The 13th Sunday in Ordinary Time continues last Sunday’s reading from Matthew 10, now reaching the end of the chapter. The key part lies in these verses:
Anyone who welcomes you welcomes me, and anyone who welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.
Whoever welcomes a prophet as a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward.
Whoever welcomes a righteous person as a righteous person will receive a righteous person’s reward.
And if anyone gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones who is my disciple, truly I tell you, that person will certainly not lose their reward. (10.40-42)
The maxims are clear: as we welcome, as we serve, so we benefit and are blessed.
But who are we talking about? 10.40 is largely clear, since in this chapter Jesus is speaking to his apostles: welcoming the apostles is welcoming Jesus, and welcoming Jesus is welcoming God. By extension, today we might suppose for a moment that the apostles are akin to the ordained leaders of the Church, bishops, priests, deacons. 10.41 brings in two further groups aside from the apostles: prophets and righteous persons. Let us say that the prophets are people who, ordained or not, are given the word of God to speak, and duly speak in God’s name. The righteous perhaps represent a still wider category, those who live righteous lives and preach by acts of service good example. When we welcome such figures into our lives, we receive the rewards they receive, sharing in the words and actions of the Christian life. 10.42 speaks of the little ones, a category we could define in terms of lack of wealth or power or social status — but perhaps more easily, it might refer to the “ordinary people” of a community — our sisters and brothers, ourselves — who do not feel themselves to have any particular mission or office. If we care for each other on this level — ordinary people offering ordinary cups of cold water to other ordinary people — then too there will be a reward: the knowledge of God in Christ that is at the heart of the mission.
Even if more could be said (we can imagine God speaking to us through still others, well outside the Church community) for now this is enough. Jesus’ calculus is somewhat clear by the end of Matthew 10, both for those who work and speak in Christ’s name, and those who welcome the word and ministry of others in the community.
But even the clearest of instructions are more complicated in real life, and in the readings for this Sunday, clarification by way of example may be the purpose in pairing Matthew 10 with 2 Kings 4. This chapter is part of the saga of Elisha, the mighty successor to Elijah. Having inherited the authority and (literally) the mantle of Elijah, Elisha is traveling around with his company of attending prophets. The chapter is too long (44 verses) to quote here – though you can look it up – but fascinating not just in the tiny part of it given as today’s reading (4:8-11, 14-16a). Some highlights:
• The widow of a prophet appeals for his help, since the creditors are coming to carry off her two children into slavery, to pay unpaid debts; Elisha creates for her an enormous amount of cooking oil, which she sells to pay the debts. (4.1-7)
• In Shunem, a wealthy lady invites Elisha in for a meal; he comes so often she gives him a room. He seek to repay her, and seeing that she is childless and her husband old, he promises her a child within a year’s time, and so it is. (4.8-17)
• But the child gets sick with a terrible headache and then dies, sitting on her lap. She insists then on going on a journey to find Elisha, to rebuke him for giving her joy only to have it turn into sorrow. He sends his servant with his staff, to lay upon the child, but the woman will not accept this token of interest, instead making Elisha come to see the dead child. (4.18-30)
• Elisha arrives, lays down upon the corpse and brings the child back to life. The child sneezes seven times and is well again (4.31-37)
•During a famine, Elisha wants to feed the prophets with him, but a cook mistakenly adds poisonous gourds to the stew. The men almost die, but Elisha sprinkles flour on the stew, and it becomes edible. (4.38-41)
• He instructs his servants to feed the prophets, using twenty loaves of bread and fresh ears of grain given to him. This is not nearly enough, but at the Lord’s word, the loaves and ears of grain turn out to be abundant, and there is even much left over. (4.42-44)
You must read II Kings 4 for yourself! Yet today the details may matter less, perhaps — though Jesus is an Elisha-like prophet — but the principle does: in a series of complicated encounters, noticing and meeting a person of God — apostle, prophet, righteous, or just a member of the community — gives an abundance of return: safety for oneself and one’s family, the birth of a child, protection from physical and spiritual dangers, food for the hungry.
But as always, the most pertinent example of the meaning of Matthew 10.40-42 is ourselves, in our lives. We were not there with Elisha, and we were not there when Jesus spoke to his apostles, nor did we ever meet those apostles. We are Catholics, beneficiaries of a long tradition of women and men on mission, but right now many of us are not even going to church. So we need to be on the lookout in daily life for prophets, the righteous, and the ordinary folk next door:
Whoever welcomes a prophet as a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward. Whoever welcomes a righteous person as a righteous person will receive a righteous person’s reward.
And if anyone gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones who is my disciple, truly I tell you, that person will certainly not lose their reward.
We need to be like Shunammite woman, attentive enough to recognize a real prophet when she sees one, bold and generous enough to offer Elisha meal, a place to stay; we need to be stubborn like her, expecting prophets to live up to their word; we need to be like Elisha, who protects a widow, who brings new life to the childless, who feeds his hungry companions. We need to keep our eyes open for all the direct and indirect ways God is meeting us in those around us on an ordinary day.
You might try an experiment: recollect in detail a recent day or two in your life, remembering the people you met, anyone who seemed to you like messengers straight from God, those who helped you, those you helped; those who did not abandon you when good things turned bad, those you reached out to when they were overwhelmed by troubles; those who nourished you, those you fed and made feel at home. Imagine that day or two, visualize the key people in it, and then re-read the instruction of Jesus: "Anyone who welcomes you welcomes me, and anyone who welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me…"
In this way, wherever we happen to be, the News comes to us in 2020 — by the apostle or prophet or righteous person or any of our sisters or brothers — offering hope and welcome, community and nourishment, in a divided and fearful world.