poor childBut 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.”

This week the U.S. Census Bureau released data showing that in 2008, the number of children living in poverty increased by 750,000 to 14.1 million. This is the biggest increase in child poverty since 1992.

When I read this I felt a pit in my stomach. In the wealthiest country that the world has ever seen, over 14 million of its most vulnerable citizens are coming to age in the midst of poverty.

Economic poverty all too often spreads like a virus through the soul of a person and community and eventually sucks the life and hope out of so many. This is what too many of our children face.

As I read the gloomy statistics, my mind wandered to how disturbing something like this would have been to Jesus. Though Jesus valued every human being he came in contact with, he especially had a soft spot for children.

His disciples did not miss this.

Mark first saw the passion Jesus had for protecting children in chapter 10 of his Gospel account. The disciples were engrossed in a back-and-forth debate between Jesus and the Pharisees when children began to run up to Jesus and, in the view of the disciples, were interrupting this important conversation. The disciples rebuked the parents for their carelessness, but in doing so unknowingly unleashed the fury of their Rabbi. Mark says Jesus was burning with passion and righteous indignation when he said:

“Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.”

Matthew got clear on this as well. He captures a revealing moment with Jesus in chapter 18 of his Gospel account. In the midst of the disciples arguing about who will be the greatest in the coming kingdom, Jesus draws a young child from the crowd and creates a teachable moment.

“Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”

As poignant as that was, it was what Jesus said next that I believe stirred the heart of Matthew. As if Jesus was almost feeling the pain at a gut level, he continued:

“If anyone causes one of these little ones — those who believe in me — to stumble, it would be better for them if a large millstone were hung around their neck and they were drowned in the depths of the sea.”

What I would give to know what was going through Jesus’ mind in that moment. Why did Jesus choose such intense imagery to make his point? Why was he experiencing such deep feelings?

As he speaks, does he have a picture in his mind of specific little ones? Is he reflecting on how every child is born with optimism, wonder, and innocence, only to lose it to the cruelty of this world? Perhaps he is remembering that he himself was born into an historic evil towards young ones, as his peers were massacred in Bethlehem. Or maybe his heart was breaking as he looked into the future at young ones that would grow up in broken homes in broken communities and would experience so much pain.

The one thing that was clear to Mark, to Matthew, and to the rest of the disciples was that Jesus cared deeply for children. His heart broke when they were devalued or, worse, placed in the way of evil.

So what does that mean for us?

What do we do when we read statistics that say that 14 million children in America are living in poverty? How do we translate the importance Jesus placed on this into our present reality?

I would suggest we begin right where Jesus told the disciples to begin. The starting point was to care deeply.

When Jesus finished telling the disciples in Matthew 18 that it would be better for someone to be drowned with a rock tied to their neck than to harm a child, I imagine there had to be all kinds of confusion welling up in those 12 men.

“Why are you telling us that? Do we look like we are about to hurt a kid? This is us you are talking to Jesus. We are on your team!”

I don’t believe the reason Jesus spoke in such harsh terms was because he feared that his disciples would be tempted to harm young children. Rather, I believe he gave them this warning because they faced the same obstacles that you and I do today. They were well-meaning people who would be so busy living and working that they would inadvertently ignore the children. They wouldn’t see them, and they wouldn’t see the dangers they were facing.

For Jesus, it wasn’t enough that his disciples avoided harming children. They were to care deeply about every child that was in harm’s way, regardless of who or what was the cause.

Jesus finishes this leadership development lesson about the importance of children by telling a parable. It is a familiar parable of a shepherd who has 100 sheep and loses one. When Luke recounts this parable the context is broader, but in Matthew’s account it is specifically focused on children.

The point Jesus makes is that every child is precious to him. If 1 out of 100 is in danger, that is one too many for him. If 14 million are in danger, as is the case today in the U.S., let’s just say it is clear how Jesus would feel about that.

The starting point is to care, and to be concerned for children. When we care, we begin to see what is really happening. When we begin to see what is really happening, we begin to get creative, searching for new solutions. When we begin searching for solutions together, change begins to happen.

One of my heroes is Marian Wright Edelman, the founder of the Children’s Defense Fund (which is a fabulous resource for those wanting to learn more about the dangers facing our children today). When she saw the release of the new statistics this week, this was her reply:

It is more important than ever to reweave our national safety net… It is time for each one of us to commit ourselves to ending child poverty in every corner of America.

After reading that, all I can say is, “Amen.”

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