And if anyone gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones who is my disciple, truly I tell you, that person will certainly not lose their reward.” Matthew 10:42
The language of Sunday’s gospel lection (Matthew 10:40-42) should sound familiar to those acquainted with Jesus’ parable of the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25:31-46, also known as the parable of the judgment of the nations. In both passages, Jesus talks about giving a drink to “these little ones” who belong to him.
This Sunday’s selected reading concludes the tenth chapter of Matthew in which Jesus sends out his disciples to the lost sheep of Israel. Like Jesus, they are to proclaim the nearness of the kingdom of God and demonstrate its nearness in acts of power. They are to “heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse those with skin diseases, and drive out demons.” (Matthew 10:8).
Jesus sent his disciples without “gold, silver, or copper for your money-belts. Don’t take a traveling bag for the road, or an extra shirt, sandals, or a walking stick, for the worker is worthy of his food. When you enter any town or village, find out who is worthy, and stay there until you leave.” (Matthew 10:9-11)
The disciples’ humility and vulnerability were part of the mission; they demonstrated the depths of God’s love and compassion in Jesus. Without resources of their own, the disciples were literally dependent on the kindness of strangers for food, drink, lodging and clothing.
In Matthew 10, it is those on the receiving end of the disciples’ ministry who were expected to feed the hungry, shelter the sojourner and clothe the naked – that is, the disciples who took no money, no clothes and who depended on the hospitality of strangers during their mission.
If the people who heard the disciples’ message and experienced their works of power offered them hospitality, it was a sign that they had accepted the disciple’s message. If they withheld hospitality, it was a sign that they had rejected it. The future destinies of those who heard the disciples’ proclamation depended on whether they welcomed or rejected the message and the messengers.
If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, leave that home or town and shake the dust off your feet. Truly I tell you, it will be more bearable for Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgment than for that town. (Matthew 10:14-15 NIV)
The evangelist then concludes the chapter with the words of this Sunday’s lectionary reading:
Anyone who welcomes you welcomes me, and anyone who welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. Whoever welcomes a prophet as a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward, and whoever welcomes a righteous person as a righteous person will receive a righteous person’s reward. And if anyone gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones who is my disciple, truly I tell you, that person will certainly not lose their reward.” (Matthew 10:40-42 NIV)
The little ones who need a drink of cold water – and food and shelter and clothing – are Jesus’ disciples. This is also the case in Matthew 25:36-41. How the lost sheep of Israel receive Jesus’ emissaries – his little ones, his disciples – is ultimately a sign of how they receive Jesus himself and his gospel of the kingdom. “Anyone who welcomes you welcomes me, and anyone who welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.”
[See my lengthy treatment of this imagery in The Least of these My Brethren, from which these remarks are extracted.]