40“Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. 41Whoever 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; 42and 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.”
Translation: The one receiving you receives me and the one receiving me receives the one who sent me. The one receiving a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet's reward. And the one who receives justice in the name of a just person will receive a reward of justice. And whoever might give a drink of cool water alone to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple, truly I say to you, that one might surely not destroy his reward.
Background: Matthew was writing around AD 85. This is literature from the post-war period. It follows the devastation of the Roman-Jewish War of AD 66-70 when blood ran in the streets of Jerusalem and the Temple was destroyed.
Matthew is at a few years remove from Mark, his primary source. (Mark wrote during or just after the devastation.) While Matthew's over-all "mood" is not as dark as Mark's, it is clear that Matthew's church saw themselves as fragile, vulnerable, and under threat.
Most of chapter 10 consists of sayings from Q which Matthew uses to argue that followers of Jesus may expect to meet the same resistance met by Jesus. The final three verses of this section--those included in our lection--appear to be not Q. 10:40 is quite similar to John 13:20, 10:41 is found only in Matthew, and 10:42 has a near parallel in Mark 9:41.
The immediate situation: Chapter 10 begins Book Two of Matthew's gospel, the focus of which is mission. It begins with Jesus calling the Twelve, giving them authority, and naming them. They are sent to do the same things Jesus had been doing--"Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons" (10:8)--everything, that is, with the exception of teaching.
More than any other gospel, Matthew values Jesus as Teacher. Eighteen chapters yet remain in Matthew's gospel. Jesus has much more to teach. The disciples have begun their period of instruction under Jesus, but they're just getting started. They don't know near enough yet to teach. Only in chapter 28, when the entire gospel is completed, do the disciples finally get the go-ahead to teach others. Only then are they enjoined to "teach all that I have commanded." (28:16)
Then follows frank acknowledgement of the trials and difficulties of their mission. They may be handed over to councils, flogged, and turned in to the secular authorities (10:17-18). There may be family disruptions, persecution, hatred, even death. (10:19-23). They may expect, in short, the very same treatment meted out to Jesus. (10:24).
Nevertheless, they are repeated enjoined not to be afraid--three times in the section from 10:26-31. They are assured that nothing will happen that is not known to the Father, who is, Jesus pointedly states, also "your Father" (10:29). He assures the disciples that God cares even about small animals and surely cares about them as well.
Then, the mood darkens once again. The Jesus movement will inspire opposition--not peace, but a sword! Again, families will be disrupted. Jesus quotes from Micah 7:6--"for the son treats the father with contempt, the daughter rises up against her mother, the daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; your enemies are members of your own household."
Jesus is not advocating violence, of course. He is a bringer of peace, and his disciples are to be "peacemakers" (5:9). It was also true, however, that, especially in the period in which Matthew was writing, there was considerable division within families due to the Christian faith. Will Willimon likes to refer to letters from Roman families that talk of their concern because their son--Celsus, let's say--has run off to join the Christians.
Then, for the first time in Matthew's gospel, the cross is mentioned. "Whoever does not take hold of his cross and follow after me is not..."--and here it gets tricky. The word is axios, and it seems to me that the best expression for it here would be "tried and found wanting." It means "like," "befitting," or "congruent." The sense is "measuring up." (I'm avoiding the use of the word "worthy" here, which NRSV has, because we tend to think of that word in terms of moral judgment.)
"Tried and found wanting" seems to be the sense that Matthew intends. Jesus has set an example of suffering for the cause. Disciples are not greater than their master and such a fate may come to any follower. Followers should continue to expound the Way of Jesus, and follow it. If they do not, then they are not at the level of their master.
Our three verses: People who receive the disciples receive Jesus and, in so doing, also receive the Father. John Meier likens this to the figure of the shaliah, who is a messenger with power to act for his sender. "The shaliah of a man is as the man himself." Apostles are like that.
Prophets are acknowledged--"the one receiving a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet's reward." Considering that many prophets ended up out of public favor, to say the very least, this "reward" may be a mixed blessing. Prophets are respected and honored only in retrospect.
The "just" are likewise mentioned, and justice is promised to those who honor them. It should not be surprising that apostles, prophets, and the just would be lauded. Matthew, however, is building to an even greater concern, that of concern for "these little ones"--tone mikrone toutone.
And whoever might give a drink of cool water alone to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple, truly I say to you, that one might surely not destroy his reward.
This is the first reference to "little ones" in Matthew's gospel. Here, it probably refers to the Twelve themselves. They are just beginning in mission. They are just beginning to be taught. They are, at present, "little ones."
Later, in chapter 18, the ones who are "little ones" now will be teaching other "little ones." Jesus will tell the Twelve that "little ones" should not face "stumbling blocks" (18:6), should not be "despised" (18:10), and should not be lost (18:14). In both cases, "little ones" appears to refer to new followers of Jesus. By chapter 25, however, the idea of "little ones" will be expanded to include anyone seen to be "small" by worldly standards.
The smallest act of help to these "little ones" is noted. Here, it refers to the slightest assistance for the Twelve. In chapter 25, at the separation of the sheep and the goats, even the smallest act of help for social outcasts will be seen to have cosmic import.