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The Kingdom of God is (sort of) at hand

Fr. Lou DelFra | Thursday, September 20, 2012

This Sunday, we will hear at Mass the well-known story of how Jesus once took a child, wrapped his arms lovingly around it and told his disciples – who had been busy arguing about which one of them was the greatest – “Whoever wishes to be first, must become the least of all.”
Of course, there are plenty of meaty theological and spiritual questions that this famous scene evokes for us. What are the distracting effects of pride and selfish ambition in our lives? How am I being called to a life of servant-leadership? What does it mean for adults to become child-like, in such a way that we become more open to God’s presence and invitations?  All are important questions. Yet this morning, for some reason, as I read this Gospel scene, I found myself saying, I wonder who that child was?  I wonder how old she was?  Was she alone or with a friend?  What was she doing there, in the house at Capernaum that day?
Probably, like most children, she was initially curious when the adults arrived, then bored out of her mind, listening to them argue about adult things, in which she had not the slightest interest. Maybe she was playing, in which case she was probably slightly annoyed at Jesus picking her up, not realizing she was about to be immortalized in a Gospel passage. Or perhaps, as children sometimes do, she was making herself conspicuously noticed, wanting some attention, darting in and out between Peter and Andrew, James and John, kicking their heels or tapping their shoulders, then fleeing away, before Jesus finally nabbed her.  
If she was anything like my niece while I am saying a family Mass, she was doing anything but listening to Jesus’ homily. In any case – and this seems to be one of the crucial assumptions of this Gospel passage – the child was, to most in the room, a distraction. Secondary. Outside the important group and the important conversation. Marginal. Irrelevant to the weighty matters at hand. Inconsequential. To everyone. Except Jesus.
Somehow she caught his attention. And not as an annoyance or a distraction. Rather, somehow, as a sign of the present breaking-forth of the Kingdom of God, right there in the midst of the adults’ busy and important and self-centeredly ambitious lives. I’d love to have seen Jesus’ eyes the moment he noticed her, surrounded by bickering grown-ups, and recognized she was where his Father was trying to become known at that moment.
This is hardly the first time, nor hardly the last, when Jesus’ eyes, and then heart, were drawn away from the seemingly urgent arguments and agendas and responsibilities and important people who constantly demanded his attention. Walking with a group of disciples outside the city of Nain, teaching and moderating their religious squabbles, he suddenly heard a woman crying in the distance. He veered off from his group, and encountered the weeping mother, a widow (so of basement social status) following the coffin of her recently deceased and only child (thus, motherless, placing her even lower than the basement), whom he then raised from the dead. It’s this Sunday’s Gospel, in more urgent and dramatic circumstances. Again, away from the center, away from the immediate busyness of his life, in a seemingly utterly inconsequential, but suffering, person on the absolute margin of life, God’s presence burst forth in awesome, death-defying power.
A Syrophoenician woman, a leper, Bartimaeus the blind man lying on the side of the road – each of them, the Gospels are careful to note, were not a part of the group that was presently engaging Jesus, when suddenly his attention was drawn to them.
In his last moment of life, hanging on the cross, the important people of his world continue to demand his attention: “If you are God, come down from there and save yourself.” Jesus’ focus? A convicted thief, hanging next to him, drained of all status and identity, almost drained of life. “Today the Kingdom of God will be opened to you.” God is present – just not where everybody was looking.  Everybody except Jesus.
We thirst for God. We long for God’s presence in our lives. Sometimes, we question whether or how God is present. We get bored of waiting, or hardship, or God’s apparent silence, seems to knock the faith out of us. We get busy. Really busy. With important and urgent stuff. We often get distracted. (I think that if Sunday’s Gospel played out in my life today, I – pathetically – probably would have missed the child, not because I was having a theological argument with my friends, but because I was checking scores on my iPhone.)
And yet, through it all, we still thirst. We seek God. Somewhere deep in our being, we hope for the day when the Kingdom of God will bring peace, healing, justice and mercy into our lives and the lives of all people.
To us, time and time again, Jesus says, “The Kingdom of God is in your midst.”
But perhaps, on this one, Jesus can be fairly accused of imprecise language. For the Kingdom of God rarely broke forth in his midst – but usually just off to the side. Have time to look?
 This week’s Faithpoint is written by Fr. Lou DelFra, ACE director of Pastoral Life and resident of Keenan Hall.  He can be reached at
delfra.2@nd.edu
    The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.