By Debie Thomas

The danger in approaching this week’s Gospel passage is that we’ll dismiss it as straightforward. “Whoever welcomes a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward,” Jesus tells his disciples in our reading from Matthew. “Whoever welcomes a righteous person in the name of a righteous person will receive the reward of the righteous, and 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.”

It would be easy to walk away from these verses thinking, “Sure, no problem! Jesus wants me to be welcoming? Jesus wants my church to give out water bottles? Hey, I’m great at hospitality! Our church donates groceries every week! Been there, done that, Jesus! What’s next?”

But Jesus’s message is not that simple. The instructions he gives his disciples in this passage are not about extending welcome. They’re about receiving welcome. They’re about what it looks like and feels like for followers of Jesus to accept welcome in Jesus’s name. More specifically — given the Revised Common Lectionary’s wise pairing of this Gospel with a fascinating story from the book of Jeremiah — this lesson is about welcoming prophets. It’s about the risks and rewards of extending hospitality to God’s provocative, discomfiting, and truth-telling messengers.

If we’re willing to take a deeper look at these passages, here are some things we might notice:

We’re meant to minister from the margins: I imagine this will come as a surprise to many Christians. The majority of us in the West are not used to occupying the margins; we’re used to occupying the center. We’re used to being the ones who wield institutional and cultural power over the people we set out to help. We’re accustomed to being the privileged ones who benevolently extend welcome, generosity, charity, and hospitality to others less privileged than ourselves.

This isn’t entirely bad. But it was decidedly not the case in Jesus’s day. When Jesus sent his disciples out into the world to share the good news of God’s kingdom, he sent them out as vulnerable outsiders. They had no religious institutions to back their efforts. No political tools to wield. No cultural capital to spend. They had no power at all, save the power of the Holy Spirit moving through them to heal and serve. Jesus told his first messengers to carry nothing — no money, no food, no extra clothes. He told them to assume a posture of extreme humility, and depend wholly on the hospitality of the people they wished to serve. Even the simplest, most basic of their needs — the need for a cup of cold water on a sunscorched afternoon — would have to be met by others.

What does this mean for us 21st century Christians? I wonder if it means we need to reexamine our cozy relationship with power, and redefine our place in the wide world Jesus loves. Clearly, he thought there was great value in ministering from the margins. He wanted Christian witness to flow from humility and vulnerability — not from complacency and comfort. He wanted his good news to be preached from a place unencumbered and untainted by the temptations and corruptions of human power. He wanted the message of God’s saving love to come from dependent outsiders. From the edges of society, not the center.

I hear a lot of lament these days, about the declining influence and authority of the Church in Western culture. Certainly, there are legitimate reasons to worry and to grieve. But what if decentering is a good thing for Christianity? What if we need to learn the art of receiving welcome before we can extend it honestly in Christ’s name? What if the people we sideline as recipients of our charity are actually meant to be our teachers?

The reward is for the small gesture: Jesus tells his disciples that the people who welcome them will be richly rewarded. Notice here that the prize is not only for the keynote speaker, the celebrity prophet, or the charismatic star at the microphone. The prize also goes to the person who serves. It goes to the one who hears the doorbell and opens the door. It goes to the one who hangs up the coats, washes the feet, pours the cool drinks, and sets and clears the table.

In other words, the hierarchies we cherish within our religious institutions are not the hierarchies that matter to Jesus. The essential workers aren’t always the people we glamorize. Rather, the small gesture and the invisible kindness are what please God, who sees everything we do in secret. What is rewarded is the quiet, unglamorous meeting of basic human need. Why? Because it is in the offering of such simple, essential gifts that Jesus’s kingdom announces itself. Jesus came to bring abundant life, and that life begins with the most elemental of gestures. “Even a cup of cold water?” Yes, even that.

We mirror Jesus, whether we plan to or not: “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.” Are we listening? I hope so, because this is a staggering claim. What would happen if we took it seriously? Or even literally? How would our behaviors and attitudes change if we believed that other people see Jesus every time they look at us? What would happen to the Church and to the world if we operated on the assumption that Jesus is visible in and through us at every moment, in every interaction, in every relationship, encounter, conversation, and conflict? What sense of burden or obligation would we feel in our homes, our marriages, our workplaces, and our extended families? Would we tread more lightly on the earth? Speak less and listen more? Reconsider our grudges and grievances? Choose our words with greater care? Examine our motivations more closely?

What Jesus handed to his disciples when he commissioned them for ministry was his own reputation, his own character, his own standing in the world. What a risk he took, and what a responsibility we bear!

The goal isn’t popularity: In our Old Testament reading this week, two prophets deliver messages to God’s people. The year is 594 B.C.E. The Babylonians have conquered Jerusalem, captured many of its leaders, and carried them into exile. The small band of people who remain in the wrecked city long for the Babylonian oppression to end, and their city to be restored to freedom and glory. They long to hear a word of deliverance from God.

Along comes the prophet Hananiah. Standing before the priests and the people who have gathered at the temple, he announces that God has broken the power of the Babylonians. The time of exile is over, he says. Everything the people have lost is about to be restored, God has promised his people a quick and easy deliverance, and the time has come for celebration.

Needless to say, this is exactly the message the people wish to hear. The hard times are over! There’s no more struggle to be had! God is going to fix everything! Hananiah’s is a message of comfort, reassurance, and triumph. A message of nationalist hope, divine favor, and easy victory. A message to stir the heart and placate the conscience.

The only problem is, it’s not a message from God. The message from God comes through Jeremiah, the “weeping prophet,” who shows up at the temple wearing a yoke around his shoulders. A literal yoke, symbolizing the bondage inflicted by the Babylonians. Jeremiah condemns Hananiah’s prophecy as false and dangerous. You’re offering cheap comfort and false hope to God’s people, Jeremiah tells the rival prophet. True peace is not nearly so easy, and God’s favor is not something human beings should take for granted.

Jeremiah then reminds Hananiah that Israel’s true prophets — even those from ancient times — have prophesied war, famine, and pestilence. In other words, they have dared to tell God’s people hard and holy truths. Hard truths about God’s anger, disappointment, and grief. Hard truths about the need for repentance and return. Hard truths about the high cost of justice. Hard truths about patience, longsuffering, and sacrifice.

The Babylonian exile will not end quickly, Jeremiah says. God’s people will have to wait and pray and surrender and repent. No, Jeremiah can’t offer them a pleasant or popular message. He can only offer them the truth.

Of course, “welcome” takes on a whole different meaning when we think about it in light of this Old Testament story. It’s easy for the Israelites to welcome smooth-talking Hananiah. It’s altogether harder to welcome weird, weepy Jeremiah with the bizarre yoke around his neck. Imagine the risk Jeremiah has to take, speaking truths no one wants to hear. What if no one offers him a cup of cold water when he’s done prophesying? What if every door in town slams shut at his approach?

What’s the takeaway for us? I believe it’s a call to radical, risky honesty, a call to take our vocation as truth-tellers very seriously. As God’s messengers in the world, we are not at liberty to soften the Gospel for the sake of our own likeability. Jesus has not commissioned us to say whatever is trendy or comfortable or easy or popular. He has commissioned us to say what is true. False hope is not God’s hope. Easy peace is not God’s peace. And convenient justice is not God’s justice.

“Whoever welcomes a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward.” The implication, of course, is that not everyone will welcome authentic prophets. Not everyone will open the door, receive Christ’s message, and offer us the glass of water we hope for. But that doesn’t excuse our inaction. The message is still, “Go.” The message is still, “Speak.” The message is still, “Carry God’s image out into the world, and do so with reverence, gentleness, humility, truthfulness, and love.” Yes, there is great risk involved. Of course there is. But there is also reward.

Debie Thomas:

Image credits: (1) Immanuel Presbyterian Church, Tucson, Arizona USA; (2) Bread for Beggars; and (3) Other Food: daily devos.

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