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Child’s Play Romans 7:15-25a; Matthew 11:16-19,25-30

The think-tank Civitas has published a report entitled Licensed to Hug. The report describes how child protection policies are poisoning the relationship between the generations and damaging the voluntary sector. We do need policies that protect children, but we also need to find a way in which the relationship between adults and children can once again be normal and loving. There have been some terrible crimes committed against children, but in order to try and reduce the risks to youngsters, we have almost a quarter of adults vetted through the CRB checking process. What’s worse, there are cases where adults feel unable to offer simple, appropriate physical care for children for fear of being misunderstood or even criminalised.

You won’t play my game!
We have lost our innocence, and so Jesus’ attitude to children comes as a breath of fresh air. He wasn’t naive about children, though. He knew the difference between being child-like (which is good) and childish (which is bad). This comes through clearly in today’s gospel reading where Jesus likened the people of his generation to grumpy children who wouldn’t play each other’s games. He was using this illustration to show up the attitude of the religious leaders of his day to the difference between John the Baptist and himself. In the first part of Matthew 11 Jesus was praising John and the way he carried out his mission of paving the way for Jesus. But Jesus is well aware that the religious leaders thought John was so austere and ascetic that they accused him of being possessed. They weren’t happy with Jesus when he came being the opposite, though. For them Jesus was too liberal, too ready to mix with the questionable people and enjoy a good party.

“You’re like kids in the playground”, he said. When one lot wants to play weddings the others won’t join in, but when they say they’ll play funerals, that’s no good either. Whatever the game, there’s always some who’ll sulk because it isn’t their game. They will not join in and play in a way that makes them forget themselves. There’s no pleasing some people!

Jesus the child and the adult
Whilst Jesus criticised the religious leaders for being childish, he then went on to show his own child-like qualities. In the rest of the passage Jesus keeps talking to his heavenly Father. He praises his Father for revealing what is important to children, to the childlike – the ones who played along with Jesus. (vs 25) He trusts his Father’s choice of how to play the game of revelation. He is utterly confident of his loving and trusting relationship with his heavenly Father. (vs 27) Then Jesus shows that he is an adult who has not forgotten what it is like to be child-like. He invites all those who have forgotten to be children to come and play with him. Those who have let the religious authorities make them grow up too quickly and become burdened and weary can come and find rest with him. Play is creative. Play is recreation – literally being made again. It’s almost as if Jesus is saying, “Make fun of the heavy yoke the religious people have put on you, by coming and pretending with a plastic yoke which doesn’t weigh anything at all!”

Serious and Fun
Two things are 60 years old this year – the 60th anniversary of the NHS is very much in the media eye at present. But did you also know that the board word-game Scrabble was copyrighted in 1948? There is much concern and debate about the NHS – almost as if we’re asking whether it is getting towards retirement age! How grown-up! How burdened with worries is the poor old NHS! But Scrabble is fun! Scrabble is played all over the world and it doesn’t matter what age it is. It’s almost like the contrast between the boring religious people who were snooty about Jesus and John, and the questionable people that Jesus kept company with, but who were the child-like ones who played his game. It’s also like the troubles that Paul worried about when he got too grown-up about trying to please God. “I don’t understand myself!” he complained. “I know what is good, but I end up not doing it. I know what is bad, and I still end up doing that instead!” He even tried to work it out – almost like a 1st psychologist, dividing himself up into his real self and the part of him that kept failing. No wonder he ends up exclaiming, “Who will rescue me from myself!” You are just on the point of saying, “Lighten up old chap! Ease off! Come and play with us!” when he turns round and says, “Gotcha! Just pretending! I already know how to get out of my problems – thank God!”

What to do with a bad son
Paul knew who his rescuer was but we turn back to Jesus’ words in the gospel to understand how the rescue works. Jesus said that the religious leaders accused him of being “a glutton and a drunkard.” (vs.19) That is actually a quote from Deuteronomy 21:20, part of the law about family relations. If parents had a rebellious son who wouldn’t obey them, they were to bring him to court with the accusation: “He is a glutton and a drunkard.” If the son was found guilty, he was to be condemned to death. In this way, said the law, the people of God were to purge the evil from their midst. The religious authorities of Jesus’ day were effectively bringing the same accusation against him. They couldn’t control him, they saw him as a rebellious son and therefore condemned him to death. Eventually, of course, Jesus was executed. The irony is that through his death Jesus purged the evil from the midst of God’s people. Paul, a latter-day man of the law had tried to get rid of the evil part of himself that refused to do what was right. He failed miserably. Then he discovered that Jesus had taken on the punishment himself and made it possible for all to be free. How did the rescue happen? Well, to put it into child’s play terms: Paul had to stop trying to be all serious and adult about being good, and instead, join in with Jesus’ games. Instead of being a grumpy kid who refused to join in, he lost himself by enjoying Jesus’ company – those who didn’t care, and were being watched by their heavenly Father, having such a good time with Jesus, that they ended up being good anyway!

Copyright © Rev Paul Smith




Almighty God,
send down upon your Church
the riches of your Spirit,
and kindle in all who minister the gospel
your countless gifts of grace;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.