As I came to look at this familiar passage this week, I was struck to see how reading Luke’s account of Jesus blessing the children may be enlightened by viewing it through the lens of Kingdom generosity.
Luke’s Gospel is characterised by things that Jesus says and does that surprise those whom he encounters. Perhaps most poignantly he challenges their embedded assumptions regarding the Kingdom of God; what it is actually like, when and where it is experienced, and to whom it belongs.
Luke is a master writer. His retelling invites us to experience the same disruptive effect as the eye witnesses in his accounts. We view Jesus’ encounter with children at a high point in the narrative where tension is mounting, the political stakes are raised, and the hour of Jesus’ passion is approaching. To stop for ‘unimportant’ interruptions is a profound act of generosity at a time when Jesus was laden with urgent priorities.
And yet, our dislocation of this context and our over-familiarity with todays’ story have allowed us to smooth it over and sit comfortably within our own cultural presuppositions; rendered its meaning safe- even ‘cute’; so that we are immune to its power. More specifically, we may be resistant to Jesus’ challenge to our modern preconceptions of merit, grace and Kingdom generosity.
Luke also precedes this story with the parable of the Pharisee and tax collector, and follows it with Jesus’ conversation with the person we today call the ‘rich young ruler’. Both of these indicate Jesus’ depiction of Kingdom generosity as being entirely unmerited. The conventions of high social and religious standing of either the Pharisee or young ruler are irrelevant in God’s eyes.
And seeing this should help us to think beyond interpretations that have reduced Jesus’ blessing of the children to simply another set of criteria for the measurement of human merit. We say the children are blessed because of their attributes; their humility, unselfconsciousness, dependency and trust. But in fact this is merely exchanging one set of attributes for another that we perhaps feel we can attain- while unwittingly rendering those who cannot outside of Jesus’ blessing. This is to sanitise the radical calling to Kingdom generosity; which is not about measuring merit, but following the counter-cultural calling as the people of God, to be characterised by the radical generosity we see exemplified in Jesus.