40 “Those who receive you are also receiving me, and those who receive me are receiving the one who sent me. 41 Those who receive a prophet as a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward. Those who receive a righteous person as a righteous person will receive a righteous person’s reward. 42 I assure you that everybody who gives even a cup of cold water to these little ones because they are my disciples will certainly be rewarded.” (CEB)
A United Methodist pastor family I know used to live in a parsonage next door to the church he served. That meant they often had people knocking on their door, and often late in the evening. One such encounter had a Hispanic man show up with his teenage daughter and son. The father actually waited by the church steps so as not to alarm the pastor’s family. This father didn’t speak English well, so his children translated as the two families sat together on the front steps of the church to talk. The father was on his way to Michigan where he had gotten a job, and they were fleeing a bad situation with an abusive mother in their former location. The man showed the pastor all of his court paperwork, showing he had custody of his children and the documentation of his job offering up north.
After listening to their story, the pastor invited them into his family’s home. They talked some more, shared some food, and invited the travelers to stay the night with them and their toddler and newborn. The man didn’t want to impose that much on the pastor’s family so, instead, the pastor’s wife made some calls and put them up in the only available bed & breakfast in town. The man looked at the pastor and his wife and said through his children, “You aren’t from here, are you?” To which the pastor and his wife responded, “No. Why?” The man said, “Because everyone else in this town has given us dirty looks. Even at the gas station when we filled up, people looked at us like they hate us. You’re different. That’s how I know you’re not from here.”
I like that story for several reasons. First, it’s a great example of hospitality to strangers. Second, it begs the questions, How do others to perceive us, and how do we want others to perceive us?
Admittedly, when taken at face-value, this text doesn’t appear to be one that has a whole lot of direct relevancy for most modern congregations. These words are the last of Jesus’ missionary discourse where he sent out the apostles like sheep among wolves (10:16), without money, a backpack, extra clothes, or a walking stick (10:9-10). These words are about those who will potentially receive the apostles on their missionary journey. If we take the text as is within its context, if the apostles come to your door, then make sure you welcome them. Then again, if that were to happen, then it likely means the Day of Resurrection is upon us and there might not be much to worry about because all Heaven is about to break loose.
We know Jesus is talking about hospitality, but the meaning of the Greek text and the English translations is a bit of a pain. First off, where the Common English Bible translation says, “as a prophet” and “as a righteous person” the Greek is literally, “in the name of [εἰς ὄνομα],” which is how the New Revised Standard Version translates it. But what that means in Greek and how we’re supposed to render that meaning into English isn’t clear. In addition to “as” and the more literal “in the name of” it could also mean “because.” Whoever welcomes a prophet or a righteous person simply because they are those things will receive the appropriate reward.
The “reward [μισθὸν]” part isn’t clear either. In fact, the Greek word has a more neutral connotation. It simply means recompense, or remuneration for work that has been done. It can be either reward or punishment depending on the work or deed. It’s kind of like getting your just deserts. And, what is the reward? When is it given? Is it some future thing like heavenly treasures, or do you get a sticker or a sucker right away like my kids do when they go to the doctor? You were good. Here, pick a sucker out of the basket.
Neither is it clear what is meant by “a righteous person [δίκαιον],” especially in regard to the sending of the apostles. Do these labels, Prophet and Righteous Person, apply to all the apostles? And, who are the “little ones [μικρῶν τούτων]”? Many scholars say it’s a reference to the apostles because it’s a part of the Missionary Discourse. To me, however, there appears to be a theological connection to the “least [ἐλαχίστων]” in the parable of the sheep and the goats. (Matthew 25:31-46). In that sense, we could interpret this as a reversal of the expected hierarchy. If a prophet or a righteous person came to town, it would be expected that they would be properly hosted and shown hospitality. They would probably receive multiple invitations to be hosted by many families of good standing, and they could take their pick.
But these “little ones”—whether they are the apostles or anyone of low status—wouldn’t necessarily have a significant social or religious standing. If these words are connected to the “least of these” in Matthew 25, then Jesus means to tells us that giving a cup of cold water to a little one would result in the highest reward.
There’s also the fact that our point of view as the readers of this text seems to change multiple times. In some instances, we’re the apostles who are being sent out, we’re the ones to whom the apostles are sent, we’re the ones called to give a cup of water to the little ones, and we are the little ones to whom the water is given.
For only being three verses in length, the words of Jesus sure do bring up a lot of questions. So, here’s what I propose. Instead of having to choose whether the “littles ones” are the apostles or someone of low socio-economic or religious status, it might behoove us to read it as inclusive of both. I think that’s how Jesus would want us to understand it. And, despite the apparent lack of direct relevancy for modern congregations that I mentioned earlier, there is something incredibly—profoundly—relevant for us to get from this. Even if these words were meant specifically for the apostles in that moment of being sent out, the Gospels were written for us.
And, the kind of hospitality Jesus expected his apostles to receive is an extension of a larger matter of hospitality that is rooted in God’s very nature. God is love, and that love surrounds us whether we’re worthy or not, whether we’re righteous or not, whether we’re religious or not. God is the one who hosts us every day. Everything we can sense belongs to God. Even the stuff we can’t sense was created by God. We are the recipients of God’s immense hospitality, and we are meant to show we are grateful by showing hospitality and welcome to others no matter who they are, what their story is, or where they come from.
Across the Old Testament, God commands that we show hospitality and welcome to people. Exodus 22:21 says, “Don’t mistreat or oppress an immigrant, because you were once immigrants in the land of Egypt” (CEB). It’s pretty straightforward. Don’t mistreat or oppress people who are different from you. Then, Leviticus 19:34 gets a little more specific. It says: “Any immigrant who lives with you must be treated as if they were one of your citizens. You must love them as yourself, because you were immigrants in the land of Egypt; I am the LORD your God” (CEB). In fact, twice in Leviticus 19, God tells the people, “you must love your neighbor as yourself” (19:18 CEB). Love is the primary characteristic of the Christian.
That call to love our neighbor is taken up three times in Matthew’s Gospel. “You have heard that it was said, You must love your neighbor and hate your enemy. But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who harass you so that you will be acting as children of your Father who is in heaven. He makes the sun rise on both the evil and the good and sends rain on both the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love only those who love you, what reward do you have? Don’t even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing? Don’t even the Gentiles do the same? Therefore, just as your heavenly Father is complete in showing love to everyone, so also you must be complete” (Matthew 5:43-48 CEB).
Our job is to love others: even our enemies! Our job is not to be the gate. Jesus already has that role covered, and this is what he says on the matter. He likens the Kingdom of Heaven to a net that people cast into the sea to gather all kinds of fish. They hauled it ashore and started to separate the good fish from the bad fish. Then, he says it will be like that at the end of the present age. The angels will separate the good from the bad. Not us. We, the church, are the net. We’re to fling our arms open wide and welcome anyone we can. If there’s any separating that needs doing, God’s angles will take care of that. We don’t.
If God’s hospitality is offered to everyone without limitation, then ours should be, too. When it comes to welcoming prophets or righteous people, we can’t tell who they are by looking at them. Our call is to welcome people with simple, basic acts of kindness. With each opportunity that presents itself, God invites us to extend genuine hospitality to each other. This kind of compassionate welcome is how we approach one another through the love of God. When we put the grace-filled hospitality of God’s love at the center of our lives and our relationships—even the difficult relationships—we are living into God’s expectations of discipleship. When we do that, when we live into showing hospitality, we are often the ones who feel rewarded.
That pastor family still remembers the Hispanic man and his children who visited them that night. To them, it wasn’t merely an opportunity to host a poor man and his two children who were passing through town. That night, they hosted Christ, and that will stay with them forever. “Those who receive you are also receiving me, and those who receive me are receiving the one who sent me” (Matthew 10:40 CEB).
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!