Our text comes at the end of Matthew 10, the second major section of Jesus' teaching after the Sermon on the Mount.
The chapters in between (8-9) narrate various episodes in Jesus' ministry of teaching, healing, casting out demons, and raising the dead. At the end of chapter 9, Jesus looks at the crowds and has compassion on them because they are "harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd" (9:36). So he tells his disciples, "The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest" (9:37-38).
Jesus evidently intends his disciples to be the answer to their own prayer, for at the beginning of chapter 10, he is sending them out, giving them "authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to cure every disease and every sickness" (10:1). Jesus instructs the twelve to "go only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel" and to "proclaim the good news, 'The kingdom of heaven has come near.' Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons" (10:5-8).
The disciples are to act as envoys of Jesus, extending his ministry, proclaiming the same good news and performing the same works of healing that he is doing. Jesus' further instructions make clear that the disciples are also to share in his poverty and homelessness, taking with them no money or extra clothing, and depending solely on the hospitality of others for shelter and sustenance (10:8b-13).
They will not be welcomed everywhere (10:14-15), and they can expect to experience the same hostility Jesus often does, for he is sending them out "like sheep into the midst of wolves" (10:16). They can expect to encounter persecution and trials (10:17-23), for "a disciple is not above the teacher, nor a slave above the master" (10:24-25). They need also be prepared for painful division within families, and to be willing to put Jesus' mission above family loyalties (10:34-38). For all of this risk and suffering, Jesus promises, "those who lose their life for my sake will find it" (10:39).
Matthew, of course, is not only recalling Jesus' instructions to his first disciples; he is also speaking to his own community of disciples a few generations later. There is still need to send out laborers into the harvest, to send missionaries out beyond the community into a perilous world. And those sent will still need to depend on the hospitality of others. Jesus says of those who enact such hospitality, "Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me" (10:40).
In the ancient world identity was tied to family and community. It was understood that in showing hospitality, one welcomed not just an individual, but implicitly, the community who sent the person and all that they represent. Therefore, welcoming a disciple of Jesus would mean receiving the very presence of Jesus himself and of the one who sent him, God the Father.
Jesus continues: "Whoever welcomes a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet's reward; and whoever welcomes a righteous person in the name of a righteous person will receive the reward of the righteous" (10:41). The words "prophet" and "righteous" in Matthew often refer to the prophets and faithful servants of biblical history (e.g., 11:13; 13:17; 23:29), but can also refer to contemporary prophets (7:15-20) and righteous ones (13:43, 39; 25:37, 46). It is not clear whether Matthew is referring to two distinct roles within the community, or whether these are simply alternative ways of describing those sent out as missionaries.
What are the "prophet's reward" and the "reward of the righteous" of which Jesus speaks? Elsewhere in Matthew the prophets receive persecution (5:12), rejection (13:57), and death (23:30-35, 37), and yet those who are persecuted are told, "Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven" (5:12). Similarly, the righteous are promised that they "will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father" (13:43).
Finally, Jesus says, "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" (10:42). "Little ones" (mikros) often refers to children, but Matthew uses it to refer to Jesus' disciples, especially those who are young in faith or particularly vulnerable (cf. 18:6, 10). The statement about giving a cup of cold water to one of these little ones points ahead to the parable of the judgment in Matthew 25. Here the Son of Man says to the righteous, "I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink" (25:35), and "truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me" (25:40). The word translated "least of these" is elachistos, superlative of mikros. The righteous who attend to the needs of the "littlest ones" are told: "Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world" (25:34).
The word "reward" (misthos) in Matthew 10 carries connotations of something earned, but this word is not used in the parable of judgment. Here Jesus says to the righteous, "Come, inherit the kingdom prepared for you..." An inheritance is pure gift. Those who welcome and care for the needs of "little ones" welcome and care for Jesus himself. To receive Jesus is to receive the one who sent him, and to become heirs to all that the Father has to give.
The Sent Church
Sent by God, Jesus sends his disciples to participate in his mission of proclaiming in word and deed the good news of God's kingdom drawing near. Matthew assumes that the church is a "sent" church, a missionary church (Matthew 28:18-20). There is simply no other way to be the church! This understanding is being recovered in our own day with the missional church movement. There is growing awareness that mission is not just a program of the church; it is (or ought to be) the defining purpose of everything the church does.
An approach to preaching Matthew 10:40-42 might be to focus a congregation's attention on what it means to be sent. Perhaps not all are sent to be wandering missionaries, depending on others for shelter and sustenance, but that doesn't mean we are off the hook. The entire baptized are sent into the world to tell and embody the good news of Jesus Christ. All are sent to bear Christ to others with humility and vulnerability, being willing to risk rejection.
What would happen if we stopped expecting people to come on their own initiative through our church doors, and instead took seriously our calling to bring the gospel to them? What would happen if we truly believed that we bear the presence of Christ to every person we encounter, in every home, workplace, or neighborhood we enter? What would happen if we saw every conversation as an opportunity to speak words of grace, every interaction as an opportunity to embody Christ's love for the neighbor?
Recently a friend told of an interaction with a bagger at her local grocery store. She had been talking with this woman off and on for a year, and upon learning that she no longer worked on Sundays, invited her to come to her church, to their casual, outdoor, come-as-you-are service. Much to my friend's surprise, the woman responded by giving her a hug!
We may not always receive such a positive response when we take the risk of reaching out, yet we may be surprised at how ready many are to receive our most humble efforts. Lest we forget what we have to offer, we have Jesus' promise: "Whoever welcomes you welcomes me."