Jesus in negative terms. That is, he mentions the possibility of children “stumbling” (Matt 18:6) and “perishing” (Matt 18:14). Putting aside the thorny question of when precisely a young person becomes responsible for their own belief (of lack thereof), the idea of a young person “perishing” – an image which Jesus himself saw fit to communicate – ought to instill a sense of urgency within us for this avenue of ministry.
Finally, Matthew simply teaches that children ought to matter to us because they matter to Christ. Among the miracles recorded in the first gospel are two healings of children on account of the faith of their parents (Matt 9:18-26, 17:14-20). Children were among the 4000-strong crowd that Jesus had compassion on and fed with the loaves and fishes (Matt 15:29-38). During his ministry, Jesus exhibited great concern for the younger members of his community, extending grace and mercy towards them as well as those who were older.
So as we gear up for another year of gospel work I’m encouraged that our church has a renewed commitment to children’s work, and I’ve been glad to discover that if our local context gives some impetus for this, then Jesus himself gives a whole lot more.
The Rev Martin Kemp is rector at Waitara Anglican Church.