“Whoever welcomes you welcomes me,” OK, I play, Matthew, I have read the Gospel of John, I know how this string thinking works. So, If someone welcomes the disciple in mission, they welcome Jesus. Got that.
“and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.” In good Gospel of John fashion, “I and the Father are one” so welcoming Jesus is equal to welcoming the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Trinity works. Got it.
“ Whoever welcomes a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet's reward; “ So, if you welcome what the prophet has to say, assuming the prophet is not Ezekiel after he saw the vision of God — wheels with in wheels and all — and is mute for the three weeks as he stays at your house by the Kabar River, then you will benefit from what the prophet has to say. Got it.
“and whoever welcomes a righteous person in the name of a righteous person will receive the reward of the righteous; “ So, if you welcome a good person you might learn something from them concerning living according to God’s holy will from them as you are in their presence. Got it.
“ 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.” So, what is that reward? In the first saying it was Jesus, the second, if it is a second since it really seems to be a single phrase with the previous saying, it was the totality of God, the third it was a word from on high, the third it was the encouragement of right living. But what is the reward here? And who are the “least” or “little” ones? And who is the disciple? The giver or the receiver of the cup of cold water?
We are still in a continuous speech of Jesus. Our text is part of the missionary discourse. Here, the disciples have been sent to heal and proclaim. Matthew lists the names and calls them ”disciples” in 10:1. Jesus has told them they are to not acquire pay or supplies as they go about their duties. (10:8b-10) They are therefore without cold water or the cup to drink it from. The context suggests that the disciples might be the recipients of the kindness of others here. The parallel in Mark 9:41 is much clearer here: “For truly I tell you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward.”
Somehow, being part of advancing the mission of the disciples, even though it is not clear whether the givers are recipients of the mission at the time of their extension of kindness, will not be forgotten in heaven. Some will gain favor in heaven though they will not know it. That also is the subject of Matthew 25: The sheep and the goats. The difference between the two chapters is that one uses: “These Little ones,” and the other uses: “The least.”
In a way, this is a commissioning akin to that of Abraham: “I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” (Gen 12:3) The presence to the church in mission is a blessing to the world not just because it proclaims salvation but because simple hospitable interaction with it shall bring blessing. “Ah,” you say,” but there are no condemnations.” Well, yes there are. They are in 10:15. The Sodom and Gomorrah stuff. And again, the matter is about receiving the disciples and not receiving the disciples, just as it is here. Hospitality matters.
I am very much aware that the last verse about the cold water has been turned around in meaning by years of use. It is used as encouragement to be in action, social action, if only in the simplest of ways. That use is not inappropriate in the sense of Matthew since chapter 25 encourages simple action not just on disciples or the church but on everyone. As a matter of fact, it insists that judgement in heaven is based on how people behave with the least of society and how they behave when no one is watching and no reward is sought or promised. “Out of the fullness of the heart the mouth speaks,” says Jesus “By your careless words you shall be known.” (12:33-37)
No matter what tack one takes with verse 42, in Matthew it is a matter of the one with the cup held out to the stranger being a good tree. The cup is merely evidence that a good heart, a hospitable heart, is beating within them. The question in either case ought to be: What heart beats within us? How can a heart be changed? Can it be done at all? The story of the rich young man asks that question bluntly: Who then can be saved? (19:16-26) Both chapter 12 and 19 give hint that God indeed can effect that change. Only God can do so. (19:26) God can clean evil spirits and replace them with the Holy Spirit. As a matter of fact, it must happen. (12:43-45)
You see, it never was the church’s mission in the first place. It was and is the mission of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Being received as missionaries is a prerequisite that only the Holy Spirit can accomplish. In other words, the ground that the missionary walks on is prepared by heaven itself. If the missionary is not received hospitably, it is merely a matter of the place not being ready. Jesus warns the disciples of this when he tells them not to go among the Samaritans or Gentiles. (10:5) Those places are just not prepared — yet. Time will come.
If one was to be in a church in mission one might hear this as encouragement. The ground is prepared for you. Follow the hospitality for there God has surely made ready for you to be. You are not alone. You’re not Smokey the Evangelist. It is not true that only you can save the heathen. God does that. But, and this is important, you have a part to play. Do it confidently. The soil preparation, the seed, and harvest are all God’s. All you are asked to, please, do is toss seed where they receive you.