The Least of These

13 And they were bringing children to him that he might touch them, and the disciples rebuked them. 14 But when Jesus saw it, he was indignant and said to them, “Let the children come to me; do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God. 15 Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.” 16 And he took them in his arms and blessed them, laying his hands on them. Mark 10:13-16 ESV

There are times when it appears as if the 12 disciples of Jesus are a few bricks short of a full load. And this is one of them. After reading this passage, it’s difficult not to draw one of two conclusions: Either the disciples are stubborn or simply stupid. They just don’t seem to get it. No matter how many times Jesus addresses an issue with them, the disciples fail to grasp His meaning. Even all His after-class, one-on-twelve tutoring sessions don’t seem to help.

Before looking at the scene recorded in today’s passage, let’s revisit a few earlier exchanges between Jesus and His disciples that are closely related. First, while they were back in Galilee, Jesus had overheard the disciples arguing over which of them was the greatest. This debate came fast on the heels of Jesus’ announcement that He would soon be delivered into the hands of men and be killed (Mark 9:31). So, immediately after hearing Jesus announce that He was going to lay down His life, they had gotten into a heated argument over which of them was the greatest. This led Jesus to give them an object lesson.

And he took a child and put him in the midst of them, and taking him in his arms, he said to them, “Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me, and whoever receives me, receives not me but him who sent me.” – Mark 9:36-37 ESV

Jesus used this small, seemingly insignificant child to drive home an important point. With the pride-filled disciples gathered around Him, Jesus stood in the midst of them holding this unnamed child in His arms. He placed the one with the least significance in the place of greatest prominence. The child had done nothing to earn this special favor extended to Him by Jesus. He was not powerful, impressive, gifted, or even capable of repaying Jesus for His kindness. But the child was trusting and willing to place his full confidence in Jesus.

Yet, immediately after witnessing this living object lesson, John had chosen to bring up what he believed to be a more pressing matter. He reported that there was an unnamed individual who had been casting out demons in Jesus’ name. The discovery of this unidentified competitor had bothered the disciples enough that they had repeatedly tried to issue him cease-and-desist orders. But their efforts had failed. And much to John’s dismay, rather than seeking to reprimand this rogue exorcist, Jesus rebuked His own disciples.

“Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him if a great millstone were hung around his neck and he were thrown into the sea. – Mark 9:42 ESV

The Greek word Mark used is mikros, which means “small” or “least.” Jesus seems to be referring to this unknown exorcist as one of His children. This man, while not one of the 12 disciples, was casting out demons in the name of Jesus. He was performing the same good deed that Jesus had commissioned His disciples to do. That’s why Jesus John, “Don’t stop him!…No one who performs a miracle in my name will soon be able to speak evil of me. Anyone who is not against us is for us” (Mark 9:39 NLT). This man was on their side. 

Yet Jesus refers to him as one of the “least.” He was so insignificant that the disciples didn’t even know his name. But he was important to Jesus. 

This brings us back to the scene taking place in chapter 10. Jesus and His disciples are back in the region of Perea, just east of Judea on the other side of the Jordan River. And Mark opened this chapter by indicating that Jesus’ arrival in the region had attracted the usual large crowds. While many hoped to see Jesus perform a miracle, others had come out of curiosity because Jesus was a 1st-Century celebrity. But Mark indicates that some “were bringing children to him that he might touch them” (Mark 10:13 ESV). Evidently, parents were bringing their young children to Jesus so that He might bless them. But Mark states that “the disciples rebuked them” (Mark 9:13 ESV). These men took it upon themselves to restrict their access to Jesus. They wrongly assumed that they had the authority to determine who was worthy to come into Jesus’ presence. And this whole scene makes even more sense when you consider Luke’s account. He provides some essential details that make the actions of the disciples even more egregious.

Luke records a parable that Jesus told “to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt” (Luke 18:9 ESV). In this parable, “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector” (Luke 18:10 ESV). The Pharisee stood before God, and in a blatant display of self-promotion, bragged about his superior righteousness as evidenced by his unparalleled fasting and tithing. But the other man stood before God, eyes lowered, declaring his abject state of sinfulness and desperate need for mercy. And then Jesus said, “everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted” (Luke 18:14 ESV).

Superiority and inferiority. Pride and humility. Greatness and weakness. This parable set up the arrival of the parents with their children. And it explains why Jesus became so indignant with His disciples and demanded, “Let the children come to me; do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God” (Mark 10:14 ESV). These little ones were being brought to Jesus by their parents. Too young to come on their own, they were completely at the mercy of others. These children represented complete dependency and trust. There was not an ounce of self-righteousness or moral superiority within them. But the disciples had decided that they were unworthy to come into Jesus’ presence. Had these men so quickly forgotten the scene of Jesus holding the young boy in His arms? Had the words Jesus had spoken to them simply gone in one ear and out the other?

“Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me, and whoever receives me, receives not me but him who sent me.” – Mark9:37 ESV

Yet here was Jesus having to rebuke His disciples for their arrogant display of moral superiority. They didn’t get it. They were still harboring their own false conceptions about status in the Kingdom. In their eyes, these children were non-contributors. They had nothing to offer. They were takers, not givers. But Jesus had a completely different perspective. And to the shock and dismay of the disciples, Jesus “took the children in his arms and placed his hands on their heads and blessed them” (Mark 10:16 NLT).

The disciples had been right. These “little ones” had nothing to offer Jesus. But Jesus had something to give them: His divine blessing. They came before Jesus as helpless and hopeless children, most likely carried in the arms of their parents. Some were probably too young to walk or talk. But each one, regardess of their age, intellect, family background, or future prospects of success; received the same undeserved gift from the hand of Jesus. Each was touched and blessed by the Son of God.

The Kingdom of God will not be comprised of the successful, gifted, morally exceptional, intellectually superior, or socially acceptable. In fact, Paul reminds every Christ-follower that their adoption into the family of God had nothing to do with them. They brought nothing to the table. They had done nothing to deserve the grace and mercy shown to them by God.

Remember, dear brothers and sisters, that few of you were wise in the world’s eyes or powerful or wealthy when God called you. Instead, God chose things the world considers foolish in order to shame those who think they are wise. And he chose things that are powerless to shame those who are powerful. God chose things despised by the world, things counted as nothing at all, and used them to bring to nothing what the world considers important. As a result, no one can ever boast in the presence of God. – 1 Corinthians 1:26-29 NLT

Jesus had repeatedly shown His disciples that He had come to minister to the weak, the helpless, and the hopeless. He had gone out of His way to heal the sick and to minister to the outcasts and socially unacceptable. He had exposed the hypocrisy of the self-righteous religious leaders of Israel. He had willingly associated with tax collectors and prostitutes. And yet, His disciples still struggled with thoughts of their own superiority and harbored hopes of earning a place of honor and distinction in His coming Kingdom. But the lessons would continue, right up until the end. Even in the upper room on the night Jesus would be betrayed, He would provide them with yet another illustration of humility and service by washing their feet. And ultimately, Jesus would perform the greatest act of humility by offering His life as a ransom for many. The greatest of all would become the least of all so that the foolish, the powerless, the despised, and the unimportant might become children of God.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson