There is an odd little addition to Jesus’ speech in today’s Gospel. Jesus’ speech is about the importance of loving him above all else and then how important it is to keep in perspective the things of earth compared to the things of heaven.
Toward the end Jesus pivots and begins to talk about how we are to treat people. Essentially he is promoting hospitality, the initial posture someone must have in order to receive God’s word. If we do not have a posture of openness and hospitality, we would be unable to welcome or accept the possibilities and promises of God’s presence in our lives.
The last part of Jesus’ speech is about giving water to little ones. This seems like a random disconnected concern and topic for Jesus. First of all, who are these so called, “little ones?” Our first instinct is to think of children, little ones, considering their size and vulnerability. This is a good start but far from the complete description of the little ones Jesus is talking about.
“Little ones,” especially in Matthew’s Gospel describes a group of people who are “little” in their culture. They are the unseen ones, the invisible people. They are what used to be called in high schools, “corner kids.” They are the people who have little social standing and because of that are alienated, cast aside, ignored and taken advantage of.
Jesus is speaking about these little ones to his apostles, in the midst or at least in sight of a larger crowd. Jesus points out “these” little ones, perhaps meaning all the little ones present. He instructs his disciples first of all, to see them, to acknowledge their presence. Being ignored and overlooked is one of the curses and pain that the little ones feel.
Next Jesus instructs them to care for them, care for at the very least their basic human need, hydration, water. Water is essential to every human, but of course Jesus in not simply telling them to hand out water to the poor and neglected of our society, it’s more than that. Jesus is commanding his apostles and us to be aware and motivated to care for the little ones. It is a requirement to being a disciple. Perhaps the surprising thing is that these little ones that Jesus was talking about, were actually disciples. For the apostles, some of their own, followers of Jesus. If they cannot care for the least of those who were joining them in following Christ, how could they ever expect to care for anyone else.
Jesus, of course is talking to us. To be a follower of Christ we must be able to see and acknowledge the little ones of society and especially those who are joining us in following Christ, perhaps right here in our parish. We are called to care for the little ones, to see them, connect with them and help them in their most basic needs.
Who are the little ones in our world? Who are the ones who have little or no social standing. Who are the ones who are neglected, ignored and seen as a bother or annoyance. Who are the little ones who are scapegoated, ostracized and attacked? These are the little ones Jesus is talking about.