First reading: Jeremiah 20:10-13
Psalm: Psalm 68(69)
Second reading: Romans 5:12-15
Gospel: Matthew 10:26-33
Link to readings.
If a common thread is to be found between today’s First Reading (2 Kings 4:8-11, 13-16) and the Gospel (Matt 10:37-42), it probably lies in the idea of “welcome”. The reward promised to the Shunamite woman who welcomed and gave hospitality to the prophet Elisha foreshadows the promise contained in the Gospel for those who “welcome a prophet because he is a prophet”.
There is a delightful humanity in the thoughtful provision the Shunamite woman made for Elisha: a small room on the roof of the house, containing not only a bed, but also a table, a chair, and even a lamp. These basic gestures of hospitality, offered simply out of respect for a man of God and with no thought of a reward, receive in fact a wonderful reward: next year, she and her husband, childless up to this point, would rejoice in the gift of new life: “you will hold a son in your arms”. So too, according to the Gospel, even so simple a gift as a cup of cold water will not go unnoticed by the Author of life.
But the idea of “welcome” is only part of what is contained in the Gospel. First there is a very challenging instruction of Jesus, warning that “anyone who prefers father or mother to me is not worthy of me”. The challenge doubtless reflects the situation of believers for whom the threat of persecution was very real. In cases where some members of a family were Christian and some were not, the stark choice between “preferring” mother or father to allegiance to Christ faced such believers daily.
A glance at our newspapers or television screens makes clear that this was not simply a challenge for the first generations. Many Christians in countries where they are a minority or where inter-community divisions with a religious basis are intense, will hear this part of today’s Gospel with a sense of far deeper relevance.
We, who live in societies that are either majority Christian or tolerantly post-Christian, do not face the challenge of the Gospel so starkly. The problem for us is to hear the challenge at all—or at least to hear it and not simply dismiss it as extremist and impossible of application in the world in which we live. The words of Christ, however, do apply to all believers. If we are simply comfortable in our world, largely sharing its values and aspirations, then there is probably something that we are failing to notice, some aspect of Christ’s message that is not getting through.
It is here, perhaps, that the second part of the Gospel text, with its sense of “welcome”, comes into play. One of the truly striking features of Matthew’s Gospel is the sense of “Emmanuel - God with us” which attends the presentation of Jesus from beginning to end. It comes to a climax, of course, in the parable of the Great Judgment (25:31-46) where, over and over again, we hear the refrain, “As often as your did it (or failed to do it) to the least of my brothers and sisters, you did it (or failed to do it) to me”. Exactly the same identification appears in the central statement in the present text: “Anyone who welcomes you, welcomes me; and those who welcome me, welcome the one who sent me”. The theological dimensions of this statement are profound: the stranger who stands before us comes not simply as an emissary and representative of Christ but of the Father who sent Christ into the world. In dealing with this person we are dealing with our God.
This theme of welcome and hospitality in the second part of the Gospel does perhaps, in a very complementary way, point out where the challenge contained in the opening words applies for followers of Christ in a First World situation. As scarcely ever before in human history, save perhaps in the immediate aftermath of World War II, have so many of our fellow human beings been displaced and on the move. Strangers in their millions line up at frontiers or make risky, desperate voyages in an attempt to escape for themselves and their children from war, tyranny or economic misery. In contemplation of this mass movement the words of Christ may not seem so far away and inapplicable as at first sight.
Paul’s message to the Christians of Rome in the Second Reading, Rom 6:3-4, 8-11, stresses the radicality of the change effected in baptism: it is really a “death” to an old existence dominated by selfishness and sin and an entrance into the world of the new creation inaugurated by the resurrection of Christ. There, in union with him, one “lives for God”, caught up in the rhythm of his self-sacrificial love.
Brendan Byrne, SJ, FAHA, taught New Testament at Jesuit Theological College, Parkville, Vic., for almost forty years. He is now Emeritus Professor at the University of Divinity (Melbourne). His commentaries on the Gospels can be found at Pauline Books and Media