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Matthew 10:40-42 Biblical Commentary
40“He who receives (Greek: dechomenos—receives) you receives me, and he who receives me receives him who sent me. 41He who receives a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward. He who receives a righteous man in the name of a righteous man will receive a righteous man’s reward. 42Whoever gives one of these little ones just a cup of cold water to drink in the name of a disciple, most certainly I tell you he will in no way lose his reward.”
MATTHEW 10. THE CONTEXT
To appreciate fully our brief three-verse Gospel lesson, we must know the context. In this chapter, Jesus summons the twelve disciples and gives them healing powers and authority over unclean spirits (10:1-5). He then gives them their marching orders (10:5-15). He warns that they will face persecution (10:16-25). He tells them not to fear the person who can kill the body, but rather to fear God who has power over body and soul (10:26-28). He assures them of God’s love (10:29-31). He promises to acknowledge before the Father anyone who acknowledges Jesus before people (10:32-33), and warns that he has not come to bring peace, but a sword (10:34-39).
Therefore, when Jesus promises rewards to those who welcome/receive a prophet or a righteous person, the context is high-risk—a spiritual war-zone. The prophet and righteous person are taking risks for Christ, and those who help them assume similar risks. In addition to providing food, clothing, shelter, and money, they are demonstrating personal support for Christ and his church—and are serving as encouragers of those who stand on the front lines in the war against Satan and his minions.
MATTHEW 10:40-42. HE WHO RECEIVES ME
For the past two Sundays, we have heard Jesus commission the disciples. He told them, “Don’t take any gold, nor silver, nor brass in your money belts. Take no bag for your journey, neither two coats, nor shoes, nor staff: for the laborer is worthy of his food.” (10:9-10). He spoke of the dangers they would face, including persecution (10:16-20), rejection by their own families (10:21), and “those who kill the body” (10:28). Jesus’ disciples cannot expect comfort or safety as they go about carrying out their commission.
“He who receives you receives me, and he who receives me receives him who sent me” (v. 40). Now Jesus tells the disciples that he will reward those who receive them—thereby revealing a part of his plan for provisioning ministry.
He establishes a four-way partnership between God, Jesus, disciple, and host:
• God initiated the partnership by sending Jesus.
• Jesus then sends the disciples.
• The disciples take the third step by going.
• Those who welcome the disciples take the final step by providing support.
Jesus says that welcoming (receiving) the Son is the equivalent of welcoming the Son—and welcoming the prophet earns the host a prophet’s reward. This is the Jewish concept of shaliah, which regards the king’s emissary as if he were the king. The principle is still practiced today. Governments consider an affront to an ambassador as an affront to the nation. On a more personal level, parents consider a gift to a child as a gift to the parent.
“He who receives a prophet…; He who receives a righteous man…; Whoever gives one of these little ones just a cup of cold water” (vv. 41-42). Prophets—righteous persons—little ones: The movement is from high to low:
• Prophets were revered as spokespersons for God. Apostles would be of similar status, and this missionary discourse is addressed to apostles (10:1-5. See also Acts 11:27; 13:1-3; 1 Corinthians 12:28). Who is a prophet today? The term would apply to anyone called by God to speak God’s message. The promise is that the person who welcomes a prophet receives a prophet’s reward.
• Righteous persons are those who obey God. Perhaps the term in this context means Jesus’ disciples—much as we use the phrase “good Christians” today. The person who welcomes a righteous person receives a righteous person’s reward—presumably less than the prophet’s reward—there may be a downward movement here too—but a significant reward.
• Little ones can have various meanings—children (see 18:5)—the poor—those who are vulnerable. However, “in the name of a disciple,” equates “little ones” with ordinary disciples. This premise is strengthened when we look at Jesus’ discourse on the judgment of the nations (25:31-46). There Jesus gives blessings to those who provided assistance to those who were hungry, thirsty, a stranger, naked, sick, and in prison. Then he explained, “Most certainly I tell you, inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me” (25:40). “My brothers” in that context clearly means Jesus’ spiritual brothers and sisters—his disciples. Also, in 18:6, Jesus speaks of “these little ones who believe in me,” further strengthening the equation of “little ones” and Jesus’ disciples.
A cup of cold water is the smallest of gifts—a gift that almost anyone can give. “Jesus does not want our lack of affluence to be an excuse for thinking we cannot do much to help the Christian enterprise” (Bruner, 402). But a cup of cold water is precious to a person who is really thirsty—in some instances, the gift of life itself. While we would prefer, in the game of life, to be the quarterback—the hero—Jesus’ heart leans toward the water-boy or water-girl. Providing a cup of water is a valid vocation. God rewards even the smallest contribution. Jesus does not specify the nature of the reward for those who help little ones, but only assures us of its certainty.
In Luke 10:16 Jesus says, “Whoever listens to you listens to me, and whoever rejects you rejects me. Whoever rejects me rejects him who sent me”–suggesting that what we have here is more than an issue of hospitality.
“He who receives a prophet in the name of a prophet” (v. 41). What does it mean to welcome (receive) a prophet?
• It can mean providing necessary support, such as food, clothing and shelter—or money to allow the prophet to purchase those things. This would be especially significant in a situation where Christians are being persecuted.
• It can also mean accepting the truth of the prophetic message (Holwerda, 61).
Two Old Testament stories are instructive. In both, the host provided for the basic needs of a prophet. Each received a gift of life:
• In the first story, the widow of Zarephath, who expected to die of hunger, honored Elijah’s request for a morsel of bread after Elijah invoked God’s promise that her food supply would not fail. As a consequence, her “jar of meal shall not empty, neither shall the jar of oil fail”. Later, when her son died, Elijah restored him to life (1 Kings 17:8-24).
• In the second story, a Shunammite couple provided food and a comfortable room for Elisha because he was a holy man of God. As a reward, Elisha promised the childless couple a child. The child was born and grew up, but then died—and Elisha restored him to life (2 Kings 4:8-37).
“He who receives a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward. He who receives a righteous man in the name of a righteous man will receive a righteous man’s reward” (v. 41). Jesus uses “in the name of” to make the application specific. “‘In the name of’ is a Semitic expression meaning ‘because one is'” (Boring, 263). The welcome is extended because the welcomed person is a prophet—or a righteous person—or a disciple. Jesus is not commending general hospitality here, but hospitality to disciples. He uses a similar phrase in 25:40 when rewarding the righteous for feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, etc. “Most certainly I tell you, inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.” Note the phrase, “my brothers”. No doubt Christ will reward us for kindness to any vulnerable person, but the emphasis in these passages is hospitality to disciples.
There are costs associated with receiving prophets, righteous persons, and little ones:
• One cost is financial. It is no small matter to attend to the needs of other people. It is expensive to feed them or to provide money for their living expenses.
• Another cost is personal. To invite someone to live in our home is stressful. Most of our homes have just enough room for our families. Fitting additional people may involve sleeper sofas, sleeping bags, and turning the living room into a bedroom. Guests invade our personal space and limit our privacy. For those of us who are set in our ways, such changes are difficult.
• Another cost may be danger to oneself and one’s family. Jesus warned the disciples that they could expect opposition—persecution. Host families can find themselves caught in the crossfire.
We tend to imagine that great Christians will receive great mansions in the kingdom, while the rest of us will receive lesser mansions. The idea is questionable, because salvation is a gift rather than something earned. However, our Gospel lesson implies that there might be differing rewards for prophets, righteous persons, and little ones—and differing rewards for those who receive them.
There is good news for us in these words of Jesus:
• First, Jesus assures us that those of us who have not seen Jesus in his human Incarnation are at no disadvantage. Those who received him while he walked this earth’s pathways will certainly be rewarded for their service to him, but we are eligible for the same rewards if we receive his prophets, righteous persons, and little ones today.
• Second, Jesus assures us that modest circumstances do not limit potential rewards. The person of ordinary means and the person of great means are both promised a prophet’s reward for receiving a prophet. The person of ordinary means can receive the prophet only modestly, while the person of great means can receive the prophet in grand style—but both the ordinary and the wealthy person are promised the same reward for their hospitality.
• Third, we are not required to be a prophet to receive a prophet’s reward, but have only to receive a prophet. We are not required to be a great saint to receive a great saint’s reward, but have only to show hospitality to such a saint. The smallest gift to the littlest disciple brings its reward. Just as God knows and cares about every hair of our heads, so also God knows every generous act in behalf of the faithful. Such gifts are counted as gifts to Jesus—and gifts to Jesus are counted as gifts to the Father. Jesus therefore establishes a direct line of blessing from the littlest disciple to God.
• Fourth, those of us who are engaged in the Lord’s work are assured that those who help us are promised a reward. That is true whether the Lord’s servants receiving support are clergy or layperson—preacher or janitor. Both are providing essential ministry service. God has ordained that our receiving will become a blessing to the giver.
And so we come to the conclusion of the Sermon on Mission (9:35 – 10:42).
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
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