Over the summer months, we have been reading through the Gospel of Matthew, beginning with chapter 10. This gospel is considered to have been written specifically for the Jewish audience. Thus, its opening chapters focused on establishing the context for Jesus’ ministry (Jesus’ genealogy and Joseph’s dream, the Magis’ visit and flight to Egypt, baptism and temptation, and the Sermon on the Mount, including the Lord’s Prayer). Following these, chapters 8-9 present several healings and miracles, and then comes the point at which we picked up the thread of Matthew’s account on the first Sunday after Trinity this year.
Having lamented that the “harvest is plentiful, but the labourers are few” at the conclusion of chapter 9, Jesus decides that the 12 disciples are ready to be sent into the villages of Judea and Galilee, to deliver the message about him to those of the Jewish faith. In an address recorded in chapter 10, Jesus bestows on his disciples the authority (and responsibility) to heal and teach. As part of doing so, he also warns the disciples that they will not be universally welcomed everywhere they take his teachings, and predicts that the matters of faith will forever be “the sword” that will continue to fracture even the closest human relationships:
‘I do not bring peace, but a sword… a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law— a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household.’
However, in what follows these harsh words, Jesus offers the world the antidote that has the power to reconcile people of all backgrounds, mend relationships and establish new ones, and thereby bring the whole world into a close relationship with God. This antidote is hospitality:
“Anyone who welcomes you welcomes me.”
It is important to note that Jesus talks about welcoming, not “liking” one another. This concept was practically a given in the ancient Middle Eastern cultures, which regarded hospitality a duty, rather than merely expression of affection. In the first century AD, hospitality was integrally bound with honor and circumscribed by strict social conventions (as it, perhaps, still is). Not to welcome a guest was dishonorable; partially, because in the arid land where one’s survival depended on finding and sharing water, anyone at any point in time and regardless of their social status could have found themselves in need of reciprocal hospitality. In addition, the messengers or servants of those with a higher social status were to be offered the same hospitality as the person who’d sent them.
Thus, we find many Biblical examples of welcoming messengers and complete strangers, offering them water, food, shelter, an opportunity to wash, and even protection. Think of Abraham’s three guests, Lot and two angels in Sodom, Abraham’s servant looking for a wife for Isaac at the well, David and his army, and prophets Elisha and Elijah housed by poor peasants. And from the New Testament: the Samaritan woman who gave Jesus a drink of water, Peter’s mother who as soon as she was healed cared for him, and the disciples on the road to Emmaus, who invited Jesus to lodge with them before recognizing him. So, both the Torah and the rules of culture imposed on the Israelites the duty to
“entertain angels, for in doing so they might be offering hospitality to the messengers of God”.
The chapters we have read over the summer, which recounted many miracles of Jesus (e.g., the healing and feeding of multitudes, rescuing the disciples in a storm, ect.), may be read as examples of Jesus enacting the kind of compassionate hospitality that was integral to his society. However, the two passages we read over the last two weeks extend this principle much further by first, indicating that participating in God’s kingdom is available even to those outside Israel (as exemplified by the Canaanite woman’s faith), and second, that the success of this participation rests in our own capable hands (metaphorically represented as the keys to heaven’s gates in Jesus’ words to Peter). This is the Good News of God’s Kingdom. But today, we also read the second half of Jesus' address to Peter, which contains a much more unsettling message:
“Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”
So there is not only a duty, but a cost associated with hospitality. I find it interesting that the evangelist here puts the metaphor of the cross in Jesus’ mouth, even as his death by crucifixion still remains some time in the future. None of his students at this point have any idea that this instrument of death will be the one that would come to symbolize Jesus’ self-giving for generations of people for the next 2000 years. You might recall the symbol of the “yoke” that we encountered earlier this summer; it was much more culturally prevalent and accessible to the disciples, and it is a lot less threatening to us. But in light of the theme of hospitality we have been exploring, neither Jesus’ cross or his yoke should be regarded as purely the instruments of oppression,
“for the Son of Man is going to come in his Father’s glory with his angels, and then he will reward each person according to what they have done.”
And what is it that we are supposed “to have done”? Back to chapter 10: “if anyone gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones who is my disciple, that person will certainly not lose their reward.”
And in that, Jesus assures us (Matt 11), “ye shall find rest unto your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” .
For indeed, it is when we truly align our lives with God’s purpose that we find rest for our souls. There is an element of “welcoming God” into our lives -- that of active participation, discipleship, reception of God’s grace, desire to be guided by that “still, small voice” amidst the hustle and bustle of daily living. The Word of God never comes to us by force, and its ability to work in our lives is somewhat dependent on our openness to receive it. So how do we become hospitable to God in our lives in practical terms?
There are an infinite number of unique ways to do so; but broadly speaking, one way is to welcome God’s presence into our prayers, worship, and ethical decision-making. The second, however, is to welcome other people as the “messengers”, or image-bearers, of Christ – not based on who they are as individuals, but simply because there is a presence of God in each one of their lives, given to them by God, and thus whenever we enter a relationship with another human being, we also enter into one with Jesus. Human relationships are, of course, often limited by the rules of kinship, profit, gain, and convenience. But God’s hospitality blows such rules apart, and so we too are called to offer “a cup of water” even to people who seem very different from us.
As I conclude this reflection, I would encourage you to ponder the images of compassion that hold personal meaning for you. For me, some of the most memorable experiences as a “giver” come from my ministry: bringing the last rites and conducting the funerals, offering prayers and compassionate listening; and also, contributing to the joy found in marriages and baptisms, and shared insights that emerge from studying God’s truths together. It feels good to give, in sadness and in joy; but as we read over the gospels, it becomes apparent that being open to, and admitting their reliance on, the hospitality of strangers was, in fact, the key to the success of Jesus and disciples’ mission. Are we also open to receive the gifts offered to us by others, humbly and gratefully? What are some of your most memorable “drinks of water” ever received - that is, big and small instances of compassion and hospitality extended to you? I find that we have to think harder to recall these, as opposed to the meaningful things we do for others, despite obviously receiving the care of others daily. Over the next little while, I encourage us to keep thinking about such “drinks of water” -- the universal currency of God’s Kingdom -- and be thankful.