Two weeks ago, Minister Kim exhorted us to truly welcome one another—not just tolerate each another. I think Jesus is doing the same this week—he explicitly says, “Whoever welcomes you, welcomes me.” Remember this is a continuation of last week’s speech to the disciples as Jesus sends them out on his behalf. So this is the promise to them—the promise to sheep he is sending out in the midst of wolves: That they and he are not separate—that they are emissaries, they are representatives, they are “stand-ins” for him. And he will consider how they are treated as if it were himself.
As a Matthew 25 congregation, this should ring some bells for us. Where else does Jesus talk about this association of how we are treated and how he is treated? Of course, the answer is Matthew 25 in the parable of the sheep and the goats—the parable where we are told that how we treat the least of these, our brothers and sisters, we are treating Jesus. I wonder if this was a familiar talking point for Jesus. But what strikes me today is the movement of how to present the idea.
Here we see Jesus trying to comfort his disciples who were probably fearful about going out into places that might not agree with them, might not appreciate the “good news” that comes mostly to those who are not in the status quo, or the privileged classes. This was a shield from rejection, a covering for disappointment, a bedrock on which to stand. Go out and do what you need to do—and know that if they welcome you, they welcome me. I can’t help but hear the opposite—If they don’t welcome you, they don’t welcome me—so… In fact, Jesus has explicitly said such earlier in this chapter: “If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, leave that home or town and shake the dust off your feet.” Jesus here is using the positive. If they welcome you, they welcome me. And welcoming gets a just reward.
In Matthew 25, there are those who welcome, who feed, who give drink, who clothe, who visit, who set free—and they do it to those who are most vulnerable in the society, most looked down upon, most invisible. And Jesus says, “Oh, you actually were doing that to me.” And the reverse is true—those who did not welcome or feed or give drink or clothe or visit or set free—are surprised at Jesus. When did we see you? We would have given YOU welcome, YOU food, YOU drink, YOU clothing, YOU visits, YOU we would have set free. But they didn’t and Jesus says, “So you did it not to me.”
Welcoming isn’t just tolerating. Welcoming is inviting the other person in, as if they were Jesus—and by this, I think he means, as if they were a beloved one, a special one, a child of God. So, what is Jesus saying today?
I think it is interesting that he talks about three types of people who are welcomed. Prophets, the righteous, and little children. Let me muse on what they might mean for us.
Prophets—these are the most difficult to welcome. Because they are loud, prophets always seem to be shouting. And prophets don’t always say what we want to hear. Oh, it’s now in vogue to chant “Black Lives Matter”—a few weeks ago the Session talked about placing links to companies that we could support because of their stance on this justice issue. Well, in those weeks, there has been a growing snowball of statements from everyone. The question is: how comfortable is it going to be for those same companies when the prophets (and that should be us) ask how many people of color there are in upper management, or what is the ratio of pay between the CEO and an entry level job, or whether they are making decisions based on their stockholders, or their employees, and other inconvenient questions. Are we willing to welcome the prophets, not just when they are out in the streets, but when they knock on our doors, and ask to come into our homes, and change our lives, and our livelihoods? Are we willing to listen to those who want to tell us what is wrong with our world? Whoever welcomes prophets, welcomes me.
Righteous ones. Now, righteous is a very biblical term. And often, even in the day of Jesus, righteous was often thought of as the arena of the religious—you know the scribes and Pharisees that Jesus was so fond of. Why would Jesus want to lift up “righteous ones”? Let’s remember that back at the beginning of his ministry (in the Sermon on the Mount), Jesus has described what he means by righteous—as those who do even more than the scribes and the Pharisees (who were seen as lifting up external piety as the greatest thing of all). What more could you do? The answer, according to Jesus, is--You could be “righteous”—be in right relationship with God and with your neighbor. As one of the Beatitudes put it, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.”
Welcoming the righteous is different from welcoming the prophets. Prophets are always shouting about what is wrong. The righteous are supposed to be living what is right. And sometimes it is easier to find fault than to come up with fixes. And I think part of that is the time and effort it takes to fix things. It might require listening to grievances until you begin to see with new eyes; it might mean taking a good look at how you think and what you think and teaching yourself new patterns; it might insist on giving up some things that are comfortable to you, but not for others; it probably will involve changes (big and small) to everything.
The righteous stand firm on the principal that not only do we need to change how our society is working, we need to fix our very lives—we need to get right with God, and get right with one another. Whoever welcomes the righteous, welcomes me.
The last image, that of those who give even a cup of water to a little one, might be the most important image of all. Why? You ask. It’s so simple, a cup of water. Everyone can do that. Exactly. Not all of us can be prophets. And most of us are still working on the righteous thing. But, that doesn’t excuse us from doing what we can, to those we can touch. I think this last group is intended to catch up the vast majority of us—we can’t get discouraged as we try to follow the prophets into a new era. We can’t get lost in navel gazing and thinking we must fix ourselves before we can do anything else. No, Jesus says, even if you do something, even if you look around you, and notice who is in need, and offer what you can, you are welcoming me.
And I think that is a message that we at UPC can hear. Yes, we are trying to welcome the prophets—and that means creating ways that we can hear stories of what life has been like for those who have experienced systemic and institutional oppression. Yes, we are trying to welcome the righteous—and that means creating ways to think about how we have participated in structures and systems and how we make internal steps towards being right with God and right with one another. But if nothing more, we are told that we each have a role, we each have something to give, we each are expected to give, we each can welcome Jesus, every day.
I was taken by the commentary on this passage by Seasons of the Spirit. It said, “What this passage seems to suggest is that faith is not blind obedience, but rather an allegiance to a braver love that falls outside of our everyday comforts. It is a faith not in money or success, popularity or security, but in the love of God who commands only that we love God and others, especially the marginalized.” (p. 52 Pentecost1)
It is a faith that calls us to find the prophet,
Find the righteous one,
Find the little one who needs a drink of water,
And welcome them, for they just might be Jesus.
May we be willing and able, with God’s help, to do our part. Alleluia, Amen.