The Little Ones: Matthew 10:40-42

“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 (NRSV)

When I first started this blog, I sort of randomly chose passages to write about, but I found that I had to spin up so much background and context before talking about the actual passage that I shifted to going sequentially, hoping that previous posts would establish the necessary background for later posts.

While this has generally been the case, Matthew 10 contains so many passages that are often dealt with in isolation from one another that I feel like I have to keep harping on the context with every section.

As always, when we read this passage, we need to keep in mind that this is part of a speech that Jesus is giving to his disciples who are about to go out into the world with the message of the kingdom and doing the works of Jesus.  They are going to encounter severe resistance and persecution.  Jesus is warning them that this is inevitable and they have reasons to stay faithful in the midst of it, not the least of which being that their oppressors will perish in the coming judgement, but God will shepherd the souls of the faithful disciples through it.

Please see previous posts for the fleshing out of all of that.

This passage, then, is not so much about generic humanitarianism as it is about how the world will treat the disciples as they are about their work.  There may be some bearing on generic humanitarianism, though, and I’ll circle back around to that.

In this passage, Jesus pronounces that, as the disciples go out, those who give them aid and comfort will receive the same reward as those who are faithful – “righteous,” no less.  When the coming catastrophe comes, God will not only take care of Jesus’ followers, He will also take care of those who took care of Jesus’ followers.  The reasoning behind this is, when they show hospitality to the disciples who are being persecuted by everyone else, they are showing hospitality to their master (Jesus, if you’re following along).  If they show hospitality to Jesus, they show hospitality to the one who sent him – God.

To sum up: their good works on behalf of the disciples will be accounted to them as righteousness.  I assume that causes no issues for anyone.  That’s a joke.

Because we are prone to come to the Bible with a theological framework in place, and we let that framework dictate what passages must mean, we can wrangle this however we want.  We can hypothesize that the sorts of people who care for the disciples do so after coming to saving faith and converting, for instance.  And, you know, that probably happened in some cases.

But that’s not actually what Jesus says, is it?  He doesn’t say, “If someone believes your message and repents of their sins and has faith in me and then takes care of you, he will have the reward of the righteous.”  It’s actually a very simple proposition.  God will give the reward for righteousness to the people who do good to the righteous.

Probably the closest parallel thought will come later in Matthew in chapter 25:

“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the king will answer them, ‘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.’ Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”

Matthew 25:31-46 (NRSV)

It’s the same thing in parable form, complete with images of eternal fire, eternal life, and eternal punishment.  At the end of the present age when God’s judgement comes, there will be a group of people who identified with all the right things who will not make it through the judgement.  There will be another group of people who have no idea when they ever did anything for God, but because they took care of Jesus’ people, they took care of him and are rewarded with the reward of the righteous.

I love the little dialogues in that parable.  We have Jesus actually trying to convince a group of people that God will reward that they deserve it, and the people themselves are like, “Um, we think you’ve got the wrong people.  We never did anything for you, trust us.”  And Jesus is all, “Oh, yes you did.  All that time you thought you were just doing good to someone in need, you were actually serving ME!  So, hah!  Suck on THAT!  Here’s your eternal life, doofuses!”

We want to make sure, before we make too much theological hay out of all of these, we come back to the historical contingencies that bring Jesus to these announcements.  Jesus’ disciples are about to go into the world saying what he said and doing what he did, and the corrupt power structure of Israel herself will persecute them, and they are not afraid to bring in the muscle of the Roman Empire to do it.

Those who will, in the face of this persecution, defy these powers and take care of Jesus’ disciples instead of turning them in or turning them out will be rewarded.  The Old Testament version of this is Joshua 2.  Two spies go into Jericho in advance of Israel destroying it.  A resident of Jericho hides the spies.  She survives the invasion and, as far as we know, lives a long and happy life in the land.  Another example, possibly closer to Jesus’ mind given his example of the prophets, could be 1 Kings 17, where a widow takes in Elijah during the reign of Ahab whose wife is killing God’s prophets.  She takes care of this lonely, persecuted prophet who the royal family wants dead, and in return, she receives an unending supply of income and her son is raised from the dead.

And it is perhaps the recurrent historical pattern that makes us wonder if the particular historical situation in Matthew 10 isn’t another instance of the Way God Works in History.  Because, if it is, our theology ought to make room for it.

In fairness, we can’t simply reduce the situation to people doing good works and getting good stuff.  In Matthew 7, for instance, we are confronted with the truth that the very religious power structure that will persecute Jesus has people who are prophesying and casting out demons and working miracles in Jesus’ name, yet Jesus calls them “evildoers.”  So, some level of internal alignment seems to matter, here.  What are the motives for these deeds, and how are they used, and who truly benefits?

But at the same time, we also cannot escape the very simple principle that Jesus articulates that seems to be reliably demonstrated in several instances in the Bible spread out over centuries – when the faithful are persecuted, the people who care for them instead of handing them over are also given the reward of the faithful, even if they have absolutely no clue that they are doing it for Jesus or are basically just pagans who recognize the realities of their situation.  And maybe that’s all the mustard seed-sized faith it takes.

There are Christian theologians who, regrettably, have written about the “fate” of unbelievers with a sort of perverse glee that the horrors of eternal torment will finally show them what’s what.  Some have even said that part of what makes heaven heaven will be that believers will be able to view the endless torment of all those who did not believe.  And we wonder why we make people edgy, right?  That’s sociopathic.

But I, too, take a perverse glee when I think of unbelievers at the final judgement, because I can’t help but wonder if there won’t be at least a segment of them to whom God says, “Hey, you know when you built all those homes for Habitat for Humanity because you wanted to show that atheists could be philanthropists?  Well, you built those houses for ME!  How do you like them apples?  Stick that in your empirical positivism and smoke it!  Welcome to the new heavens and earth, nerds!”

Ok, it probably won’t go quite like that, but still.

Consider This

  1. Even to this day, there are countries where Christians are actively persecuted.  There are countries where people of all kinds of religions are actively persecuted.  What should our stance be toward that?  What are some things we can do about it?  What can we do when we see low-level persecution in small ways around us?
  2. If God commends those who do not know Him for taking care of His followers, how much more ought we to be zealous for taking care of His followers?
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