On the 4th Sunday after Pentecost, in Year A of the lectionary, we finish our three-week journey through Matthew 10. It started out with Jesus preparing his disciples for a mission trip. His lessons morphed into warnings of much later persecutions. And now we get this tiny reading which is ostensibly the conclusion of the same speech.
In content Matthew 10:40-42 could either be a return to Jesus’ advice about the mission trip, or a somewhat cheerier continuation of his warnings about future ministry and persecution.
He starts with the welcome the disciples hope for in their ministry, then riffs rather poetically about people who welcome prophets and the righteous, and finally the kind of practical care one might offer to a child or any old disciple.
At three verses it’s as short a Gospel reading as you are likely to find in the lectionary. Perhaps my meditations will be similarly brief.
The three verses have a rhythmic structure, repeating and echoing clauses like stanzas of a poem.
Whoever welcomes you…
Whoever welcomes a prophet…
Whoever welcomes a righteous person
The theme is easy to pick up on. Being welcomed, and welcoming others, hospitality — it really matters.
For the moment let’s focus on the context.
The disciples are going out in mission. They don’t know who they will stay with as they travel. Earlier he told them how they will have to depend on the hospitality of strangers. Practically, they must take no extra supplies. Instead they are to find someone “worthy” and “greet” the person’s house, and let their “peace” rest upon it — or not, if they are not offered a “welcome.” (See Matthew 10:9–15.)
So now, at the end of the speech, he returns to the topic. They go in his service, and the welcome they are offered is credited as welcoming him. And of course welcoming him is credited as welcoming his Father who sent him.
It echoes forward to the parable of the last judgment in Matthew 25, when any compassionate action done to someone in need is credited as being done to Christ — and likewise, the lack of compassionate action is credited as being undone to Christ. (See Matthew 25:31-46.)
Ah, so welcoming others really is important. Hmm… And it isn’t just welcoming those who are just like you. They might be prophets, or righteous people. Maybe they are just strangers, people in need.
The emphasis on welcoming a traveling apostle or prophet, a righteous person or a disciple, brings back memories of recent readings. In my online reading group (comment or email if curious) we worked through four texts that provided windows into the worship life of Christians in the early centuries — works like the “Didache” and the “Apostolic Tradition.”
In some of these, especially the earliest, there were explicit instructions on how to treat traveling apostles and prophets. These remained active categories of folks in itinerant ministry for some time. The church had to develop policies making sure they were properly welcomed.
Then they needed policies to make sure they were properly sent packing again after a few days. There was, it seems, some temptation among itinerant ministers to take advantage of the community’s hospitality.
But what does it mean to “welcome” someone? That’s what I think Jesus was getting at in the last verse of our reading. The first three stanzas had simply called for us to “welcome” people. That might seem like a hearty handshake, or a bow if that’s culturally appropriate (or a lame elbow bump if you happen to find yourself in a pandemic).
You know: Smile, give a hearty greeting and a slap on the back. You’re done.
But the final stanza is more pragmatic:
…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.
Matthew 10:42 NRSV
It’s a bit enigmatic. What’s perfectly clear is that the welcome offered is practical help, providing what is really needed.
- When he says “little ones” is he pointing to a kid in the crowd? That’s what seems to be happening in other texts with similar phrasing.
- Or does he mean “anyone,” or “anyone in need” like “the least of these” in chapter 25?
- When he says to give the water “in the name of a disciple,” does he mean “because the person you give water to bears the name ‘disciple’?”
- Or does he mean “give it because you who give the water bear the name ‘disciple’?”
There may be some way to figure that out with confidence, but I’m not going hunting for perfection today.
Instead I’ll offer you the slightly expansive paraphrase:
Whichever of you gives a cup of cold water
to anyone in need, the least of these members of my family,
Because you are called my disciple
You won’t lose your reward!
It starts with water for the thirsty. Not because the thirsty are like us, or because they happen to be especially worthy, or because they have a particular right to water that others might not have. Rather we are to give them water because they are human beings and because they are thirsty.
In recent memory, in my country, people have been punished for trying to provide water for thirsty refugees traveling through desert wastes to ask asylum. May they not lose their reward.
And may each of us start by providing water and other basic needs for people who need the help, not because they are in our group, but because they are made in God’s image.
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