The account of Jesus blessing the children comes near the end of his ministry. He was on his final, single-minded mission to Jerusalem, when the Gospel of Mark recorded that people “were bringing children to him that he might touch them, and the disciples rebuked them.” Perhaps not surprisingly, his disciples, thinking Jesus had more important things on his mind, tried to put a stop to it.
But Jesus said:
“Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. Truly I tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.” (Mark 10:14-15)
And Jesus picked up the children and blessed them.
Interestingly, many people overlook this passage of Jesus blessing the children in the Gospels because it doesn’t seem to carry much theological or historical importance. Actually, Jesus was doing something significant here. Throughout the Hebrew Scriptures, fathers blessed their children. From Noah blessing Shem and Japheth, to Abraham blessing Isaac, Isaac blessing Jacob, and Jacob blessing his sons, who became the fathers of the 12 tribes of Israel – these types of spiritual blessings were very important in the Jewish culture.
It was a tradition at the time of Jesus, that fathers would bring their children to the local synagogue, where the elders would join the father in a prayer of blessing. The traditional prayer for the child was that they would be “famous in the Law, faithful in marriage, and abundant in good works.” The father would lay his hands on the child’s head. The elders of the synagogue would surround them and bless the child. It was a special event in the local community. Now, people were bringing their children to Jesus, which seems to be consistent with this kind of blessing.
There is an interesting contrast to be found in this story, that Jesus touched the children when he blessed them, because that is something the scribes and Pharisees never did. They made it a point not to touch people at all because they believed that would defile them – religiously speaking. Jesus never held himself back from people that way.
So Jesus blessing the children doesn’t seem like all that big a deal on the surface, but here’s what makes this act of Jesus so significant: Throughout the Gospels, Jesus never pronounced a blessing on anyone other than a person whom he said, belonged in the “Kingdom of God.” The end of verse 14 is key, “For the Kingdom of God belongs to such as these.”
To say that the Kingdom of God belonged to children ran smack in the face of the religious Judaism of the day. They were convinced that if you didn’t somehow earn your way to heaven by doing good works, then you didn’t get to go there… and in their view, children were unable to earn anything because they didn’t know the difference between right and wrong yet.
So how could Jesus identify someone as a part of the Kingdom of God who couldn’t do anything to earn it? With this seemingly insignificant act of blessing these children, Jesus was communicating a radical new idea that can be summed up in one word…grace. Grace, by definition, is favor that is undeserved.