Sunday, 29 June 2014

A Welcoming People

Matthew 10:40 offers us a massive theological statement – whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.  There are fairly strong echoes of Matthew 25 here – for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me.  And the puzzle is how this was so – until Jesus explains: just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.  The big message from Matthew 10:40 and from Matthew 25 is that we serve Christ by serving others. 

In a sense this is one of those obvious things that we have heard so often and that comes through the Biblical account in so many places.  The law in the Old Testament urges on us the care of those who will otherwise struggle.  Jesus, in one of the most famous of the parables, that which we usually refer to as the good Samaritan, encourages us to love our neighbour.
Yet, if we are honest, it, too often, remains as something that we find challenging.  We don’t mind loving nice neighbours.  We don’t mind loving those who do things the same way that we do.  We don’t mind loving those who are our kind of people.  But Jesus doesn’t allow us to put on those kinds of restriction.  As one commentator[1] says: “Sometimes love is met with crucifixion; yet we are called to love in the midst of hate – even in those times where it appears that hatred has won.”

So one of the main things to draw from this verse, perhaps the main thing is that we are to be a welcoming people.  We are to be people of hospitality.  We could even go further and say that we are called to be people who offer compassionate hospitality.
But then, and I find this a little bit surprising, and so interesting, Matthew goes on to say something about the rewards we will get for doing this – whoever welcomes a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward .. etc..  We all like rewards, don’t we?  Gold stars on our school papers as children.  Praise from parents and teachers as we get older.  Perhaps a medal or a plaque or a certificate if we do something special.  We all appreciate recognition.

But why does Jesus offer this prospect of rewards in this context?  That’s an interesting question – but perhaps it is the wrong question?  Perhaps the important question is rather about just what Jesus means?  Is it that the kind of reward to which he is referring is something like getting a special certificate – or even like getting a bonus with our pay?  Or is it just possibly the case that Jesus wants to remind us that living the right way, living a life of compassionate hospitality, being a welcoming person, carries rewards within itself.[2] 
Thomas Merton, the American Catholic and mystic, said this: “Love seeks one thing only: the good of the one loved.  It leaves all the other secondary effects to take care of themselves.  Love, therefore, is its own reward.”  And a minister and writer called Hugh Prather similarly said: “To live for results would be to sentence myself to continuous frustration.  My only sure reward is in my actions and not from them.”

If we are in the right place, if we are doing the right thing, then that in itself will provoke a sufficient feeling of wellbeing as to be its own reward.  Let’s look at it another way. 
In Matthew 19:27 Peter says to Jesus: Look, we have left everything and followed you.  What then will we have?  It is the kind of question that any disciple in any situation might ask.  What am I learning?  What does it mean to me and for me to be a disciple?  Although in terms of Matthew’s written Gospel this question comes in a later chapter, the words that we have quoted from Matthew 10, and indeed much of what is in chapter 10, answers such a question.  In this chapter Jesus says lots of things that help the disciples to understand something of what is involved in their discipleship.  Essentially Jesus is saying that God values us and our contribution – and surely that is reward enough.  Earlier in the chapter, and particularly towards the beginning, Jesus has talked about various possibilities for discipleship, some of which will have seemed quite challenging to some of the people.  But in the final three verses of this chapter is a reminder that discipleship is for all, and that there is a role for each one of us.  Here is a description of something we can all do, welcoming people, even if it is just offering a cup of cold water, more likely a cup of tea in our terms. 

And when we welcome as we should, who knows what will happen, what we will discover?  A widow in Zarephath offered to share her last tiny bit of food and discovered she was sharing it with God’s prophet.  A little boy gave his lunch to Jesus and discovered he was sharing it with a crowd of five thousand.  And two people arriving home at Emmaus invited the stranger they had met on the road to stay only to discover, as bread was broken, that they had walked the road with Jesus himself.  As St. Francis reputedly said: “it is in giving that we receive,”

[1] Emilie Townes in ‘Feasting on the Word’
[2] Some of this thinking was inspired by Alyce McKenzie’s ‘Edgy Exegesis’ which I accessed via  The two quotes in the next paragraph are re-quoted from there.

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