This Sunday, we'll hear the third and final installment of Jesus' instructions to his disciples in Matthew 10. First, we heard about him sending them out as sheep in the midst of wolves. Then, yesterday, we heard about the need to proclaim boldly the message that he gave them despite the conflict it may cause. This week, in Matthew 10:40-42, we'll hear Jesus speak of the other side of that rejection and describe the reward that those who welcome the disciples and their message will receive.
Like any preacher, Jesus runs the risk of obscuring his message with a vivid image, and this is one of those cases when I find myself in danger of focusing more on the thing that Jesus uses to convey his message than the message itself: "...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."
That cup of cold water--I can see it; I can feel it on my lips; I can see it in my hand as I offer it to a thirsty prophet. Many times, I have thought of this passage as I have offered a cup of water to someone who walks into our office seeking financial assistance. I don't say that as a credit to myself. On the contrary, I say it as a gentle condemnation that to equate Matthew 10:42 with giving a thirsty person a drink of water is to miss the point of the passage entirely. As sinfully satisfied as it makes me feel, giving someone some water isn't what Jesus is asking me to do. He's asking me to welcome the prophet and provide for him or her. A cup of water is nice, but, if I'm only trying to satisfy the letter of this verse and move the supplicant along quickly so that I can get back to work, I haven't really done anything.
Notice again the rest of the passage.
Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. 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.Don't lose sight of the rest of it because you're still thinking about that cup of water. What does it mean to welcome someone in Jesus' name--to the extent that we are not only welcoming the person but also Jesus and, along with him, the Father who sent him? What does it mean to welcome a prophet like that? What does it mean to welcome a righteous person like that? Isn't it more than a cup of water?
Jesus' words about the cup of cold water are a reminder that even small gestures are significant, but he isn't asking us to make the small gesture the focus. That's getting the instruction backwards. Instead of saying to ourselves, "I offered a cup of water; I've done what Jesus asked," we should think, "How can I welcome this person as I would welcome Jesus, knowing that even if a cup of water is all I can offer I will have done something?"
The promise Jesus gives to those who welcome the prophet, the righteous person, the little one, is that they will receive their reward. This gesture of hospitality is transformative. By it, we are blessed by Jesus. I think the real power of this passage is found when we stop expecting Jesus to reach down from heaven and sprinkle some magic blessing on us when we give someone a cup of cold water and instead consider the encounter itself as the source of the blessing. How might the act of being hospitable to a prophet bestow upon us that reward? How might that realization change our hospitality? If we expect to leave that encounter blessed and transformed, would we give more than a cup of water? Would we give more than five minutes? Would we give more than a passing thought?
The good news, Jesus tells us, is that all gestures of hospitality receive a reward. Even a cup of cold water is appreciated. But could it be more?