Monday, 8 June 2009

Infant baptism and the New Testament 1

People were bringing little children to Jesus to have him touch them, but the disciples rebuked them. When Jesus saw this, he was indignant. He said to them, "Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. I tell you the truth, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it." And he took the children in his arms, put his hands on them and blessed them. (Mark 10:13-16)

I have lots of questions about this passage. Why did the people want Jesus to 'touch' their children? What benefit would a simple 'touch' bring? Certainly the children - the word means either a new born infant, a little baby or a young child - would have no clue what was going on. If the benefit of a touch from Jesus needed some level of understanding or faith from those at the receiving end then these children were too small to be affected in that way. And who were these "people"? Were they mothers or fathers or grandparents? Possibly mothers as fathers would be working. Why were the disciples bothered about Jesus being bothered? Was it because they did not see the children as worth the trouble in the sense that there 'better fish to fry'? Jesus' mission after all was to convince real people - grown ups - of his identity and his message. How could such little children possibly benefit when they could not grasp what was being explained?

And when Jesus said that the "kingdom of heaven belonged to such as these" was he merely using them as a prop, a visual aid to explain that for someone to enter the kingdom they needed 'childlike' faith? Seems a bit disingenous to say the least. Or was he pointing to the fact that no matter how old a person was, a touch from Jesus would suffice to enable anyone, no matter how small and insignificant, to gain access to God's all embracing kingdom? That it did not depend on intellectual understanding or even grown-up faith? Is the passage intended to reassure us that God's kingdom was not age-dependant but grace-dependent? Is it an echo of what was to come when the early church embraced infant baptism as a sign of grace extended not only to the converted parents but to their children too?

And the parents who brought their children to Jesus? Were they responding to some God-given instinct that helped them see Jesus as the means of giving their children something special from God, something more beneficial than food and drink and more important than clothing i.e. 'life' (Matthew 6:25)?

I recently interviewed a mother and father who wanted their little daughter baptized. I asked them why? The mother admitted that she had been thinking about the whole thing knowing that I would probably ask that particular question. The honest answer, she said, was that she did not know except it would be somehow and in some way 'good' for her daughter. I responded that that was correct and that our baptism preparation would be looking to explain why that instinct was correct and in what way baptism in particular and Christianity in general is 'good' for her daughter. Sometimes instinct or some inner voice or feeling comes first and understanding, if the opportunity arises, later.

The baptism of infants is completely consistent with the above passage where the parents, probably the mothers, did the same thing as the mother who came to see me about baptism. They, and she, wanted some 'thing' that was good for their child and they saw in Jesus, the source of all goodness, the means to provide it.

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