“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.”
So, today we have a passage about welcome and hospitality. We all know about hospitality don’t we? When someone calls round, what do you do instinctively? You put the kettle on! The importance of hospitality is so ingrained in us that we do it without thinking: it’s second nature and it’s through that hospitality that we express our welcome. It’s a social ritual that we don’t even think about because it’s so commonplace: “They’ve taken the trouble to get here, they must be in need of refreshment, I’ll put the kettle on.”
It struck me, though, that “welcome” as a concept is a bit over used today: “Welcome to Yorkshire” the road signs say; many people have welcome doormats; we encounter supermarket welcomers these days, but it’s all meaningless if it isn’t accompanied by an attitude of hospitality.
Hold that thought.
Our Gospel writer this morning, Matthew, in this chapter, organized many of Jesus’ teachings about discipleship where Jesus tells us what he expects of his disciples. The twelve were to carry out their mission to preach and teach and heal. They were to dress simply. They were to expect persecution. They were to follow Christ as role model and represent him to others in attitude and behaviour and they were to love God more than their family.
In today’s little extract, though, Matthew subtly changes the emphasis of his teaching away from what is expected of the disciples to what the disciples can expect from those they encounter: he talks about hospitality and welcome and we know from earlier in this chapter that Jesus encouraged his followers not to waste their time where they were not welcomed: If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, leave that home or town and shake the dust off your feet. Sounds pretty harsh. We don’t tend to concentrate much on this idea: it seems to strike a duff note in Jesus’ general teaching but in the context of his earlier lament about the harvest being plentiful, but the labourers few, it makes perfect sense because we get an intriguing sense that here Jesus is saying something about how best to maximise precious time and resources. He seems to be saying, “There’s a lot to do and time is short. Don’t waste time where you aren’t welcome. Move on to where you are.” These first disciples had a simple approach: they were to go to the needy: the sick and blind and crippled; those with leprosy; those who experienced suffering. They were to go to people who had experienced a real need for God’s help in their lives. Jesus later said: “Healthy people don’t need a doctor; it is sick people who do.”
I find this quite refreshing because, of course, as latter-day disciples we are also expected to follow this principle. We can’t do everything, we can’t be everywhere, we can’t support everyone: that way lies guilt and burn-out. No, we’re to concentrate on those people and places where the signs are encouraging, where there’s evidence of a potential harvest and we would do well to remember the parable of the sower which teaches us that while God’s word is sown everywhere, it doesn’t always take root and it’s for us to discern where there is evidence of growth and to work with that. One of the modern approaches to mission and ministry is to be reactive: to see where God is already at work and to join in with him there otherwise we risk using precious time, resources and emotional energy only to find that it’s wasted. We need to be a bit more like the farmer who sows the seed and then concentrates on gathering in the harvest of what’s grown before worrying about where it hasn’t grown.
This is a message I’ve had to learn in the prison and I’ve had to learn to be guilt free about it: there’s a belief amongst some prisoners that as a Chaplain, I wield huge influence: that I can get someone transferred cells or wings or even prisons; that the Governors are at my beck and call and will do my bidding. Generally, as soon as I disabuse them of these notions, those prisoners rapidly lose interest in me. They aren’t interested in what I might have to offer, only what they hope they can get out of me.
On the other hand I now have a number of cells I can call in on for a cup of tea and a chat and where I am welcomed. Consequently, as I never refuse hospitality, I’ve had to get to know where all the toilets are. So I chat to random people and drink tea. Is that mission? Yes it is in its broadest sense. I’m going to where I am welcomed. Which of the two is the best use of my time? It’s a no-brainer!
So, hospitality as a sign of welcome: there are so many passages in scripture that talk of hospitality. Is it not to divide your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into the house; when you see the naked, to cover him and not to hide yourself from your own? (Isaiah 57) Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by this some have entertained angels without knowing it (Hebrews 13). Now these two examples show how we’re supposed to behave to others but there are also passages that illustrate how Jesus’ followers were received: Now as they were traveling along, He entered a village; and a woman named Martha welcomed Him into her home. (Luke 10) and Now in the neighbourhood of that place were lands belonging to the leading man of the island, named Publius, who welcomed us and entertained us courteously for three days (Acts 28).
For Jews and Christians, such hospitality has always been a part of who we are. The call to welcome the stranger is anchored in the Old Testament and was a part of the measure of the Jewish community's faithfulness to God and the same was true in the early Christian communities where hospitality still measured the faithfulness of God’s people. Welcoming prophets, righteous ones and disciples was a disciplined practice of the young churches.
However, there’s a potential downside to this isn’t there? The travellers in these examples were rarely family or friends. These were people unknown to the community who welcomed them. They were aliens, often foreigners: people who had different foods, different clothes, different languages, and different gods. Opening your home was risky.
Today we'd describe such a thing as naïve and dangerous. Just as the human need for hospitality is a constant, so, it seems, is the human fear of the stranger but such hospitality was central to the Jewish and early Christian identity. The risk did not define the people; their hospitality did, because they knew such hospitality was central to the character of their God. This is why so many faith groups offer practical help and support to refugees, to the homeless and so on: this is why we collect food at the back which goes to a foodbank to help those who have fallen between the cracks of our welfare state in a time of austerity.
So what’s the moral for us in this passage?
Matthew comes back to this idea later in the Gospel in chapter 25 when he teaches a parable to the people: it’s become known as the parable of the sheep and the goats and it develops the theme of hospitality and its rewards.
When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.
Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’
Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’
The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’
Now this is a parable that can be taken in two ways: it’s certainly a reminder for people of faith about our responsibility to those in need but it speaks also of those who Matthew was referring to at the start of today’s Gospel extract: those who would find themselves unexpectedly offering hospitality to the passing stranger.
Look at their surprise at finding themselves on the right side of God’s grace, Really? When did we do these things? And the answer is clear: When you cared for someone in need, you cared for me.
So, in offering hospitality we are a means of grace to others and in receiving hospitality we allow others to be a means of grace to us.
Let’s always be that sort of outward looking church: a church where passing strangers find hospitality and sanctuary; a church where we offer kindness, support and a home which might only be temporary but which might become permanent as people recognise that this a place where God’s grace can be found and experienced with no strings.