If you grew up in church, you probably know this children’s song by heart:

Jesus loves the little children,
All the children of the world!
Red and yellow, black and white,
They are precious in his sight.
Jesus loves the little children of the world!

Maybe you never stopped to ask why Jesus likes children so much. Well, today’s your lucky day.

Jesus is continuing his journey south toward Jerusalem. He has announced to his disciples that he will be betrayed, suffer, and die, and then rise again from the dead. His disciples are struggling to understand how someone who is God’s anointed Messiah could suffer and die like that. It doesn’t make sense to them. As a result, they’re not picking up on the way Jesus’ lowly mission should change their attitudes.

Yet another opportunity to show their spiritual dullness arises when some of the people around Jesus get it into their heads to have him bless their children. They recognize that this is a man sent from God, and they long for God to favor little Jonney and Susie. So they start bringing all their babies and toddlers for Jesus to touch and bless.

Now, this seems okay to us, but Jesus’ disciples didn’t think it was appropriate. At the time, children weren’t valued much in Jewish culture. Most people made just enough money to put food on the table; another child meant another mouth to feed. I’m sure there were many good parents who loved and valued their children, but for the most part, having a child was considered an unfortunate necessity if you wanted a future adult who could take care of you and pass on your family name.

That’s the way Jesus’ disciples are thinking of children, so it’s no wonder that they’re rebuking the parents for wasting the Rabbi’s time. But when Jesus sees their response, he gets ticked. He confronts them, saying, “Let the children come to me; do not hinder them!” Rather than viewing children as a waste of time, he wants them to be with him. Why? He explains, “For to such belongs the kingdom of God.”

Apparently, Jesus believes that people who are childlike are the people who will be a part of God’s coming kingdom. So in what way must a disciple of Jesus be like a child?

Perhaps our first response would be that disciples should be good and innocent like children. We tend to think of children as being basically wonderful little creatures who are later corrupted by outside influences. However, any parent knows that you don’t have to teach your children to be corrupt; they learn that on their own. You have to train them to be good. No one is innocent from birth, as the Israelite king David wrote: “Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me” (Psalm 51:5). Besides, hasn’t Jesus invited wicked people like tax collectors to be with him (Mark 2:13–17)? It’s not moral purity that Jesus is looking for.

Neither is Jesus looking for a childlike naïveté. He doesn’t want his disciples to be unthinking and lacking in insight. On the contrary, he’s been frustrated at their dullness—“do you not perceive or understand?” (Mark 8:17).

No, there’s something about children that Jesus loves, and it’s the very thing that his culture hated about them. Children are helpless and useless. They seem to be a waste of time and resources. They tie you down and mess up your life dreams. They’re dependent and needy. That’s what Jesus loves about children.

Jesus isn’t looking for righteous people to be his disciples. In fact, he consistently rejects people who perceive themselves as “basically good people.” Neither is Jesus looking for naïve people. The truth is that Jesus wants useless, worthless, and lowly people. They’re the outcasts in this word, but when his kingdom comes, he will welcome them into it. Why? Because they recognize their need and cling to the one who became lowly for their sake. They are glad to identify with a lowly Messiah.

Jesus also delivers a warning to his disciples: “Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.” Anyone who claims to be a good person or who thinks highly of himself or wants approval from others will be shut out of God’s kingdom. Such a person doesn’t want to submit to Jesus’ authority. Such a person would never identify with a lowly Messiah.

Jesus shows his disciples what this looks like in practice. He welcomes the little children, picks them up, and blesses them warmly. He is not ashamed to be associated with the lowly.

Now, in Western culture, we do value children quite a bit. But we don’t value them for the reasons that Jesus did. We tend to value children because we perceive that they will be of some benefit to us. Typically, the child will become Mommy and Daddy’s little self-actualizing device. That’s why so many parents live their lives vicariously through their kids, obsessing over their soccer games and morphing into “helicopter parents” who hover over their children even when they leave for college. This also means that if a child is an inconvenience, he or she can be disposed of in a socially acceptable way. That’s why abortion is so common, especially in the case of mentally or physically handicapped infants. We hold the exact same attitudes that Jesus hated. We define people—even ourselves—by our usefulness.

You and I don’t want to be useless. We don’t want to be unpopular. We don’t want to be lowly. We want to be productive members of society. But Jesus is calling you to recognize your uselessness. You are weak; you are small; you are powerless. Embrace your true lowliness, and you will find yourself embraced by Jesus.

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