My father was a curmudgeon, and more so as he got older. His doormat did not say welcome. It said, “Go Away” in big, bold print. And yet I never knew anyone who could make people feel more comfortable and welcome. He was like the best of old friends with everyone, including people he just met. He knew this country, the places, the people, what was happening down to the local level and thus he could strike up a comfortable conversation on the phone with anyone, anywhere. He was a real networker long before that word came into vogue.
This passage has a lot to say about welcome. It endorses hospitality in the name of the Lord. Hospitality is a good thing – where strangers are made to feel loved and at home. We should always be welcoming people, it is true. But here Jesus is really only saying that when we are the strangers he will be watching closely. He says those who welcome us, welcome him and God the father. And in fact, while our hospitality toward others may be a good thing, that is not what Jesus is talking about. This passage is subversive and easy to misunderstand if we are not careful. because it is really only talking about others being hospitable toward us.
What Jesus is saying, in a sense, is that we who are his disciples are like his ambassadors in this world. You know, foreign ambassadors represent the King and Kingdom from whence they come. Whoever welcomes them, welcomes both King and country. Washington is full of ambassadors from foreign states. When they are invited to visit the congress or White House, it is not just the individual ambassador who is being welcomed, but in a real sense that foreign country and its leaders in particular.
Of course, just like foreign countries stay in touch with their ambassadors, Jesus is watching closely how others respond to us. Do they respond in warm, welcoming and hospitable ways? Are they quick to include us in their company? Or are they inclined to exclude us from their company and have nothing to do with us “Christians”? Think about it.
If you mention Jesus in certain circles, how will they respond? If you want to talk about Christ in an unexpected time and unusual place, what kind of response will you get?
Jesus said there are rewards, perhaps levels of rewards for those who respond favorably to us as ambassadors for Christ. But the rewards he speaks of here are not for us. They are for the family members, friends, acquaintances and strangers, and they are based on how they respond to our word about Jesus. Period.
I said this passage is subversive. There is a school of thought in scholarly circles that Matthew (Mark and Luke) simply included in their gospel strings of “Jesus sayings” without necessary rhyme or reason. That is nonsense. Even if Jesus did not make these statements back to back, Matthew certainly saw the connection and put them together for us to see as well. And this passage begins with anything but hospitality, welcome and inclusiveness. It begins with divisiveness and exclusion.
Jesus was well aware that he was becoming a real wedge in families – even breaking up families as some turned to him and others steadfastly did not. He was calling out to those who were turning to him. Come, follow. Don’t turn back to your stubborn, resistant, foolish families. Even if your father and mother turn against you because you have turned to Jesus, follow Jesus anyway. Even if your son and daughter think you have gone bonkers in your old age, follow Jesus anyway.
If you turn back to your life, your old life, you will just get old and lose it. But if you give up your old life and follow Jesus, you will find real life, even when you die.
And it is on the heels of this that he speaks of others welcoming us. He is saying we are not alone. Some will welcome us. Some will be receptive to the word about Jesus given in an unexpected time and place. We may have given up everything to follow Jesus, but there are some out there who will invite us in, like a new family in a sense. And just when you think you are dying of thirst, someone will give you a cup of cold water. Jesus will be watching.
It is not easy to turn one’s back on a household full of unbelievers. It was not easy back then either, but here Jesus is saying follow anyway. We are to pick up our cross and follow. There are some people who will welcome the word of Christ we carry, and they will be rewarded for welcoming us. We only need to say “thank you” for the cup of water.
Many are the preachers who take this passage to suggest that we need to be hospitable to others. In truth, Jesus is talking about all we have given up, even some dear family members who in a real sense gave us up when we turned to Christ. This is a matter of separation. Some people will always exclude themselves. He is assuring us that in contrast to those stubborn family members, there will be rewards for those who are hospitable to us, even though they may be strangers. And we can be sure there will always be some who will be hospitable toward us. Yes, I said this passage was subversive. It is almost as subversive as my father’s “Go Away” doormat.