Reflection for Sunday – July 2, 2023
Readings: 2 Kings 4: 8-11, 14-26a; Romans 6: 3-4, 8-11; Matthew 10: 37-42
Preacher: Susan K. Roll
Pastoral ministry can be discouraging, whether lay or professional. Sometimes we set ourselves up for frustration. When I was teaching at a Roman Catholic seminary, I told seminarians, “You will be called to accompany people who are in pain, people who angrily question God, ‘Why did you do this to me? I’m a good person!’ I said, “You cannot give them pat, complacent or simplistic answers to the mystery of suffering and fear. But you can walk with them in the darkness and pain, and help rally others in the faith community to do so.” Sometimes the guys would shoot back with, “But we’re the priests! People expect us to have all the answers!”
It could be that this is where the first generation of Christian believers found themselves after Jesus was no longer to be seen among them on earth. They didn’t have all the answers and were often clueless as to the questions. In last week’s Gospel reading from Matthew, Jesus is seen to reassure his followers several times, “Do not be afraid.” This week, we get a better idea of what they were afraid of, and what they had no answers for.
Matthew was using the same source material as Luke, the so-called “Sayings Source,” but he gives it a few different twists to meet the needs of his own community in the late first century. Matthew was clearly writing down what his community most needed to remember from all the oral and written stories about Jesus of Nazareth that had been passed along. In this week’s passage, Jesus’ words are almost unbearably harsh. It’s amazing they didn’t all turn tail and run.
The language smacks of extreme rhetoric. “Unworthy of me” signals extreme social shame. “Whoever does not take up their cross” sounds like Jesus predicting his own death, but of course this was written three generations later. The memory of Jesus’ betrayal, interrogation and crucifixion was never far from the minds of Christian believers who still lived under Roman military control and risked the same fate.
Clearly, families split apart when one or several members accepted the new Christian faith. In a society based upon the patriarchal family and the entire system of duties and obligations it entailed, this meant that adhering to Christianity could never be merely a personal preference.
What colors this otherwise daunting reading with hope and light is its shift to the theme of hospitality. Offering a cup of cold water to a traveler in a hot, dehydrating climate is the absolute minimum form of hospitality that was the custom in the ancient Middle East. A more demanding custom was that of offering food to hungry travelers who ask while they’re on the road. The host was expected to take responsibility for the traveler as their guest for three days—the length of time that the food was thought to remain in the body. That meant securing their safety and seeing to their needs from the host’s own resources.
That was the cultural background for the hospitality expected of a believer to other believers. The language used here implies a good deal more: it’s not a simple “drop by for coffee,” everyday sort of welcome, but more like the official reception of someone commissioned to act as an ambassador for a more highly-placed government official, perhaps the monarch. “Whoever receives you receives me, and whoever receives me, receives the One who sent me.” These are profoundly affirmative words. No one who speaks a message based on their faith speaks on their own, or acts merely out of their own limited authority. A greater authority always underlies the representative’s presence and gives credibility to the person’s words. The one speaking and acting from the light of faith is never alone.
Nor are we. The “cup of water” offered to one of the lowest ranking members of the body of Christ can become that cup of coffee offered to a recently widowed neighbor, or the spouse of a person on a long journey with cancer, or parents who have heard nothing from their troubled child.
Would our words and actions toward those close to us who are in pain and searching for answers be different if we were conscious of being the living presence of the risen Christ to them? What if we saw every conversation as an opportunity to speak words of healing, reassurance, or simply unconditional love?
And what if our churches did the same?