Proper 8A | Matthew 10:40-42
This short gospel reading doesn’t seem like much. But if you’ve been following along the last few weeks, then you know it is anything but simple. Not even close. The context is huge and even more so when we place it in an even wider context.
Let’s start with one of the Bible’s most famous stories captured in Genesis 18 and 19. Here, Abraham is visited by three men bringing great news to Abraham and Sarah. They will have a baby, even though they are long past peak fertility! God’s promise is solid. So this becomes an even more beautiful and human story when Sarah can’t even contain her response to this ridiculous generosity. She laughs. At God.
Then the three men begin to leave, and Abraham, the good host, sees them on their way. And as they go, they set their sights on Sodom. And here, we get this rich inner dialogue from God. God is wrestling with whether or not to tell Abraham what they’re about to do.
And God decides to show Abraham the truth because God has called him into this way of being. He needs to see.
So God reveals his plan to destroy Sodom and its sister city Gomorrah for the graveness of their sin. Abraham pleads and bargains with God to spare them. If God can find just one righteous man.
We know what happens next. God sends two angels into the city where Lot now lives, he treats them with hospitality, but warns them that nobody else will. And worse. They will abuse them. Soon, the scene grows ugly and Lot and his wife flee the coming destruction.
Faithful people throughout history have wrestled with the meaning of this story and what made the sin of every man of Sodom and every man of Gomorrah so grave. But given who God calls Abraham to be, that sin is more obvious.
We are called to hospitality.
What juxtaposes these figures, not Abraham and Lot, but Abraham and the people of Sodom is how they treat the stranger.
And despite what we might think, the opposite of welcome and showing hospitality isn’t ignoring the newcomer, it’s abusing them. It’s treating them like they aren’t people. As if we aren’t equals. Like putting up separate water fountains or beating our neighbors for daring to sit at the same lunch counter. Or attend our same schools.
But it’s also putting our religious symbols in front of courthouses and encouraging psychologically harmful rehabilitation services.
But the most powerful part of the story for us, may be the transition moment between the two halves of this story. The place where Abraham shows such good hospitality to the three men and God decides to show him what it is God rejects.
This is hard for many good Christians to wrestle with. We hear a lot of bad stuff all the time, we want to deal with the good stuff. But there’s a reason we need to see it. We need to wrestle with what it really means.
To do that, we need to move to a second idea. First was welcome and hospitality. The second is this: what is a prophet?
One who helps us see.
We have a strange relationship with prophets today because we don’t all have a clear understanding what the word prophet means to the Biblical writers.
The most common understanding of a prophet comes from any number of movies and books, often with heroes and villains and highly fantastic stories. From these we understand a prophet as one who prophesies or shares a prophecy. Prophecy plays a huge role in Harry Potter, for instance. And in that case, prophecy is a kind of future-telling, what we might call precognition: knowing before it happens.
Prophecy has traditionally carried some of that. But more importantly, it is the wise understanding of the present moment. Prophets take the signs around us and know what is happening and what will be. Not because of magic or superpowers, but because of wisdom and God’s sharing of truth with them.
It didn’t take a crystal ball for Martin Luther King, Jr. to know he would be killed. And when, in his final sermon, he preached of his coming death, he was being prophetic. He didn’t see that moment in his brain. He knew because of wisdom. He knew what was being revealed to him in the form of the FBI and white supremacists.
He was also being prophetic when he preached every other Sunday. When he preached on the march and at the Washington Mall, too.
Prophets share what’s going on. And in our world, we have a hard time hearing the divinely inspired for the political punditry.
This is our context for Jeremiah and Matthew.
In both of these readings, we get the prophets. But they’re not sharing happy times in the midst of sunshine and rainbows, but instead the promise of peace coming in the midst of struggle. Like God’s promise to Abraham, not only in the midst of his personal struggle with age and infertility, but in his cousin’s moving into the world’s most evil city.
It isn’t just the good news that is important, but the context into which it is shared and received.
For Jeremiah, it isn’t that all the prophecy of war is wrong, it is that when the prophecy of peace is heard, we might know that it is even possible. That this is God’s true light. Not to talk about the good stuff and ignore the bad. But to usher in peace.
When we attack the prophet for naming the pain and injustice we see in our world, we aren’t ourselves bringing peace. We are continuing the violence. Both in our own retaliation toward the truth-teller and in maintaining injustice for the illusion of peace.
That’s how Jesus can say to his disciples
“Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.”
And speak to them as prophets and the righteous and the hospitable ones. For the prophecy doesn’t matter without the welcome.
The Good Ones
There is a lot of pressure on us as disciples, followers of Christ, to be “the good ones.” To do the work for two. That while it takes two to tango, if one of the people refuses, we have to somehow dance both parts anyway. Somehow flinging their limp carcass around the dance floor.
We hear preachers like me say to go change the world. Overcome their hate with your love. But we know that mostly sounds good. But experience says that the nice really do finish last. Those dire warnings of Jesus seem like the consequence of doing hard work!
We always demand more love from other people. That they love more. Even when their experience of living in this world has shown them that they love and love and love and it is never reciprocated back to them.
This is why Jesus was so eager to tear down the Us vs. Them mentality in his followers. For as long as we divide the world into our tribe and not our tribe, we will preserve our safety first. Our physical, intellectual, emotional, psychological, spiritual safety first. And every attempt to bring justice and peace will be a threat to our way of life.
We put the onus on our neighbors to be the good ones because we already see ourselves as righteous.
Jesus reveals this different way to his disciples through his ministry. And he reveals it in chapter 10 by inviting them into this. He connects that different way of the Beatitudes and teaching on turning the other cheek and giving your cloak with your coat to their lives by showing them what is ahead of them. Of all that they will face. His prophetic preaching is about revealing the truth of their mission and who they are to be.
He doesn’t name them as “the good ones” and the other as the bad. It isn’t that they are righteous and the world is full of unrighteous.
Like God to Abraham, Jesus reveals to us the brutality of the world and its distance from God’s dream for creation. And that is tremendous because like Abraham, he believes that it can be changed. Jesus believes that through us the world can be redeemed. Because he also says that if you just give a cup of cold water to one of these, you are in.
You don’t have to be perfect! This doesn’t cost you everything, but it does cost your righteousness. It costs your being “the good one.” And your chastising another for not being good enough.
It takes hospitality and generosity at a time of scarcity. Love in a time of hostility.
It takes sharing your water when life has taught you to damn it up and hoard it. For your team. Not knowing that everyone and everything and all of creation is our team.