Season 1, Episode 3 — ‘Jesus Loves the Little Children’
Synopsis. Jesus is living in a tent on the outskirts of Capernaum. He cooks his own food, he bandages his arm, he plies his trade as a craftsman, and he says his prayers. A young girl named Abigail discovers his tent and plays with some of the objects she finds, but she runs away when he returns. The next day she comes back with a boy, and they introduce themselves to Jesus. The two children return the next day with other children, and as time goes by, Jesus tells them stories and teaches them how to pray. Eventually Jesus packs up and goes, but not before leaving some toys and a note behind, just for Abigail.
Gospels. This episode does not dramatize any stories from the gospels. However, it does feature several teachings of Jesus’ that come, directly or indirectly, from the gospels:
- Abigail says her family isn’t wealthy, and Jesus says, “Many times, that’s better.” This echoes how Jesus said it is difficult for rich people to enter the kingdom of heaven (Mark 10:17-25, Matthew 19:16-24, Luke 18:18-25).
- Jesus says his Father provides everything he needs. This echoes how Jesus told his followers not to worry about food and clothes because their heavenly Father knows what they need (Matthew 6:25-34, Luke 12:22-31).
- Jesus gets the children to recite the Shema, which the biblical Jesus identified as the most important commandment in the Hebrew Bible (Mark 12:29-30).
- Jesus teaches the children to recite Matthew’s version of the Lord’s Prayer (Matthew 6:9-13; there is a slightly different version in Luke 11:2-4).
- When one boy quotes the biblical principle of “an eye for an eye”, Jesus cautions against seeking revenge against other people (Matthew 5:38-42).
- Jesus tells the children parents and teachers should be honoured even though they are not always wise. This may parallel how Jesus told his followers to do what the Pharisees preached but not what they practiced (Matthew 23:1-3).
- Jesus quotes a pastiche of Isaiah 61:1-2 and 58:6 to explain his reason for being there, just as the biblical Jesus quoted those verses as a mission statement of sorts while visiting a synagogue at the start of his ministry in Luke 4:16-21.
- Jesus says many adults need the faith of children, and he hopes his next students (i.e. the disciples) will ask him questions and understand his answers the same way the children did. This echoes how Jesus said his followers should be like little children (Mark 10:13-16; Matthew 18:1-5, 19:13-15; Luke 18:15-17), God has hidden things from the wise and revealed them to children (Matthew 11:25, Luke 10:21), and God has called forth praise from the lips of children (Matthew 21:15-16).
Other things Jesus says in this episode hark back to the gospels in interesting ways:
- The episode begins with Jesus praying, “Father, glorify me with yourself. Father, speak through me.” This echoes the way Jesus often speaks about himself being glorified with God in John’s gospel (John 8:54, 13:31-32, 16:14, 17:1-5), but the fact that he delivers the prayer with such emotion — and at night, no less — brings to mind how he was full of sorrow and anguish while begging God to save him from crucifixion in the Synoptic gospels (Mark 14:35-36, Matthew 26:36-39, Luke 22:39-44).
- At one point, the children wake Jesus up in the morning, and he says, “You couldn’t have waited half an hour, eh?” This line plays on the scene in the gospels where Jesus chided his disciples for falling asleep while he was praying in Gethsemane — “Couldn’t you keep watch for one hour?” — in Mark 14:37 and Matthew 26:40.
- Jesus says he likes many different foods but especially bread. The biblical Jesus never expressed any opinion on the subject, but of course he performed miracles with bread (Mark 6:35-44, 8:1-10; Matthew 14:13-21, 15:32-38; Luke 9:12-17; John 6:5-13), he called himself “the bread of life” (John 6:35, 48) and “the living bread that came down from heaven” (John 6:51, 58), and he instituted the sharing of bread and wine at communion (Mark 14:22, Matthew 26:26, Luke 22:19, I Corinthians 11:23-24).
The way Abigail brings her friends to see Jesus and speculates that Jesus might be a new prophet is reminiscent of the Samaritan woman, who called Jesus a prophet and brought the people from her town out to see Jesus for themselves (John 4:19, 28-30, 39-42).
Abigail asks Jesus if he is a “carpenter”, and he replies that he is a “craftsman” who makes all sorts of things. The idea that Jesus was a carpenter comes from a single verse — Mark 6:3 — in which the people of Nazareth call him a tekton, a Greek word that refers to someone who works with wood, stone and other construction materials.
John Dominic Crossan has argued that the word also had social connotations, because peasants who have land of their own tend to look down on peasants who don’t — so tekton may have been less a description of the kind of work that Jesus did and more of a quasi-insulting “euphemism for a dispossessed peasant, for a landless laborer.”
Old Testament. Jesus and the children quote several Old Testament passages:
- “An eye for an eye.” (Exodus 21:24, Leviticus 24:20, Deuteronomy 19:21)
- “Hear, Israel. The Lord is our God. The Lord is one. You shall love the lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your might. And it shall come to pass, if you surely listen to the commandments I command you today, that you may gather in your grain, your wine, and your oil, and you will eat, and you will be satisfied. I am the Lord your God, who led you from the land of Egypt to be a God to you. I am the Lord your God. Amen.” (Deuteronomy 6:4-5, 11:13-15; Numbers 15:41)
- “Vengeance is mine.” (Deuteronomy 32:35)
- “God says he will have compassion on his people when their strength is gone.” (Deuteronomy 32:36)
- “Behold how good and how pleasing if brothers could sit together in unity.” (Psalm 133:1)
And then there is the pastiche of Isaiah 61 and 58 that I mentioned above.
Jesus and the children also refer to a few characters from the Hebrew Bible. One boy says Jesus is stronger than Samson (Judges 13-16), while Jesus cites the story about David refusing to kill King Saul (I Samuel 24, 26), and he tells the children the story about the young men who were killed by bears for insulting Elisha (II Kings 2:23-24).
Jesus asks the children, “Is there anything in scripture that says Messiah will be a great military leader?” He seems to be implying that the answer to his question is “no”, but, as we saw in our recap of the pilot episode, there are prophecies in the scriptures about messianic figures defeating Israel’s enemies and ruling them with the sword. Christians tend to skip those bits when we quote the prophecies, but they’re definitely there.
When Jesus finishes one of his carpentry projects, he looks at it and says, “It is good.” This echoes how God repeatedly saw that what he created was good in Genesis 1.
Themes. The children agree amongst themselves not to tell anyone — or at least not any adults — about Jesus. But at the end of the episode, Jesus says he hopes the adult followers he is about to have will tell people about him, the way the children have.
This curiously echoes the tension within the gospels between the passages (primarily in Mark) in which Jesus tells people to keep his identity a secret and the other passages (primarily in John) in which he speaks quite openly about who and what he is.
As with the previous episode, which saw Jesus attend the modest Shabbat dinner hosted by Mary Magdalene rather than the fancier dinner hosted by Nicodemus, this episode emphasizes Jesus’ outreach to the humble — including not just children generally but the children of the poor specifically. As Jesus says, “I did not come only for the wealthy.”
Historical quibbles. Jesus points out that the girls don’t go to Torah class, but he also leaves a note for Abigail in which he says he knows that she can read. Suffice it to say that historians are divided on the question of whether the average male peasant would have been able to read in Jesus’ day. Girls almost certainly would not have been.
When Abigail says Jesus might be a new prophet, one of her friends says the local rabbi has said that there aren’t any new prophets. This feels like an anachronism, inasmuch as it echoes the pilot episode’s claim that the prophets had been “silent” for centuries. To the Jews of Jesus’ day — including Jesus himself — this was far from obvious.
The children wake Jesus up after the sun has come up, but Mark 1:35 indicates that Jesus tended to get up “very early in the morning, while it was still dark” to say his prayers.
The particular kind of prayers Jesus says in this episode may be a bit anachronistic. For example, before going to sleep, he recites the Bedtime Shema, which comes from the rabbinic period, some time after the period in which this series is set.
Jesus lives in a tent, which may reflect how the biblical Jesus said during his ministry that he had “no place to lay his head” (Matthew 8:20, Luke 9:58), but we do know that Jesus lived in a house — his own or someone else’s, perhaps Simon’s — for at least part of his stay in Capernaum (Mark 1:35; cf. the reference to Simon’s home in Mark 1:29).
Humanization. This episode emphasizes the emotions Jesus feels — how deeply moved he is — when he prays to God and when he hears the children recite the Shema.
The episode also shows Jesus making playful, farty raspberry noises when he tries to lure Abigail and her friend out from hiding before he meets them for the first time.
Timeline. This is the first episode that takes place entirely in AD 26, without a prologue. It is not entirely clear, however, where this episode fits next to the first two episodes.
Episode 1 seems to happen somewhere in the middle of this episode, since Jesus tells the children he was gone for a while because he needed to go into town to help a woman, which is presumably a reference to Mary Magdalene’s exorcism in Episode 1.
But he also says that he is not a teacher yet — but he “will be soon” — even though we saw him with two adult “students” (Thaddaeus and James, who addressed him as “rabbi”) in Episode 2, which seemed to be happening more or less right after Episode 1.
Jesus does say in this episode that he has “a few” friends already, “and more to come,” which might refer to the fact that he has already begun to acquire some disciples — but if that is the case, where are those “friends” during the events of this episode?
Language issues. The series is so committed to casual, colloquial dialogue that it comes as a bit of a surprise when Jesus teaches the children how to say the Lord’s Prayer in 17th-century English (i.e. the English found in the King James Version of the Bible).
Miscellaneous. The episode takes its title from a children’s song written by C. Herbert Woolston in the late 19th century. The song is noteworthy for emphasizing that Jesus loves children of all racial and ethnic backgrounds (“Red and yellow, black and white / They are precious in his sight / Jesus loves the little children of the world”).
Jesus tells the children they shouldn’t stray too far from home on their own, as there might be “bad men” around. In the roundtable discussion of this episode, director Dallas Jenkins and the show’s Catholic advisor, Fr David Guffey, talk about how Jesus was given these lines of dialogue partly out of concern over how this episode would play at a time when there have been many reports of child abuse within churches.
In his book Jesus at the Movies, W. Barnes Tatum notes that filmmakers have had a difficult time harmonizing the gospels in a way that makes dramatic sense because the gospels portray Jesus in very different, and seemingly contradictory, ways.
In Mark, for example, Jesus tries to keep his identity a secret, but in John, Jesus flaunts his divinity nearly every chance he gets. Mark also tends to emphasize the frailty of Jesus — he falls to the ground in Gethsemane, he needs someone else’s help to carry his cross, he cries out in despair before dying — whereas John tends to leave those bits out so he can focus on Jesus as a divine figure who is always in control of himself and others.
It is interesting, then, to see how this episode brings Mark and John together in its very first scene, by having Jesus recite Johannine dialogue with Marcan emotion.
Clip: Jesus’ bedtime prayer:
Clip: Jesus loves the little children:
The entire episode was also livestreamed on March 31, with an intro by director Dallas Jenkins and a chat with his wife Amanda, who is writing a tie-in children’s book: