This past year has not been a good one for children around the world. From the kidnapping of schoolgirls in Nigeria by Boko Haram to the many deaths of children used a human shields in the Gaza conflict to the execution of children who would not profess the twisted “faith” of ISIS and most recently the senseless slaughter of school children in Pakistan by the Taliban, it seems that in 2014 there has been an escalation of violence that specifically targets children or puts them in harms way. The reaction to these and other similar events has been horror, revulsion and anger regarding the treatment of the most innocent in our midst. While violence and cold-blooded murder is something most of us are horrified by, when the most vulnerable are impacted there the impact goes to a completely different level.
Why does violence toward children impact us so hard? Is it their innocence? Perhaps their lack of ability to defend themselves? Assuming both are innocent, how is the murder of a 30 year old adult different than an 8 year old child? Are we culturally desensitized to violence against adults because we have seen this too often in various media forms (e.g. movies, video games, television) but less so in the case of children? We are clearly commanded “Thou shalt not murder.” Why then is the reaction stronger when a child is the victim rather than an adult? Both victims are made in the image of the Creator.
It is fashionable today in many circles to emphasize the grace and love of Jesus linked to the premise that it is only through living this way that we can effect any change on our planet. Yet it seems that Jesus himself was not all that loving when considering those who would harm a child.
“If anyone causes one of these little ones–those who believe in me–to stumble, it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea.” – Matthew 18:6
This doesn’t sound like a very loving or graceful response from Jesus now does it?
This statement by Jesus is recorded by Matthew, Mark and Luke in their gospels which would seem to emphasize the importance of the subject. In the Matthew passage, Jesus makes this statement right after calling a small child to his side which makes very clear that he was referring to young children. The innocent, vulnerable and trusting. The word translated “stumble” means “to cause an offense, or put a stumbling block in front of”. While at one level this could refer to deception and lying, what could be a bigger offense than senseless violence and murder? Look at the response of those children who survive the horrors mentioned earlier. Could they be more offended by the deaths of their playmates and family?
But what of the connection of children and millstones? What was Jesus trying to say by linking the two? Of course a millstone was a very large and heavy stone that was used to grind wheat or grain into flour. The stone was typically so large that it was often turned by harnessing it to an strong animal like an ox. One can only imagine what would happen if a large millstone was hung around someone’s neck and thrown into the sea. A quick drowning and horrifying death would soon follow. Apparently, something much worse would happen to someone who committed an offense against a young child. What possibly could Jesus have in mind? Perhaps those who suggest that Jesus did not teach that hell or torment is reserved for anyone need to reconsider. Try and imagine something worse than drowning with a large rock tied around your neck. It doesn’t sound like something to look forward to.
Regardless of what you may think about the punishment Jesus had in mind for those who commit offences against children, Jesus may have had something much deeper in mind when addressing this issue. Earlier in the Matthew passage, after bringing a small child close to him, Jesus said:
“Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever takes the lowly position of this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” – Matthew 18:3-4
It seems that he may have had a wider target than just the youngest members of society. The key to entering the kingdom of heaven (his kingdom, the one where he is King) is to become just like the little ones in our midst. Innocent, trusting, vulnerable. He then goes on from here to discuss children and millstones and what happens to those who offend them. Could it be that he was placing us all in the same category and therefore making a sweeping statement about those who commit offences against the innocent, trusting and vulnerable? In other words, committing violence, murder, torture, deception, lying, etc. against anyone who has chosen to take the position of a child (whether they are children or adults) is a capital offense worthy of the most extreme response. This makes the circle of potential offenders much wider than child killers.
Perhaps one of the reasons we are so offended by those who commit atrocities against children is that because of their innocence, loyalty and trust they are always at risk from those who may have evil intention toward them. Also, because they are so young, they do not deliberately choose to assume this risk. However, adults who become like little children consciously choose this posture. They willingly put themselves at risk. Jesus is saying that whether this posture is a conscious choice or not, those who commit offences against them are in serious trouble!
As we enjoy the Christmas season and reflect on the arrival of the king of the universe as a babe in a stable, reflect on the many children around the world who are suffering violence at the hands of others. Also, remember those who have taken up the challenge to tie a millstone around the neck of the perpetrators of atrocities agains the most vulnerable. While those of us who are adults may consciously choose to be intentionally vulnerable and honourably lay down our own lives, it is also honourable to physically defend those who cannot make this conscious choice.
Merry Christmas and may the Creator of the Universe pour out His gifts on you and your children,
John and Katherine Matthews