Several years ago, I taught a Sunday school class for pre-teens. One of the boys in the group was skeptical of church and Christianity, but his parents wanted him to attend. During our class one particular Sunday, he looked at me, sighed and said: “Jesus, Jesus, Jesus. All we ever talk about is Jesus!”
Of course, he was right. Jesus is the foundation of the church. And we do talk about Jesus — a lot! But when we share stories of Jesus with children, we tend to focus primarily on his divinity. We may mention that Jesus was both fully God and fully human, but the human side doesn’t get a whole lot of attention.
This week’s lectionary reading, Matthew 25:31-46, gives us an opportunity to explore Jesus’ humanity with our children. It encourages us not only to respond to one another as Jesus would, but it also demonstrates that Jesus can be found in the midst of our very human frailties.
Before you read the Bible text with your children, ask them to think about what it means to be a human being. Have them list all the things that human beings do and experience. Be sure to encourage them to include not only our “higher level” activities like thinking, learning and helping, but also our very basic functions such as sleeping, eating and going to the bathroom. Also, help them explore the range of human emotions and experiences so they are aware that all people know sadness, happiness and everything in between.
After your children have developed a snapshot of what a human being is, ask them if they think Jesus had these same qualities and experiences. Remind them that we say Jesus was both fully God and fully human. In being fully human, Jesus would have known all of what it means to be a person just like each of them.
Prepare to read aloud Matthew 25:31-46. If your children are younger, you may want to use a children’s Bible for this reading since it includes the abstract idea that Jesus is represented by “the least of these.” (“Children of God Storybook Bible” by Archbishop Desmond Tutu includes a particularly nice succinct, child-friendly retelling of Matthew 25.) Share with your children that this text is one of many teaching stories Jesus tells to his disciples. Ask them to focus in on what they think Jesus is trying to teach through it.
Read the passage aloud. When you are finished, ask your children what Jesus is teaching his disciples through this story. They may need help parsing out the text’s lesson since it isn’t concrete. Encourage them to focus on verses 34-36 first. Have them explore the people in need who are described and the action that “you” take to help them. Be sure they notice the specific qualities that are included (hungry, thirsty, stranger, naked and imprisoned) as well as the responses the “you” in the passage make (something to eat, something to drink, welcome, clothing and visitation).
Next, hone in on verses 38-39. Note that here the people Jesus is talking to respond to him. They are confused because Jesus has told them that they have done all of the things described in the earlier verses for him. They don’t recall Jesus ever being hungry, thirsty, a stranger, without clothes or imprisoned. Look at verse 40. Explain that Jesus tells them every time they do these things for anyone, they are doing them for him. Because Jesus is a human being, every human being who experiences these difficulties is like him. Therefore, they should be treated with as much love and care as we would show for Jesus, the Son of God.
To connect this message to your children’s lives, explore ways the congregation and your family carry out the call presented in this story.
- If you are already engaged in ministry in one of the areas mentioned in the text, reflect on your experiences. Make a renewed commitment to see each person you encounter in this work as Jesus. You can do this by creating a special prayer your family says together every time you participate in this ministry.
- If your church is participating in PC(USA)’s Matthew 25 initiative, draw your children’s attention to the ways your congregation has committed to the work outlined in this text. You can describe the areas of ministry the congregation is engaged in, walk through parts of your church website that describe this work or call someone in church leadership to share their experience with the project. There’s also a short introductory video on the Matthew 25 call you can watch.
- If your family isn’t already connected to a ministry that supports the call to action in the reading, research opportunities in your community. Together with your children you can search online for programs addressing food insecurity, immigration, basic needs such as clothing and housing and support for those who are incarcerated. Decide as a family at least one way you can be a part of these ministries. Make a commitment to engage in this work together and to reflect on your experiences.
JOELLE BRUMMIT-YALE is the director of children’s and youth ministries at Chapel in the Pines Presbyterian in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. When not at the church, she can usually be found at home with her son and husband caring for their many animals and developing their family homestead.