Listening with the "Little Ones"
Ann M. Garrido, D.Min.
Zechariah 9:9-10; Romans 8:9, 11-13; Matthew 11:25-30
Jesus' favorite thing to talk about was a mystery that he called the "Basileia tou Theou." In English, we often translate it as the "Kingdom of God" — in essence, what it will be like when God reigns here on earth as God already reigns in the heavens. Jesus preached about the Kingdom every chance he got. He prayed for it to come. He worked miracles to paint pictures of what it would look like. In the way he ate, he tried to give glimpses of how it would work.
Many had a hard time catching on. The Kingdom Jesus described was so far beyond their experience of how the world worked that they found his words crazy, unsettling, even dangerous. The well-educated couldn't understand what he was talking about. The religious leaders were confounded. The wealthy puzzled. But, there were others who did "get it" — those who caught Jesus' passion and became just as enthused about the Kingdom as he was. These people tended to be the "little ones" of the earth — those who were outcasts in society: the widowed, the sick and disabled, those who did work considered taboo or tainted. In Hebrew, these people were often referred to as the "anawim" — the poor who cannot place their hope in human society, and so rely entirely on God for their deliverance. Today's passage refers to them as the "nepioi" — literally, the infants.
In the Gospel reading from Matthew, we find Jesus marveling that those who one might expect would be able to perceive the Kingdom of God are utterly mystified by it, while those considered mere babes in the realm of faith are able to penetrate the very heart of the matter. How can this be? Jesus suspects God must be at work here:
"I give you praise, Father, Lord of heaven and earth," he proclaims, "for although you have hidden these things from the wise and the learned you have revealed them to little ones. Yes, Father, such has been your gracious will."
You can almost see him laughing aloud and shaking his head at God's inscrutable ways.
The Kingdom of God remains the greatest mystery that there is, and we still await its fullness. If, as Christians, we profess to be disciples of Jesus — persons who meditate on the meaning of his words and commit ourselves to the same causes to which he was committed — penetrating the mystery of the Kingdom should be our utmost concern. We, too, will want to learn about it, talk about it, study it, pray for it, practice it — just like Jesus did.
Over the centuries, there are many paths that faithful Christians have taken toward understanding Jesus' teaching about the Kingdom of God. The Church has benefited tremendously from those who have devoted their lives to biblical scholarship, studying Jesus' words in their original language and context. At the same time, in recent decades, several theologians, especially from Latin America, have reminded us that if we really want to understand the Kingdom of God, we should probably ask the contemporary counterparts of the ancient anawim — the "little ones" of our own society. The anawim of all times have a particular place in God's heart, and there are still things that God chooses to reveal to them that those of us who are educated, religiously devout and economically sufficient simply are not able to see. If we really want to penetrate the mystery, we need to not only ponder what Jesus said, we need to ponder it alongside the poor whom God has graced to grasp it.
Who are "the poor"? Scripture encourages us to think quite broadly here. As one of my colleagues put it, "The poor are those who are close to death." I have found this definition to be very helpful and encompassing. It includes those whose economic realities threaten their existence. It includes the very young and the very old who can't survive on their own. It also includes those whose lives are threatened by crime, by disease, by lack of care. At some point, all of us will face death, and all of us will know what it means to be poor.
The Church has long given witness that the joy and holiness of the Christian is deeply wrapped up in relationship with "the poor" — not simply because we are called to be of service to them, but because we will not be able to understand the mystery of the Kingdom of God without them! Relationship to the poor is not optional, but neither is it burdensome; it is a gift God wants us to give to us for the sake of our own spiritual journey. An easy yoke.
I invite each of you in the congregation today to reflect on the relationships that you have in your life. Do they include relationships with persons who are "poor," in the broadest sense of that word? Are these one-directional relationships of service to the other, or do you also have the opportunity to listen to what the other may have to teach about life, about the way the world works, about the Kingdom of God? What are you learning?
I also invite us as a congregation to celebrate and remember in prayer those larger, institutional efforts that exist in our church today to reach out and create relationships with the anawim in our midst. I think of our Catholic social services and the work that we do alongside immigrants, and persons without homes or jobs, those who've been impacted by the numerous natural disasters of this past spring. And I think of our vast Catholic health network — hospitals, clinics, nursing homes, hospices — where day after day we walk alongside those suffering and, quite literally, on the edge of death.
In these settings, the Church has much to offer, but even more so, it has much to receive. These hospitals and homeless shelters and nursing facilities so often serve as the "ear" of the Church, places where we can really listen to those dearest to God's heart and discover the secrets of the Kingdom whispered only to them. If you are looking for an opportunity to be in deeper relationship with "the poor" — if, indeed, you are looking to understand better the teaching of Jesus Christ — consider getting more involved in one of our local health or social service centers. You never know what sorts of amazing things God wants to reveal through "the little ones" in our midst today. And, like those on the hillside 2000 years ago in Galilee, you will be in just the right position to hear.