“You can’t put a price tag on experience.” That simple sentence, spoken with a gentle smile by the person I least expected to hear it from, flooded my whole being with relief, and started a healing that I had hardly believed would come.
As I entered my thirties I was facing the reality that a decision I had made, which I had thought was God’s will and which I expected to lead me into the fulfilment of a dream I had harboured for years, had been a huge mistake. I had sold everything and moved my young family to a rural town in pursuit of this prize, but after only a few months, I found myself dragging my wife and children back to the city we had left. and, because of all the money we had lost in the quest, moving into a cottage on my parents’ property. I was embarrassed, humiliated, and ashamed. My failure had been witnessed by friends, family members and who knows how many people from the churches with whom I had worked. But, on this particular day my uncle, who was a man of integrity and high principles and who, I felt, had little time for my faith, spoke these words of grace and gave me hope. After all that had gone wrong, I discovered that I could be accepted and welcomed back, and my failure could be redefined as an opportunity. It would take years for these words to settle into my soul, but even from the first the invitation they offered came to me as a kind of hospitality.
As the Liturgical Calendar moves into Ordinary Time, the Lectionary takes us to just three verses from Matthew’s Gospel:
“Anyone who receives you receives Me, and anyone who receives Me receives the Father who sent Me. If you receive a prophet as one who speaks for God, you will be given the same reward as a prophet. And if you receive righteous people because of their righteousness, you will be given a reward like theirs. And if you give even a cup of cold water to one of the least of My followers, you will surely be rewarded.” (Matt.10:40-42)
After the journey of the last six months through Christ’s life and ministry, these verses are an appropriate way to begin the next phase of the year – the “Kingdom Time” journey into living out what we have seen in, and learned from, Jesus. But, they cannot be taken in isolation. To hear what the Spirit might be saying to us this week, and to allow our meditation to prepare us for the weeks ahead, we need to place these verses firmly in their context.
There is an apocalyptic character to Jesus’ words in Matthew 10, and so there should be. For Matthew, Jesus’ preaching and miracles announce the arrival of the last days. Jesus is the New Moses who brings in the fulfilment of Jeremiah’s prophecy of the time when the law of God would be written, not on stone, but on hearts (Jer. 31:31-34). This new reality, this “Kingdom of Heaven” is to be proclaimed and demonstrated, and Jesus has been doing this. But, now the time has come for the work to expand, for “workers” to be sent out into the “harvest” (as Jesus teaches at the end of Chapter 9). The start of this expansion, comes in Chapter 10 with Jesus’ disciples.
Chapters 10 and 11 in Matthew’s Gospel describe two movements that are taught and practiced by Jesus and his disciples. The first is that of being sent – in Chapter 10, this is the work of the disciples, and in Chapter 11 it’s the work of Jesus (who follows them) and John the Baptist (about whom Jesus speaks). The second movement is that of receiving those who are sent – in Chapter 10 this is the work of those to whom the disciples go, and in Chapter 11 it’s the work of those to whom Jesus goes, and of the Christ who welcomes those who come to Jesus. The heart of this sending and receiving is the basic message of Christ: “The Kingdom of heaven is near” (10:7).
Jesus sends out his disciples to proclaim this message, and to demonstrate it through the same acts that Jesus has been doing – healing and exorcism. They are to go throughout Israel as vulnerable preachers, relying on the hospitality of the people to whom they go, but offering in return God’s hospitality – God’s blessing and the invitation to enter God’s kingdom. Then, following after them, Jesus travels and teaches the same message. In both cases there is the assurance that, while embracing God’s reign will require absolute commitment and deep sacrifice (taking up the cross), it also offers great joy – which is what the three verses which are set for today speak about.
Jesus and his disciples are sent. The people to whom they go must choose whether to receive them or not. And the result of this “transaction” will lead either to lives of belonging, welcome, acceptance and increasing wholeness, or to lives of isolation, rejection and brokenness. At it’s heart, then, the Gospel is an issue of hospitality – the gift of God’s hospitality which is proclaimed, and which, when it is received, leads the recipient to show hospitality to others – especially those whom God has sent (disciples [vs.40], prophets and righteous ones [vs.41] and the least [vs.42]).
What this means for us in the Church of today as we begin the Kingdom Time journey is that we are called to be a people who embody in our worship and our lives the threefold movement toward hospitality that Jesus teaches. The first response we must make is to open ourselves to the hospitality of God that comes to us in Christ – to hear the message of the Kingdom and to embrace it, with all the crosses and benefits it offers. This is a response of faith, of believing that God’s reign really is available to us, and that it really is the most reliable truth by which to live and through which to address the challenges of our world. It’s a choice to believe that when Jesus promises life, he means it, and we can know this life and share it here and now.
The second response, then, flows out of the first. It is to become proclaimers – prophets – of God’s hospitality to the world. As we are drawn into God’s hospitality we cannot hoard it or protect it for ourselves. It is an ever-expanding welcome that needs us to carry it out to others who long to find belonging, inclusion and acceptance. This is evangelism as, I believe, Jesus intended it – not the evacuation theology of a decision that guarantees a blissful after life, but the proclamation of Good News to the poor, liberation to the captives, release to the prisoners and wholeness to the broken. It is the proclamation of Jubilee – the new world order that Jesus taught, and that he sent his disciples out to preach.
Finally, the proclamation must be accompanied by demonstration if it is to have any value at all, and this is the third response we are called to make. As those who have received God’s hospitality and who proclaim it to the world, we must now become those who welcome others – righteous people, prophets of all kinds and even the least (whoever we may consider them to be). We are to welcome, include and accept all others in Christ’s name. We are to provide, in our lives, our homes and our communities, a place of belonging, of serving and of loving for all who long for a home. In this way, we become the manifestation of God’s reign, of God’s hospitality in our world.
The wonderful, cyclical miracle of all of this is that as we welcome all the various people who come to us, we will discover that we are welcoming Jesus. And as we welcome Jesus, we welcome the whole of the Godhead, and so, in an eternal cycle of welcome, we are, once again, drawn deeper into the hospitality of God. Life begets life, and welcome begets welcome. No theology of exclusivism and rejection, of judgement and condemnation can ever know this escalating, all-embracing invitation. It is only known by those who are willing to take the scandalous risk of opening the doors of the Kingdom, and of their lives, ever-wider, without seeking to regulate who may enter.