"In just the same way, it is not the will of your heavenly Father that one of these little ones be lost." (Matthew 18:14)
Having recently celebrated my 67th birthday, I can honestly say that it has been a long time since I considered myself a "little one." Indeed, I would venture to say that most people immediately think of small children when they hear that phrase in today's Gospel. Some might even reference the time that Jesus took a little child and set it in the midst of the disciples in order to make a point regarding how they should consider themselves. When we hear the phrase used in today's Gospel, however, it is important that we do not make the mistake of thinking that Jesus is talking about small children. In fact, he is talking about his disciples, all those who have put their faith in him. There is little question about the fact that the early Christians were also called "little ones."
The advent of Jesus marks a distinct change in the lives of the people of Israel, especially in the lives of those who came to believe that he was the promised Messiah. In effect, the teaching of Jesus meant that they had to completely rethink their relationship with God. For thousands of years, they had thought of themselves as the Chosen People, a people peculiarly God's own. Their relationship with God had endured many stresses and strains over the centuries. They had known rebellion, sin, idolatry, and a host of other sins that had marred the covenant relationship. At the same time they had come to understand that no matter how often they strayed from the bounds of the covenant, God was faithful to them.
Jesus is the culmination of that relationship. Jesus is the incarnate reality of God's fidelity. However, accepting the notion that God had taken on mortal flesh and become one of them was so new an idea that it reduced them to "infancy" in terms of their knowledge of God. As St. Paul wrote, they had to be fed milk because they could not yet digest solid food. They were "children" who had not yet come to understand what it all meant. This is especially true when it comes to issues of God's mercy and forgiveness. These men and women had been schooled in the notion that God rewarded the obedient and punished the disobedient. However, Jesus is telling them that God forgives freely and mercifully. Thus Jesus refers to his disciples as "little ones" because they are not yet mature in their faith. The parable of the shepherd who has lost a lamb is a parable about us, those who from time to time stray from the flock. Jesus will not abandon us even though we might abandon him.
Advent is a time of joyful expectation. However, it is also a time to reflect on our relationship with God and to set right any problems in that relationship. Anyone who has ministered as a confessor during Advent will tell you that the lines at the confessional increase at this time of year. Jesus is indeed seeking out the lost little ones.
Fr. Lawrence Jagdfeld, O.F.M., Administrator