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Top Ten #10 // When Jesus blesses the babies

Top Ten Pro-life Passages #10 // Luke 18

People were also bringing babies to Jesus for him to place his hands on them. When the disciples saw this, they rebuked them. But Jesus called the children to him and 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.’ [Luke 18:15–17 NIV]

The Gospels tell us a great deal about Jesus’ attitude to infants, which diverged sharply from Greco-Roman culture. As a young child Jesus himself was nearly killed. Luke does not relate this episode, but in Matthew’s Gospel the child Jesus is soon threatened as the puppet king Herod seeks to destroy him, slaughtering all of Bethlehem’s male children up to the age of two (Matthew 2:13–23). This horrific event has strong foreshadowing in Pharaoh’s attack on male infants in Exodus 1 and Matthew also connects it via Jeremiah 31:15 to the exile, when Israel’s children were taken away from their homeland. It is striking how Jesus even at this stage of life enters into solidarity with the vulnerable and persecuted. His family’s subsequent refugee status confirms this.

The Gospels give us a snapshot of the turbulent and harsh realities of first century Roman-occupied Palestine and a reminder that in the New Testament the Greco-Roman world impacts life for God’s people, along with the beliefs and customs of Judaism. The Greeks and Romans did not share the Jewish reverence for life, including life in the womb, which we have seen is so characteristic of the Old Testament.[1] Both Plato and Aristotle permitted abortion, arguing for its use in terms of limiting family size and thus population growth – the individual, and certainly the unborn child, being of lesser value compared to the requirements of the state. It is likely that exposing infants once born was the more usual means of their destruction. Disabled infants were almost always exposed at birth.

Roman attitudes and practice were very similar, illustrated by the Emperor Domitian (AD 51–96), who ordered his niece, whom he had made pregnant, to have an abortion, from which she died. Later Roman writers and ethicists such as Cicero, Ovid, Seneca and Musonius were more critical of abortion, but their concerns suggest the scale of the issue. In Roman law, the father possessed the patria potestas (Latin: “power of a father”) over his offspring. If he decided the new-born baby should die on the grounds of disability, appearance or gender, the child was killed. We might regard this as the ultimate example of a toxic patriarchy. Yet has our apparently “progressive” society really advanced beyond such attitudes to the child in the womb, clamouring for abortion on demand up to birth? Such attacks on the most vulnerable – regardless of ideological basis – are always toxic and indicate a regression to pagan barbarity.

Jewish authors like Philo and Josephus who lived in the Greco-Roman world stress the fact that Jews love children and neither seek to kill their offspring in the womb, nor expose them after birth. Josephus argues that abortion is morally equivalent to infanticide in his work Against Apion (2.202). The Jewish position emphasises the goodness of procreation and God’s sovereignty in forming the unborn child. For Christians this value is elevated still further through the incarnation and early Christian works such as the Didache are uncompromising on the immorality of abortion. It is possible that references to pharmakeia in the New Testament (e.g., Galatians 5:20) includes a prohibition of abortion. This is the word from which we derive “pharmacy,” but also had connotations of illicit practices and abortifacient drugs, and is often joined with adultery and murder (see Revelation 9:21; 21:8; 22:15, cf. Didache 2:2).

Having traced some relevant aspects of the contemporary milieu it is possible to return to Jesus’ teaching and practice in the Gospels. If pagan society and tyrants like Herod regarded children as expendable, Jesus stands firmly in the counter-cultural Jewish mould of valuing and loving children, including the unborn. It is worth realising just how many of Jesus’ healing miracles involved children. Jesus frequently includes children in his teaching – “unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:3). Jesus even uses labour pains to teach about his imminent crucifixion, with the joy of childbirth akin to the resurrection (John 16:21–22).[2] The Gospels show Jesus receiving help from children in his ministry (John 6:8–11) and it is children who realise his true identity, even when the religious leaders remain blind (Matthew 21:15–16).

Jesus’ action in laying hands on children to bless them occurs in each of the Synoptic Gospels – Matthew 19:13–15; Mark 10:13–16 and Luke 18:15–17:

15 Now they were bringing even infants to him that he might touch them. And when the disciples saw it, they rebuked them. 16 But Jesus called them to him, saying, “Let the children come to me, and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God. 17 Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.”

Imitation of Jesus means welcoming children and making their welfare a priority. The privileged status of children vis-à-vis the Kingdom is again expressed – childhood is not a prelude to becoming a proper disciple, but actually images the kind of dependent faith God desires and delights in. We can say more: Luke calls these little ones, infants, brephe – the same word that he used for the baby Jesus (Luke 2:12, 16) and also the unborn John (Luke 1:41, 44). In other words, in a way analogous to Matthew 25:31–46, our attitude to children, including those in the womb, reflects our attitude to Christ – whether one of welcome or rejection. What we do for or to these little ones we do in a sense for or to him. A similar pattern emerges when we observe that Mark in his version of this event uses almost identical language (Mark 10:16) as that which describes Simeon taking the infant Jesus in his arms in Luke 2:28. Whenever we embrace a child, it is as if we are embracing the Christ child.

The historical record is clear that as Christianity spread across the Mediterranean it consistently challenged the attitudes and practices of the prevailing culture in terms of children, not least regarding exposure and abortion. Christians became known for their humane and compassionate treatment of children; eschewing abortion and bringing up unwanted infants left to die. The consensus on abortion as utterly contradictory to Christian faith continued well into the 20th Century. The current liberalism and timidity to speak out on this issue is an anomaly we can be sure Christ would correct, as he did his first disciples. Jesus summons us to love all children. Will we obey his teaching and example?

[1] The following summary is drawn largely from Michael J. Gorman, Abortion and the Early Church: Christian, Jewish and Pagan Attitudes in the Greco-Roman World (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1982). [2] At various places in the Gospels a parallel is created between the virgin womb from which Jesus is born and the tomb (“where no one had ever yet been laid”: Luke 23:53) from which Jesus emerges at the resurrection. Jesus talks about the “sign of Jonah” to signify his resurrection. In Matthew 12:40 the word for the whale’s belly (koilia) can also mean “womb.”

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