Welcome Home (Jeremiah 28:5-9; Matthew 10:40-42)
Let me remind you that our journey through Ordinary Time is intended to emphasize the teaching of Jesus. This year the Revised Common Lectionary takes the Gospel of Matthew as its primary source for that teaching in dialogue with the other lessons. As we began Ordinary Time, we started by putting God at the centre and emphasizing how Jesus is the lens through which we see God. We followed that up by emphasizing that Christian life is a journey that begins and ends with God in Christ. We illustrated the beginning of the journey with baptism. Last week, we saw that it makes a difference how we look at our journey, and that it is a costly journey that contains within it many struggles and challenges. It sometimes stretches us to see God at work. Today, as we complete the action we began when we baptized Sawyer and have received him into our congregation in a new way, we take up the theme of what kind of community this community of faith in Jesus really is. How do we journey together? What do we get and what do we give?
Once Matthew’s Gospel had finished with stories of Jesus’ birth and baptism and got him launched into ministry, he portrayed Jesus as a great teacher in what we call the Sermon on the Mount in chapters 5-7, and, then in chapters 8-9 as one who ministered to the needs of many. In these chapters Matthew told the stories of ten people Jesus healed as representatives of the many in Israel to whom Jesus brought wholeness. He healed folks that didn’t count for anything in the eyes of the powerful. He healed those in the grip of darkness and chaos, even including that ultimate human chaos of death. It was not business as usual for Jesus. To him all lives mattered, not just the ones that are like us.
After listening to and watching all this, Jesus’ disciples, or students, asked him what students have always asked: “Is this going to be on the exam”? Jesus, in essence said, “Yeah, it is, and that exam is doing what I do.” So, in Matthew chapter 10 Jesus addressed his disciples and said, “It can’t be business as usual for you either.” You can’t retro-fit your discipleship to me into some pre-existent model. If you try it’ll be like putting new wine in old wineskins, that will burst them and ruin everything. This passage is paralleled in the Gospel of Luke, but there, Jesus’ charge is followed up by the actual mission and return. Here in Matthew’s Gospel we hear nothing about the mission or the debriefing of the disciples after it, so that Matthew’s version isn’t so much a case-study reflection on a past incident as it is a charge for disciples ready to go into mission in any age. It’s kind of like a commencement address, although, hopefully more useful than most of those. Matthew’s Jesus told disciples to travel light, not to get bogged down with stuff and with structures, and even with things many of us would consider basic necessities. He emphasized that doing his work was dangerous and difficult, as we saw with Jeremiah’s lesson last week, and needed courage and creativity. He even quoted the Old Testament prophet Micah to the effect that, when new things come it often even divides families: sons from fathers, daughters from mothers, daughters-in-law from mothers-in law. We looked at those words in last week’s Gospel Lesson.
Jesus wanted disciples to know that, although his message is ultimately one of wholeness, grace, love, and mercy, it will not always be received that way because his message is about justice, which leads to a necessary sharing of privilege and power. People do not like that to happen. Sometimes even the downtrodden and misused continue to support and choose the structures that marginalize and misuse them. This is not just an ancient issue.
At the end of Jesus’ response to his disciples question “Is this going to be on the exam”? we find our Gospel Lesson for today.
“Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. Whoever welcomes a prophet because they’re a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward; and whoever welcomes a righteous person because they’re 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.”
The first sentence is based in Hebrew legal practice which stated that whoever received an official messenger of someone legally received the one who sent the messenger. If I appoint you as my messenger and you go on my behalf, when someone receives you, they, legally, receive me.
One of the most important questions to ask when reading and interpreting the Bible, and one I always ask of students: Tell me, “Who is addressed”? When Jesus says, “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me…” who is “you”? The answer is not totally straightforward here. If we imagine (as many of us have been taught to do) that this is simply a story recorded from the time of Jesus, it’s the twelve disciples. And, on one level, I suppose that’s true, but if we realize that this story is being told by Matthew 60 years after Jesus’ death and resurrection, the “you” is disciples in his day – his congregation. If we imagine, further, however, as we’re intended to do, that Jesus is addressing you and me right here today, the “you” is “us!” and this is about what Jesus expects of us.
This first sentence is all about what we do as a congregation when we go out into mission, and assures us that whoever welcomes what we do in Jesus’ name welcomes Jesus himself, and whoever welcomes Jesus welcomes the One who sent him (God). That’s about what we do, and the very least we can do as disciples is make sure that when people identify us with Jesus that our values and actions are his values and like his actions. If they’re not, those to whom we go will still identify us with Jesus, and worse, sometimes, Jesus with us. And Jesus is burdened with values he neither had nor taught.
When we turn to the next two verses about rewards and prophets, righteous people and little ones. What’s that about? I suggest to you that here we change the perspective from how we do mission out there in the world, to how we welcome people who come in here. And, again, if the “your” here is “us, then it refers to this congregation.
When I read this text a minute ago, I translated it into easier terms for us to grasp. “Whoever (among us) welcomes a prophet (whatever that means) just simply because he or she is a prophet shares the prophet’s reward” (whatever that is). And the same with righteous persons. It is probable that prophets and righteous persons were two ancient categories of people who went around through Jewish assembles and became a part of them. The same practice was adopted by early Christian assemblies (which were still Jewish assemblies in Matthew’s time). Little Ones were probably visitors who were “none of the above,” but were any folk who might come to a community of faith. I think we may safely assume that these three categories cover any folk who come to share our fellowship and our community of faith with us here.
The most common word in these three verses is “welcome” (six times). The basic meaning of the word is “to receive,” and its meaning ranges from simply “grasping” something handed to us, to receiving things with difficulty (tolerating), to embracing something or someone wholly and enthusiastically (welcoming). In the New Testament the word most commonly means the third of these, “welcoming” or “embracing.” This passage encourages communities of faith to be open, embracing, welcoming, places.
Now, the “reward” that grows out of being a disciple (whether a prophet or not) by the culture is sometimes not very pleasant. Here’s where that text from Jeremiah 28 comes in. This text is from the middle of a story about a conflict Jeremiah had with another prophet about what the right message was for the times. The prophet was named Hananiah, who was an official prophet with the blessing of the powers structures in Jerusalem. We might fantasize that Israel’s prophets got into trouble with the governments of their day simply because of their religious stand. While that is true in a way, they usually got into trouble with the powers that be not because of their religious views (if by that we mean that their doctrine was ‘pure”), but because their religious views caused them to take unpopular political stances, again because both kinds of views demanded a rearranging of power and privilege. Jeremiah had taken the wildly unpopular view that God was punishing Judah for its unfaithfulness to the covenant through the military and economic attacks of the Babylonians. He, therefore, held that God was on the Babylonians’ side, and that it was God’s will that Judah go out of existence into exile. Siding with the enemies of one’s people is called treason. Hananiah and Jeremiah used the exact same religious language, so it isn’t as easy as simply listening to the religious words that are used. Anyone can use “holy words.” He had to admit that the Babylonians had attacked Judah and decimated it, but he held that, within two years, everything would be back to normal. Jeremiah said “no”. In today’s passage, he basically said that the prophets before him had predicted disaster, not peace, and that there wouldn’t be peace until God willed it, and he said, in essence, “We’ll see if that’s in two years or not.” In the end, Jeremiah was right and Hananiah was wrong. What was Jeremiah’s reward as a prophet? Did everybody stand up and cheer that he was right? No, they did not! His lot was nothing but pain and suffering some of which he complained about in last week’s reading. Of course the lot of Hananiah was even worse. Jeremiah predicted that because of his false message that God would remove him from the world. And Hananiah died two months later. So, the reward of a prophet is not much, sometimes, in the general culture. It hasn’t improved for Christian prophets from Jesus until today. What this text says to us is, in one way, very sobering. Jesus says that, when we welcome people who take prophetic stands for justice, we should expect the same reward the world hands to them. We should understand that we cannot expect to be treated well when our sisters and brothers are not. If we stand with them we stand with them. Unfortunately, many people have seen this and said, “Right,” well we don’t want to have anything to do with those people.” What we fail to see here is that Jesus calls us (six times right here) to welcome, embrace, accept others as a matter of identity. It’s as much a part of our job as congregations as is going out into the culture in Jesus’ name.
Yes, Jesus encourages us to cultivate an embracing congregation, as we welcome those who come to us, whatever our Christian lot, whether we agree with those people or not. We do it just as we’d welcome and embrace Jesus should he walk in our door. Indeed, as he says elsewhere, “As you did it for one of the least of these, my brothers and sisters, you did it for me.” That’s not going to be very popular, but it’s what Jesus says.
We can see why Jesus says that it’s not possible to retro-fit discipleship to him into business as usual in the world. God intends the church to be an alternative community to the kind of cruelty, rudeness, lack of civility and self-centredness one finds in the general culture – any culture, even or especially, ours.
Jesus’ teaching for us on this day in Ordinary Time, when we welcome this young man in a new way into our family is that it’s worth thinking about, not only how we go out into the community to do mission in Jesus’ name, but how we welcome folk home into our community. Are we looking only for “safe people” who won’t be different from us? Are we willing to find out what’s important for them and help them to do the work God has given them, even to the point of being willing to stand beside them, even if we don’t always agree with them? It’s an interesting question, and it’s Jesus’ charge.
In the name of God: Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer. AMEN