When I have heard teaching about Jesus loving children through passages like Luke 18:15-17, it has been difficult for me to understand why this was radical and surprising for the disciples and crowds following Him. In my mind, it has always been obvious that children are important. As I have studied more about the culture surrounding this passage, I realize that Jesus was actually saying something extremely subversive for that particular culture, which had little concern for children until they became adults. In the Hellenistic world, children had a particularly high mortality rate. It was believed that they only took from their families and were viewed as physically and mentally weak until they were old enough to add something to family and society. There were simply too many mouths to feed and many children were abandoned, exposed to die. It was not uncommon to have a one-child family in Greece so girls were especially mistreated. Daughters were considered economic liabilities because of the dowry that had to be supplied by their parents at marriage. Abortions were regularly attempted, but the answer to overpopulation was usually infanticide. The newborn child was exposed to die and commonly left on a trash heap or in some isolated area. Slave traders would sometimes take the children and prepare them for slavery, and girls for a life of prostitution.
Often kids were not considered human life or protected until their father acknowledged the child and received him or her into the family in a religious ceremony. Even in the Jewish world where children should have been valued, they were frequently mistreated. Certainly they had a higher priority for human life than many of the surrounding groups of people, but children were regularly dismissed and unappreciated until coming of age. For Judeans, the reason for having children and caring for them was not necessarily moral superiority, but to provide for themselves in old age (similar to a retirement fund today).
With this contextual knowledge in hand, it is unsurprising that even the disciples of Jesus pushed children away and felt that Jesus was way too important for their lowly status in Luke 18. Jesus subverts their reality by saying the kingdom of God belongs to children and that it is impossible to enter the kingdom of God apart from receiving it like a child. The point is that the lowly, the powerless, and the mentally and physically weak, have immense value to God. And we are to become just like these children in faith and status towards Jesus if we want to follow Him and take part in his mission.
What I find even more fascinating is that the early church listened and obeyed this command and used it to change the world! Alvin Schmidt in his book Under the Influence describes the role of the early church and what they did that attracted so many people to Christianity. What did they do? They rescued the orphan! They took in the babies the Romans were sacrificing to pagan gods. The poor in society were selling their babies to the rich to survive, and the rich would use the children as sport, disposing of them when they were finished. Instead of allowing this to go on, Christians took action, buying the babies from the poor and caring for them as their own. These were the very first cases of Christian adoption! You can imagine the impact this had on the society as the church cared for the lowly, the abandoned, the forgotten, the weak, and the vulnerable. In fact, Schmidt makes the case that the Christians generous love to all people was one of the main reasons the church exploded in growth.
Sadly, the conditions for children in many places around the world have not changed much. Children are sold, abused, stolen, abandoned, and manipulated. Are we willing to put our time, energy, money, and very lives into caring for these forgotten children? Do we believe the kingdom of God is for them? There are many believers across the world who are sacrificing and believing that children matter to God, and their care for these abandoned children is impacting their entire communities as they live out the gospel. Will you join them?