Gains or Loss?
Our Gospel reading is a continuation from last Sunday. Jesus is commissioning the apostles as they begin to minister. Jesus not only gives them authority, but he also prepares them with good advice and what we would call “full disclosure” of the hazards and dangers of the task. They are not to pack all kinds of supplies, but should accept the food and shelter offered to them. They are told not to fear, but instead trust in God’s care. Now, just 5 sentences remain in what Jesus has to say.
The first two sentences are conditions of discipleship. First, he says, “Whoever loves father or mother or son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.” This would make an unlikely ad for a job opening. This was a particularly outrageous idea in the 1st century Middle-East. “Family” at that time meant extended family, all living together in the same compound. The idea spouse was a cousin. Should you turn your back on the family, all financial and emotional support was withdrawn, and you would lose any claim to the family land or the produce from that land. In short, you would find yourself homeless, without food, shelter, clothing, or love.
Now we better understand why he says his disciple must take up their cross; this discipleship will endanger their relationships, their future, and their lives. “Whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” suggests danger, while also promising rewards.
As I wrote this, I couldn’t help but think of thousands of people who have gone to war or signed on to high-stakes adventures hoping for rewards. Why did men rush to Alaska when gold was discovered? The possible monetary rewards somehow out shadowed the probable frostbite and death. Why do soldiers still become paid mercenaries, if not the reward of money, adrenaline rushes, and glory? What is the difference here between these people and the apostles?
Well, the apostles would sleep under trees, go hungry at times, depend on benefactors. Peter’s denial of Christ was based on having the kind of fame no one wants. Their material possessions would be minimal; they would endure ridicule. They would fear the collaboration of the Jewish leaders with the brutality of the Romans. But above all else, they believed Jesus to be the Messiah, who taught and led and healed like no one else. They witnessed his miracles, and innately sensed his authority, both of which were unquestionably divine in origin. They were seeking –not rewards- but the privilege of his presence.
The last three sentences of Jesus’ closing remarks to the apostles are about rewards. Oddly enough, it’s not about the rewards for being an apostle, but the rewards people would get for the hospitality and receptivity they offered the apostles. Matthew wrote, “If you receive a prophet as one who speaks for God, you will be given the same reward as a prophet.” To “receive” prophets is to listen to their teaching, to entertain them generously; and show them respect because they are faithful ministers of God.
What is the reward for doing this? The prophet may interpret the Bible to you, or share wisdom. Besides , there is God’s reward: a place in the kingdom of God, a reward of grace; since both prophet and host, in their own ways, serve the Lord.
A righteous person is kind and good, and you show respect to them purely because you recognize the Spirit of Christ within. And the reward? The righteous person will not fail to pray for you, to bless you, and share their faith with you. And both of you gain eternal life.
What about the cup of cold water? It seems a little thing. But think of the climate and geography of the Middle East. A cup of cold water even today can literally be the difference between life and death. Pope Francis recently wrote, “Access to safe drinkable water is a basic and universal human right, since it is essential to human survival and, as such, is a condition for the exercise of other human rights. Our world has a grave social debt towards the poor who lack access to drinking water, because they are denied the right to a life consistent with their inalienable dignity.” Put in such terms, it no longer seems a little thing.
But Pope Francis makes a good point, in that he brings Jesus’ teaching into the light of 2017. Perhaps you would want to explore how drinking water is provided to areas with none, and what agencies or foundations do this. That could be our national charity next year. We are accustomed to donating money as a way to share our faith and care for our needy. This is good; funding is crucial.
We cannot walk the ancient road of Judea with Jesus, but we can walk in Food cupboards, soup kitchens, recreation centers, ESL classes, in prisons, in nursing homes and hospitals. We can walk in our own neighborhood, especially as this church is so close to subsidized housing and struggling schools. We need to learn about the Muslim faith, and build relationships with the Muslim families we live near and work with. Nothing brings peace better than one-on-one friendships. This is the way we put Jesus ahead of bias and counteract the hatred and violence that puts the innocent on crosses.
We have two copies of this book*, which I highly recommend. It is easy reading, and answers a lot of questions about multi-faith interaction in a changing world. I would ask that you circulate these books so everyone has a chance to read it, and then maybe we can have an after-Mass discussion group after Labor Day. I don’t think Matthew was thinking about the 12 apostles when he wrote this teaching about discipleship. I think he was thinking about us.
*Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road? (Christian Identity in a Multi-Faith World) by Brian D. McLaren, 2012, Jericho books ISBN 978-1-4555-1395-6 (pbk)