child like faith?

The following is an interpretive assignment I did for a class at Fuller called "Exegetical Method and Practice" with Marianne Meye Thompson. I'm posting it mainly to link it to another discussion I am having with friends on facebook. I had to transliterate the Greek, and I'm not so good at that, so forgive me. Also, interpretive assignments ask a lot of questions and don't draw very many conclusions, so you'll notice that it doesn't have a thesis or conclusion. It's more of an exploration.

Mark 10:13-16
- Interpretive Assignment (23 January 2007)

In chapter 10 of his narrative, Mark provides a pericope detailing the circumstances surrounding an event in which people brought children to be blessed by Jesus. On the surface, the passage seems to promote ministry to children and encourage a blind, “child-like” reception of “Christianity” into the believer’s heart. However, a closer reading may provide a slightly different conclusion.

This specific narrative in Mark is well documented by all of the synoptic writers. Both Matthew and Luke place the narrative in their gospels, and both stay true to Mark’s order of events in terms of context. Mark and Matthew place Jesus in Judea at the time of the narrative (Mark 10:1, Matt. 19:1), but it is not clear this information affects the interpretation of the passage. It seems the pericope stands as an independent unit and does not hinge on the previous or following passages. Since it is not found in a series of parables or a discourse of Jesus, it can stand alone. Mark seems to be using a story to promote an aspect of the kingdom of God. However, there is somewhat of a thematic context preceding and following Mark 10:13-16. In chapter 9, the disciples (specifically Peter, James, and John) witnessed the transfiguration. Following the description of this beautiful and powerful event, Mark provides several stories of failure and rebuke on the part of the disciples. Was Mark trying to show contrast of heavenly glory versus earthly mediocrity and failure? It would seem so considering the evidence of the pericopes dealing with human failure (i.e. failure to heal the demon possessed boy in 9:14ff, failure to understand the hierarchy of the kingdom of God in 9:33ff, Jesus’ rebukes of the disciples and others in 9:39, 9:42, 10:14, 10:38, 10:49, etc.).

An interesting question arises with the use of apsatai (third singular present middle subjunctive from apto) which carries several meanings depending on the usage. In BDAG apto can mean “to kindle” or “light”, “to make close contact, to touch, cling to, have sexual contact, etc.” In Mark 10:13, the term most likely refers to “touching as a means of conveying a blessing.” Were the people bringing the children to Jesus so that he might provide some kind of rabbinical blessing, or did they recognize him as the Messiah and perhaps wanted some kind of messianic blessing for their children? If the term does not carry the connotation of blessing, were they just bringing their children to Jesus for healing, or simply to have their children held by a “celebrity?” Whatever definition fits best, the question remains as to why the disciples did not want this to happen. Was it beneath their transfigured Lord to do such a thing? Was there a limited amount of time? Were the children interrupting Jesus during an important theological teaching?

The textual variant in this passage seems to be an attempt by scribes to soften the disciples’ actions. The highly supported reading of the text leaves the direct object of the disciples rebuke unclear. They could be rebuking those bringing the children or the children themselves. Some manuscripts added epetimon tois prosferousin or some form of that phrase to clarify that the disciples were rebuking the ones bringing the children. Still, why did the disciples feel the need to stop what was happening? Were children considered less than human or outcasts of society?

Jesus becomes angry with the disciples actions and rebukes them, insisting that the children be brought to him. Three times in this passage Mark uses paidion to refer to the children instead of the more common teknon. BDAG defines paidion as “a child, normally below the age of puberty” while teknon usually refers to a descendent or offspring. Mark wants his readers to know that these children are young. Were they babies? Was this a custom of the Jews to bring a baby to a teacher at a certain age to be blessed?

After the rebuke, Mark provides the theological truth intended by the narrative. Jesus states “the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. Truly I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child will not enter it at all” (10:14b-15 NASB). Using the strongest negation possible (ou ma) Jesus, in a sense, says it is completely impossible to enter the Kingdom of God in any other way. This use of ou ma should cause the reader to pause and consider what was just read. But what does Jesus mean by the phrase, “receive the kingdom of God like a child?” Does this mean to receive it with blind faith? Does this mean to receive it happily and care free? Does he have something else in mind? Is this concept similar to the one found in Matthew 10:16 when Jesus said “so be shrewd as serpents and innocent as doves” (NASB)? Does he mean something along the lines of what Paul wrote in Romans 16:19b: “I want you to be wise in what is good and innocent in what is evil” (NASB)? Is it the innocence of the child that is to be mirrored? Is Jesus teaching the concept of “rebirth” which he describes to Nicodemus in John, 3:3?

Could there also be a nuance in the wording of the passage? Could Jesus mean, “whoever does not receive the Kingdom of God like I am receiving these children will not enter it,” as opposed to the more common reading of, “whoever does not receive the Kingdom of God like these children receive the Kingdom of God will not enter it?” If this is the case, the focus should be on the actions of Jesus and not the actions of the little children. Perhaps the reader should be considering the way Jesus reaches out to the poor, the widows, women in general, and children. Perhaps the reader should be reminded of the parable of the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25:31ff where the most important thing is the actions of believers to the poor, sick, jailed, hungry, etc. To enter the Kingdom of God, one must accept those to whom the Kingdom belongs, which in Mark 10:14b is the little children. This reading seems entirely possible, except when compared to Matthew 18:3-4 when Jesus is quoted as saying, "Truly I say to you, unless you are converted and become like children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever then humbles himself as this child, he is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven” (NASB). With this reading in mind, one could interpret Jesus words in Mark in a similar manner, making the Mark passage promote a child-like faith. However, in Matthew 18:5, Jesus also says, "and whoever receives one such child in my name receives me,” (NASB) providing evidence for a social justice reading of Mark 10:13-16. It would seem the passage could go either way.

Finally, Jesus takes the children in his arms and blesses them. This action is common for Jesus. He often touches the socially outcast, the poor, the sick, etc. In Mark 1:41 he touches the man with leprosy. In Mark 5:41 Jesus touches the dead girl and brings her back to life. Jesus often touched those whom society considered outcast or unclean. Perhaps Jesus is showing his disciples in this passage that the ministry of the Kingdom of God is a ministry of social justice.

Further evidence can be found in the fact that Jesus demonstrates his teaching at the end of the passage. He instructs his disciples to receive the kingdom of God as children, and then he receives the children.

Cited: Danker, F. W. A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature. 3d ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000)

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