Let the Children Come
Topic: Sanctity of Life Scripture: Matthew 19:13–15
13 Then children were brought to him that he might lay his hands on them and pray. The disciples rebuked the people, 14 but Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven.” 15 And he laid his hands on them and went away.
Today is the Sunday closest to January 22, which, for many churches, is the Sunday designated “Sanctity of Human Life Day.” On January 22, 1973, the Supreme Court declared that women had a legal right to access abortion. Currently, there are more than 600,000 abortions that are performed in the United States every year, according to the CDC. It's just awful that over 400,000 Americans have died this past year from coronavirus. But it's every bit as awful that some 600,000 others have died this past year from abortion.
In the 48 years since Roe. v. Wade, abortion remains one of the most politically divisive subjects. Ronald Reagan was the first president to designate a “National Sanctity of Human Life Day,” and the practice has continued since then under every Republican President, while it has been avoided by every Democratic President.
But as Christians, our concern is not first in the political arena. Today, as we conclude our series on the kingdom of God, look at this interesting encounter between Jesus and children, reported by all three of the synoptic gospels (Matt 19:13-15; Mk 10:13-16; Lk 18:15-17). When Jesus says, “Let the little children come to me and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven,” what does he mean? How does the kingdom of God belong to people like children?
My aim today is to show that how we view and value the lives of children, including unborn children, is one of the clearest indications as to how we view and value the kingdom of God. I want to help us see today the problem of de-valuing children and over-valuing ourselves and to turn us to the hope of humility that Jesus requires for us to enter into his kingdom.
The De-Valuing of Children
First, when Jesus says of children, “to such belongs the kingdom of heaven,” he indicates the high value that he sees in even the smallest of children.
Who are these children that Jesus welcomed to come to him? Of course we cannot identify them by name. We aren’t told much about them at all.
The word that Matthew uses for children is a generic word referring to a person who has not yet reached puberty. Children, not adults. They were brought to Jesus, presumably by their parents. The disciples rebuked those who brought them, not the kids themselves. So we are seeing here a group of kids young enough that the disciples don’t see the kids themselves as accountable for being there. Children, not even teenagers.
In verse 14, the ESV has Jesus saying, “Let the little children come.” How little were these kids? In Luke’s account, we are told that “they were bringing even infants to him” (Lk 18:15). So we’re talking here about very small children, some of whom must have even been infants.
Luke’s term, “infants,” is broad enough to include early childhood just beyond the toddler stage. But his term is also broad enough to go the other direction; it is the word that is used to refer to an unborn child in the New Testament as well (Lk 1:41, 44).
The point is that the way the Bible classifies children in their different stages of development is not always entirely clear. But the way we tend to classify children, using words like infant, toddler, child, and adolescent, or even fetus, are not entirely clear distinctions either.
Nevertheless, we do use these types of distinctions, often with a whole set of value judgments along with them. That’s certainly what the disciples were doing here. Why did they rebuke the parents, telling them essentially to stop bringing their kids to Jesus? We know why. It’s because they thought Jesus way much too important and the kids far too unimportant for his time to be taken up with these young children.
A Deadly Calculation
But Jesus rebukes the disciples who were rebuking these kids and their parents. The disciples had totally undervalued the worth of these children to Jesus. And to Jesus, this is a very big deal. The kingdom of God is at stake. If we undervalue the humanity and personhood of children, the cost will be extraordinarily high.
Justice Harry Blackmun, in writing the majority opinion in Roe v. Wade, said that if it can be established that an unborn child is, in fact, a person, then the whole argument for abortion would have instantly collapsed, because “the fetus’ right to life would then be guaranteed specifically by the [Fourteenth] Amendment.” But the court did not rule that the unborn child was not a person, only that it couldn’t make a judgment one way or the other. But in allowing abortion, it effectively did make a judgment. A horrendously deadly judgment that has now totaled in the loss of more than 60 million human lives.
The Over-Valuing of Self
You cannot be neutral when it comes to the value of children. Given that the Bible refers to an unborn child with the same word that is used here to refer to these little children who were brought to Jesus, it seems the Bible is on the side of those who see the unborn child as a child, a person. Killing an unborn child is, according to the Bible, killing a child. If you do not agree with that statement, then you either do not agree with the Bible, or you do not agree with my interpretation of the Bible on this subject.
My concern this morning is not with those who do not believe the Bible anyway, though I do hope if that’s you, you will stay with me for a bit. My concern is with those who say they believe the Bible but are not staunchly opposed to legalized abortion. My challenge is for us to consider the sin of self-promotion that lies behind abortion as well as countless other ways we de-value children and the kingdom of God they represent.
Who Is the Greatest?
When Jesus told his disciples to not “hinder” these children from coming to him, he was calling them to repent. For it was their sin that had created an obstacle between Jesus and these children. What was their sin?
The previous chapter opens with the disciples coming to Jesus with a question, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” (Matt 18:1). It sounds like such a silly, dare I say, childish question. Luke tells us that the disciples were even arguing among themselves “as to which of them was the greatest” (Lk 9:46). How absurd.
But in the ancient world, rank and status in life was an important value, and many Jewish people hoped that in the age to come, in the kingdom of God, there would be a new status that did not depend on fortunes like being born into nobility but on faithfulness to God’s covenant. Jesus himself talks about the least and the greatest in the kingdom, in Matthew 5:19. So how can one become “great” in the kingdom of God?
To this question, Jesus begins by saying that whatever way in which greatness lies, it is not the current path the disciples were on. They will need to “turn,” to repent, and become like children.” In verse 4, Jesus says, “Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom,” so we know that personal pride was the problem that would not just prevent one from rising in rank in the kingdom but from ever getting into the kingdom in the first place.
Hindering the Children
And it was this same pride that led the disciples to try to stop these children from coming to Jesus in our text today. They undoubtedly thought they were honoring Jesus, protecting his time and attention for more important matters. But when Jesus said that they must not “hinder” these children from coming to Jesus, he was once again exposing the problem of personal pride in the hearts of his followers.
Arguments for abortion choice often sound as if they are grounded in compassion and pity. Abortion must remain legal, we are told, because of the dangers of illegal abortions, or because of the plight of the poor, or because of abuse that comes to a child who is unwanted, or because of the burden of a deformed or handicapped child, or because of the inequalities in society today for a woman whose pregnancy would put her behind in her career.
Similarly, we are often told, the pro-life position does not show the same kind of compassion on women today. But as Francis Beckwith has written:
It is odd, to say the least, that the groups that speak the most passionately about “choice” — Planned Parenthood, the National Abortion Rights Action League, or the National Organization for Women — are not the ones who create and manage crisis pregnancy centers and other institutions that meet the physical and spiritual needs of women who choose not to have an abortion and help counsel women who suffer from post-abortion depression. Pro-lifers are the ones who fund and dedicate their time to such institutions.
An unplanned pregnancy is indeed a crisis, but it is a crisis for the mother (and, we must say, the father, too!) as well as for the unborn child. Failure to care for any of the parties involved reveals the deeply ingrained sin of over-valuing ourselves.
Confronting Our Pro-Choice Heart
Brothers and sisters, the politicization of abortion in society today has greatly muddied the waters on an issue that is crystal clear in the Word of God. To be decisively pro-life will, for many, mean that they simply can never vote with a clear conscience for any political candidate who is pro-choice. But at the same time, the clarity of conviction on this matter that I hope all Christians will maintain does not then mean that one must automatically vote for a candidate who says they are pro-life.
Rather, the people of God ought to be the first to recognize that the real problem here is the sin of self-promotion that lurks inside the heart of us all. We must confront our own pro-choice heart. If we are not full of pity for everyone in crisis, the problem lies within ourselves. As Beckwith says, “A lack of caring is a flaw in the one who ought to care, not in the person who ought to be cared for.”
The Hope of Humility
The controversy about abortion will never end in our world, whether abortion remains legal or not. Let us hope and pray that it will become illegal, but let us also hope and pray for something else. Let us hope for humility.
Becoming Like Children
Our Lord has told us that unless we “turn and become like children” we “will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matt 18:3). My concern as a pastor and minister of this congregation is not political. How you vote does not determine your eternal destiny.
You might be politically pro-life but if you do not have the spiritual heart of a child, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.
How are we to “become like children”? What is it about children that Jesus expects of us? Not everything, of course. It is their humility that Jesus commends.
Little children can be selfish, but they aren’t arrogant. I’ve never seen an infant boasting in herself or a toddler bragging about his achievements. They are completely unconcerned about social status, and that is what is required of all who will enter into the kingdom of God.
Humility and Grace
No one can flip a switch and have this kind of humility. It can only be acquired by grace. The only way for you and I to “become like children” is to be born again. The only way for us to enter the kingdom of God is to receive the grace that is found only in Jesus Christ.
And if you come to him, he will give it to you. But let no one think he can have it any other way.
To everyone who is staunchly pro-life, I say, “You must come to Jesus and humble yourself like a child. Beware the hardened heart of self-righteous morality. It will keep you out of the kingdom of God.”
To everyone who is pro-choice, or even to any here today who has had an abortion, I say, “The grace of God is sufficient for you, too. Come to Christ and let his grace be your comfort. If you are plagued with shame and guilt, come to Jesus! He will not cast you out. His grace covers all sin, yes, even the sin of abortion.
Jesus says, “Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me” (Matt 18:5). It is only by humility that Christ can be received and his kingdom entered into.
And those who have received him, who have the heart of a little child, will no doubt see evidence of the same grace in their lives extending hope and healing to others, and welcoming all to come to Christ and to the life of his kingdom.
 Walter Bauer, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (BDAG), rev. and ed. Frederick William Danker, 3d ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 749.
 Roe v. Wade, 410 U.S. 156-57 (1973).
 See responses to these pro-choice arguments in Francis J. Beckwith, Defending Life: A Moral and Legal Case Against Abortion Choice (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 93-115.
 Ibid., 126.
 Ibid., 99.