3rd Sunday after Pentecost/ Proper 8
Jeremiah and Hananiah were both prophets of Israel during the exile in Babylon. The people of Israel had been carried off to be captives in a foreign land and all they really wanted to do was get back home, to their land, their temple and their way of life. Hananiah was preaching and prophesying about how all the temple vessels would be collected and returned to Jerusalem and that the exiles were about to be set free from their exile. Jeremiah, however, responded cordially, telling the assembly that he hoped what Hananiah was saying would come true, but that the real test of a prophet is when what he says actually happens. "The proof is in the pudding," as the saying goes. But Hananiah continued to predict that good times were just around the corner. He preached exactly what the people wanted to hear, rather than going the route of God’s truth, which was what Jeremiah was all about.
Jesus also decided not to take the easy way out. What Jesus had to say was exactly what God wanted him to say, but it was never easy, and rarely popular. Jesus spoke the truth, even when it was not what the people wanted to hear. Especially here in Matthew’s tenth chapter, Jesus has called his disciples, given them authority and sent them out to do God’s work. Today we hear about their rewards.
When I hear the word "rewards," I immediately think about perks, frequent-flyer bonus miles and coupons of some sort. But we know that following Jesus has its own inherent rewards. As Barbara Brown Taylor says, "What the Bible tells us over and over again—what our lives tell us—is that the only reward for doing God’s work is doing God’s work. Period."
So what is the "good news," the truth about being a disciple? Let’s face it, "What’s in it for me?" is not a biblical question! We don’t come and join a community of faith just for what we can get. We don’t "consume" relationships.
The truth is we yearn for a spiritual connection to God and a communal connection with our neighbor. We are made for love. We are stuck together to want the right things, those things that God wants, those things that are a reflection of who God desires us to be.
The lesson this morning from Matthew’s gospel is a lesson in hospitality. Jesus is so focused on welcoming the stranger that he uses the word “welcome” six times in two sentences.
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 a righteous person.
Explicit in the words of Jesus is the promise that, if you show hospitality, you will get a prize; in fact, you’ll get the same prize as the person receiving your hospitality. Here’s how it works; if you offer a meal to a prophet like Jeremiah, who was a great prophet, by the way, then you will get whatever reward Jeremiah gets, which is probably a pretty good reward. So it seems that the real challenge in this life is to figure out who the important people are – who the people are who have big rewards coming in heaven – and show hospitality to them. That is the logical conclusion of Jesus’ words.
That is, until the last verse in our gospel lesson, when Jesus throws us a curve. Did you hear it? “Whoever gives even a cup of water to one of these little ones – truly I tell you – none of these will ever lose their reward.” The point Jesus is making is this: if there is something to be gained by us showing hospitality, it’s not hospitality. If we are only kind to those of wealth and power, it’s not hospitality, it's bribery. If we only show hospitality to our relatives and friends, it’s just paying them back. “But” Jesus said, “if you so much as give a glass of water to a child, you will never lose your reward.”
During the time of Jesus if anyone asked another for a drink of water and if that request was honored, these two people had established a social contract of friendship for one year. The term "little ones" was the colloquial way of referring to the poor in the first century. In other words, what Jesus is saying here is whoever offers friendship to the poor, is offering friendship in my name. And, offering unconditional friendship and unconditional acceptance to people is the greatest gift we have to offer.
In almost every instance, when Jesus is speaking about kindness, or generosity, or hospitality, or welcome, he isn’t describing what ought to be done for the rich, or the famous, or the powerful; he is saying this is what ought to be done for everyone, but especially the powerless ones: the children, the grieving, the discouraged, the desperate, and the poor. If you show hospitality to these little ones, your reward will never be lost.
So, here Jesus is talking about hospitality among all of us. Whoever welcomes another welcomes Jesus and God the Father, because God is present in and among all of us. It is in showing hospitality that we encounter and experience the presence of God.
Whoever welcomes these welcomes Christ and the God who sent him. Whoever treats these with hospitality treats God with hospitality. For Christ is surely just as present in the poor, the outcast, and the visitor, as he is in each one of us.