Dear Working Preacher,
Thanks for all you do to proclaim the gospel in this broken world. For being, as Saint Paul says, steadfast, immovable, and always abounding in the Lord. We are grateful.
Finding yourself in the text, part 1: Asking the wrong question
My beloved teacher Donald Juel used to note that the question that most people ask when reading the Bible is, “What does this text tell me to do?” The assumption being—of course—that the Bible is a rule book, a set of commandments, God’s little instruction book. There are better questions to ask, since the Bible is not in fact just a set of commandments. But before I get there, let’s assume that many people will hear or read this week’s text and—operating out of a legal mindset—will indeed ask, “What do Jesus’ words in Matthew 10 tell me to do?” Let’s assume for a moment that people will ask the wrong question of this text.
Hear again Jesus’ words:
“Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. 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; 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” (Matthew 10:40-42).
Most people will hear these words and conclude that Jesus is telling us to welcome the stranger.
In this legal mindset way of thinking:
- Since Jesus says, “Whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me,” this means that I am supposed to welcome the stranger and by doing so I am welcoming Jesus and the one who sent Jesus.
- Since Jesus says, “Whoever welcomes a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward,” this means that I am supposed to welcome prophet and I will receive a prophet’s reward. (Warning: you might not want a prophet’s reward, since most of the real prophets were rejected!)
- Since Jesus says, “whoever welcomes a righteous person in the name of a righteous person will receive the reward of the righteous,” this means that I am supposed to welcome the righteous and then I will receive the reward of the righteous.
- And since Jesus says, “whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple … [will not] lose their reward,” this means I am supposed to offer “a cup of cold water” to needy and oppressed in order I might not lose the reward.
I’m pretty sure there will be plenty of people who hear Jesus’ words in such a way this week.
Finding yourself in the text, part 2: Asking the right question
But there is a better first question to ask of a biblical text. Since not all biblical texts are commandments, it is better simply to ask, “What does this text mean? And what does it mean for me?”
Notice two things about this text.
First, notice the word “you” in the first line: “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.” Jesus is placing his hearers not in the place of the ones offering the welcome, but rather in the place of the ones receiving the welcome. He says in effect, “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the Father who sent me.” So rather than being a commandment, this text is a promise. We should also note that the “you” here is plural. As my followers, “you all” will be welcomed by some. And when you are welcomed, you will be manifesting both my presence and the Father in heaven’s presence.
As you find yourself in Jesus’ words, “you” are not the ones welcoming but the ones being welcomed.
Second, notice the broader narrative context in which Jesus’ words take place. In Matthew 10, Jesus sends out the Twelve Apostles in mission and offers words of guidance. The chapter is sometimes called “the missionary discourse.” Matthew 10:40-42 is part of this longer missionary discourse, as Jesus offers words of guidance, warning, and promise about the disciples’ mission. Various phrases in the chapter show that the whole of the discourse is tied together as a whole:
- “These twelve Jesus sent out with the following instructions” (Matthew 10:5)
- “If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet as you leave that house or town” (10:14)
- “See, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves” (10:16)
- “So have no fear of them; for nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered” (10:26)
- “Whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me” (10:34)
- “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me” (10:40)
Jesus’ words in 10:40-42 are to be heard as words of promise, under the broader commandment to follow Jesus out into the world in mission. Jesus tells his disciples as it were, “I am sending you into a dangerous world as part of my mission to love, save, bless, and be reconciled to that very world. It is dangerous out there. But you will find welcome. Those who welcome and receive you, also welcome and receive me—and they will be rewarded.”
What does this mean for ministry? In part, it means that our ministries must get out of the building. It means that you as a Working Preacher do not do all of your work in the building. You must get out there and offer yourself up as the guest of other peoples’ welcome. Not all will welcome you, but some will—and by offering yourself up as the guest for those people to welcome, you will be manifesting for those people the blessings of both the Father in Heaven and also the beloved Son.
Imagine that! Merely be offering yourself up as the guest of another person’s welcome, you will manifest for them the very reign of God.
That is a promise for the road. It makes hitting the road into a risk worth taking.
Thanks for all you do, Working Preacher.