Gospel: Matthew 10:40-42
When Jesus sends his disciples out as missionaries, he warns them of persecution and hardships they will face. He also promises to reward any who aid his followers and support their ministry.
[Jesus said to the twelve:] 40“Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. 41Whoever 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; 42and 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.”
Jonas Salk, the researcher who discovered a cure for polio right here in Pittsburgh is quoted as saying. “The reward for work well done is the opportunity to do more.” Isn’t that always the case? You do something well, you succeed at your work, and you get more work to do. Jesus has been speaking to the disciples about their mission and the challenges they’ll face, and now he gets to the reward.
He mentions reward three times in today’s gospel – a prophet’s reward and the reward of the righteous – and the reward of those who even just give a cup of cold water. The Greek word translated “reward” is more like, they’ll get what’s coming to them for their work, they’ll get what they deserve good or bad, it carries connotations of something earned.
According to the Gospel of Matthew, what the prophets usually received was not positive. Jeremiah certainly received his fair share of rejection, even though in this text he succeeds at his mission. What about the reward of the righteous? Think of the beatitudes and who the kingdom of heaven belongs to. According to the Gospel of Matthew, those who those who suffer persecution for righteousness’ sake – theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
But what’s the reward coming to those who give cups of cold water to little ones? Ask anyone who’s had a kid. OR taken care of a child. Chances are good that you may not get a thank you and that cup of water will get spilled out in about 30 seconds. Watch a 5-year-old carrying a full cup of juice across a carpet and try not to hold your breath. But you’d never not give a thirsty child a cup of cold water, even knowing it could be recklessly spilled or received without thanks. You’d just do it because the child is thirsty.
How is the job of the disciple like handing out cups of cold water to little ones? Jesus’ words today are about reward, but they are also about welcome. Welcoming strangers and neighbors alike requires us to put ourselves out there. To share ourselves, to open our home, to receive company we did not choose. As we would receive Jesus himself.
It’s not a complicated welcome, it’s meeting a need, and sharing something we have. Not based on deservedness or merit, but on thirst. Though sometimes, you’re the cup itself, as we are called to give ourselves away. Being poured out in service to others, sometimes means you get dumped on the ground. Share the good news, realizing you may get no thanks for it, or any response at all, but knowing that a thirst may have been satisfied.
If this word translated reward means getting what we deserve, then we would do well to remember the parable of the vineyard workers getting what they deserve. The first group hired, who were paid last, received what they had earlier agreed they deserved for a day’s work. The other workers received what the landowner determined they deserved — and his criteria for “giving what they deserved” wasn’t quite what the first workers (nor most of us) would have expected.
God’s economy is so much different than ours, operating out of abundance, not scarcity. The welcome never runs out, those who may perceive themselves as undeserving receive free gifts. A righteous person is righteous before God, not based on their merit, or good works, but based on Christ’s righteousness, on Christ’s faithfulness. Our salvation is not based on what we deserve, but what we inherit as children of God. We don’t have to prove ourselves, or work for his love and grace – we have it – and so we get to work and share it.
No one reminds us more eloquently than Barbara Brown Taylor that we are not “consumers” but “providers of God’s love”: “In a world that can be hard and scary sometimes, it is tempting to think of the church as a hideout, the place where those of us who know the secret password can gather to celebrate our good fortune. As we repeat our favorite stories and eat the food that has been prepared for us, it is tempting to think of ourselves as consumers of God’s love, chosen people who have been given more good gifts than we can open at one sitting: healing, forgiveness, restoration, resurrection. Then one day the Holy Spirit comes knocking at the door, disturbing our members-only meeting and reminding us that it is time to share.”
We are sent bodily into this world. Thoughts and prayers and ideas won’t do it, if we are being called to serve. When we embody Christ’s mission to heal and set free, to feed and to forgive, we enter into a kind of communion with him, just as Jesus lives and moves in communion with the One who sent him. In other words, Jesus being or presence or body — “the Body of Christ” — is constituted by his mission.
I was privileged to witness an ordination this weekend and recalled my own ordination and the words of encouragement and challenge the bishop spoke to us.
“…care for God’s people, bear their burdens, and do not betray their confidence. So discipline yourselves in life and teaching that you preserve the truth, giving no occasion for false security or illusory hope. Witness faithfully in word and deed to all people. Give and receive comfort as you serve within the church. And be of good courage, for God has called you, and your labor in the Lord is not in vain.”
These are words for pastors to cling to, but not only pastors. In your baptism you were set apart to serve the world, Christ’s hands, and feet, working to share good news in a variety of ways. And this work takes courage, but the reward you receive is not based on your work, but on your faith and trust in God’s promises. One of the charges pastors receive is to give no occasion for false security or illusory hope. You will not receive a thousand dollars if you forward that Christian chain mail from your cousin. God will not answer your prayers on the basis of how much you have put in the offering plate. There are no good or easy answers for why some churches die and some go plugging along. We are not here because we are good people or the right kind of people who have it all together. There is no guarantee for anything in this life besides the love of God, and any preacher who tells you different must not have heard the same vows I did.
There is only the mission of Christ. There are only small cups of cold water and a welcoming embrace. Sharing and forgiving. And starting anew each day. It is not the reward and promise of distant glory that drives us, but our common life together reaching for the glimpses of the kingdom of heaven right here and now. Discipleship doesn’t have to be heroic. Like all the small acts of devotion, tenderness, and forgiveness that go largely unnoticed but tend the relationships that are most important to us, so also the life of faith is composed of a thousand small gestures.
Except that, according to Jesus, there is no small gesture. Anything done in faith and love has cosmic significance for the ones involved and, indeed, for the world God loves so much. Because Jesus has promised to come in time to redeem all in love, to fix all damage, heal all hurts, and wipe the tears from every eye, we can in the meantime devote ourselves to acts of mercy and deeds of compassion small and large, not trying to save the world — Jesus has promised to do that! — but simply trying to care for the little corner of the world in which we have been placed.
Pastor Erin Evans