Matthew 10:40–42 (NRSV)
40 “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. 41 Whoever welcomes a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward; and whoever welcomes a righteous person in the name of a righteous person will receive the reward of the righteous; 42 and whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple—truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.”
If you are like me, the tenth chapter of Matthew has always seemed a bit random. Last week we discussed the warring that Jesus will cause between Fathers and sons, Mothers and daughters, and mother-in-law and daughter-in-law, that Jesus said that he did not come to bring peace but a sword. I expressed how out of place that concept seemed for most of my journey with Christ. Then after all that random weirdness, Jesus begins to speak about welcoming people. If you are not careful while reading this chapter you might get whiplash, so proceed with caution.
Context is very important when we regard scripture. We need to know what the landscape around words are so we can understand them properly. Context does not only mean looking at the words before and after a passage, but also looking at the culture the document was written to, the local politics and social phenomena, as well as the demographic of population. We should always be cautious of reading our own understanding into a passage, because often we ourselves can become the greatest contributor of ignorance when we believe we already understand fully.
What is the context surrounding this passage? In the chapter proceeding, Jesus is speaking to his disciples and tells them that the fields are ripe and ready for harvesters, yet they did not have enough laborers to accomplish the task, so Jesus encouraged the disciples to pray that the Lord of the harvest would send laborers. The passage said that he was with his disciples so automatically we assume that the complete group of twelve were present. But Matthew had not mentioned twelve prior to opening of the tenth chapter. Up to that point the group of recorded disciples were Peter, Andrew, James, John, and Matthew. Of course, Jesus was active in ministry so it is likely there were more disciples but Matthew did not mention the amount prior to that point. What we do know is that Jesus told his most faithful followers that more people were needed to complete that task set before them.
After this discussion with his disciples, Matthew then makes his list of the disciples giving us the idea that they took seriously the encouragement to bring more disciples to Jesus. These disciples in turn were encouraged to go out preaching the gospel, healing the sick, raising the dead, cleansing the lepers, and casting out demons. They were to go out reflecting life and ministry that Jesus was demonstrating to them.
Can you imagine living that way? Living with that type of faith and boldness? The interesting thing is that Jesus specifically commanded them to only go to those in Judea. He commanded them not to venture into Samaria, or to the gentile populations living among them. This also seems odd since the great commission, the last command of Jesus before He returned to Heaven to sit at the right hand of the Father, was to go to Jerusalem, Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.
I have thought about this. The hardest people to share our faith with are the people who know who we were. When I talk to old classmates the initial reaction they give when I tell them I became a pastor is laughter. Why? They knew who I was. It is not because I was such a rebel in school, but it is because I was the one that dreaded speaking at any time. After the initial laughter, the second reaction is a statement saying that they should not be surprised because of how I acted in school. The people of Judea know the disciples, they lived next door and went to similar events. They knew the disciples. They knew that none of these men were asked to study with the rabbis after their initial education in the synagogue. They knew their wives, and their children. They knew what profession they took when they became adults and not one of these disciples were regarded as religious scholars. Imagine the reaction of the community when these men began to step out in faith.
The initial reaction: “Oh, you are part of that group that follows Beelzebub, that attracts all the pests of society.” And for the most part that is where the conversation stops. They withdraw wanting nothing to do with you. At times, the distaste might have escalated, and there were other times where they might have listened and made some decision to follow the Teacher as well. Jesus warned them about the divisions that would occur in various relationships. These divisions are even more pronounced on the foreign Mission Field where proclaim faith in Jesus can cause abandonment or death.
Jesus warned us that if we are to be obedient to His calling, we will face trials. He told them to begin at home, begin this ministry around those you know before you attempt to visit cultures you may not be accustomed too. Even at home there is risk. But the risk is easier to understand and navigate when it is a culture you know. Jesus tells them to stay in Judea first, so you can get your bearing as you begin this walk of discipleship.
So that is the setting of the passage. The ministry of the disciples is about to begin. They are just getting started and are feeling the initial pangs of rejection, and Jesus is encouraging them to continue the walk. And if we are honest they need all the encouragement they can get. It is hard to face ridicule, it is not easy to stand in faith when the people around you explain that very faith away using definitions that are contrary to the faith you are attempting to express. Their own countrymen were calling them children of Satan instead of part of the tribe of Israel. They come back to their teacher and their spirits are bleeding from the cuts their own families have inflicted. They stagger into camp wondering if they can continue, or if they ever really believed. Then Jesus says, “Whoever welcomes you welcomes Me.”
After all the discussion of swords coming to sever deep relationships, Jesus begins to tell them that there is much more than what your current experience is allowing you to see. Sure door will be closed to come relationships, but others will fill the void. Whoever welcomes…will have a reward. Jesus is telling us that the emotions we experience are very real, painfully real while we experience but be welcoming.
The concept of welcoming is striking. The sense of the term is to willingly accept or permit access to one’s company. To welcome another is to initiate a relationship or a friendship. These friendships are an integral part of life, becoming a balm to the painful divisions that may occur between those within and outside the faith. But who is welcomed? Jesus lists of sever categories of people: You, a prophet, the righteous, and the little ones. The welcoming community Jesus is describing is what we now call a church or Meeting.
The first category of people mentioned is You. Consider the wording. “Whoever welcomes you welcomes Me, and whoever welcomes Me welcomes the one who sent Me.” This first statement of welcoming is not directed to the individual disciple but it is to the community of disciples. When the community welcomes one who has expressed belief, they not only welcome an individual, they are also accepting into that community God who dwells within the image bearer. This discipline of being welcoming, the discipline of willingly accepting or permitting access to one’s company is a visual indication of the spiritual health of a Meeting. Are we looking for reasons to reject or limit access of individuals within our company or are we making efforts to assimilate them?
The second category spoken of is the prophet. The station of prophet is popular in many faith communities. Popular but often misunderstood. The prophet is one that speaks on behalf or interprets the will of the supernatural, or God. In the context of this passage the prophet is a minister or pastor. They are the ones that assist the community as they walk that pathways of faith together. The prophet proclaims the words God inspires them to speak, and they provide spiritual direction and discipline for those under their care. Jesus encourages the community to accept the prophets among them and by doing so they will share in the prophet’s reward. What is this reward? When Paul wrote to the Philippian Church he said, “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.” The reward of the prophet is to share in the life and lifestyle of Christ. To share in the teaching, the suffering, and the resurrection of Christ, and to pass that hope on to others. To welcome a prophet we welcome and participate in the life of Christ. Our acceptance of the prophets among us reflect our faith in Christ Himself. And hopefully the prophets among us recognize the weight of the station they bear within a community.
Next Jesus speaks of the righteous. The righteous in this sense are the ones within the community that show spiritual maturity in words and action. They are not necessarily prophets but they are people within the community that are well respected. In the Society of Friends we would call these people weighty Friends, which means their word carry weight in the decision making processes. The reward that we share by welcoming the righteous is peace and unity within the community.
Finally, “Whoever gives a cup of water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple – truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.” This circles around to the beginning you were welcomed so now you welcome others. Giving a cup of water to a little one is to provide nourishment to the least of these, or the seemingly insignificant among us. The term used can also refer to irrigation of a plant. So not only could it mean service to others, but also encouragement and counsel in faith. If we are part of the community we willing accept all people in our company and encourage them to deepen their faith from where they are now so that they will grow in faith. We show them the lifestyle of Jesus in our own lives. We reflect to them Jesus’ custom of worshiping in the meeting places, we encourage them to withdraw often to pray and if need be we pray with them, and we invite them to participate in service and ministry to the needs of those around us.
We do all of this not out of legal requirement, but because living a life of faith is extremely difficult. We are cut and harmed by those closest to us. We are ridiculed by those without faith, and we often feel alone. We welcome not because God needs us to gather together but because we need to gather together. We need to be encouraged and reminded of the most important things so we are not distracted by things that are fleeting. Be welcoming because you we welcomed. Be encouraging because you were encouraged. Give because you were given to. When the church stays focused on this we share in the reward. When we participate in the lifestyle of Christ together we begin to see God all around us working in and through the lives of the faithful even when the world outside seems chaotic.
The disciples were starting to take on a new role within the kingdom. Before they followed Jesus as he walked, now they were sent to take what they observed in Christ out to their communities. The command they were given is the same command God has always given love God, and love others. Willing accept and welcome those into the community and love them so that they will love God and others in return. There is such beauty in the holy rhythm Jesus gave to us. And as we pray and enter into this time of Holy Expectancy let us consider how well we are welcoming: You, our prophets, the righteous among us, and how well we serve water to the little ones.