Yes, the Gospel text is not about the hospitality we provide, but about the hospitality we receive. “Whoever welcomes you, welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me” (v.40). It sets hospitality as a standard of effectiveness. What are the proper metrics for judging the strength of a church or a ministry? We think it is numbers—how many? But what if it was in grace given and grace received? That is surely harder to measure, but it is significant, at least Jesus seems to think so.
Having called the disciples together in order to send them out, Jesus then warns them about the difficulty of the task ahead of them. “Sheep among wolves,” he stresses, “when they hand you over” (when, notice, not if) and “when they persecute you in one town, flee to the next.” Wow, that makes you want to sign up, doesn’t it? Oh, of course, he says, “I’ve got your back. God’s got your back.” He’s numbered the hairs of your head, so don’t be afraid. Right. Never mind that they might have been numbered, but they are falling out at an increasing rate! Meaning, God’s got you, but that doesn’t mean you won’t suffer loss. But the loss isn’t eternal; the loss won’t define you.
Then after all that scary stuff, Jesus concludes these impossible mission instructions with these few verses on welcome, on being welcomed. “Whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones…” To you, in other words, to the one who comes in my name. The little ones are the beginners, the ones just starting in faith, just making their first foray into the mission field.
But wait, then there is the “in the name of a disciple.” So, what is happening here? Is Jesus talking about the hospitality the disciples will receive as they go out to do what he sends them to do? Or is he talking about the hospitality that is done in their name? Is he talking about the effect of their mission? The only answer to these questions is yes. Yes, he is talking about the hospitality that the disciples receive, and, yes, he is talking about the impact of their presence on those they go to meet. He’s talking about the effect of loving the people enough to welcome and be welcomed. Hospitality, like love, isn’t a one-off moment, a one-time experience. It is a way of life, a way of being and living in the world.
He is saying, it seems clear, that you will be welcomed if you are a welcoming presence; that you will transform lives, even if only in small, seemingly insignificant ways like offering a cup of cold water on a hot day, only if you are transformed yourself. It isn’t our words that bring this grace; it is our whole being, our whole presence.
That is why we can say, “we welcome everyone,” but not be welcoming in practice. We can say “everyone is invited,” but put up all kinds of barriers in how we interact with the stranger in our midst. We can say “everyone is included,” even while our attitudes and behaviors exclude as a matter of course. Opening our mouths must be preceded by opening our hearts.
Notice how Jesus never gives a script, never tells them what to say. “As you proclaim the good news” is as close as he gets to being proscriptive. The implication is that this good news is proclaimed as much through our living as through our speaking, as much through our attitudes and the disposition of our faces as through whatever words we might find within us to speak. Oh, speaking is important. We “must give an account of the hope that lives within us.” But the ones who don’t lose their reward are givers of cups of water not proclaimers of proverbs.
The hospitality we receive is related to the hospitality we give. The love we give is related to the love we receive. That’s how this works. We can’t scare people into the arms of God, but we can love them there. We can’t force people into the fellowship of the church, but we can welcome them there. This text tells us that hospitality is not an add-on, not an extra in the busyness of our mission and ministry. It is core. It is what defines us. A quote sometimes attributed to the poet Maya Angelou is illuminating here: “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
No matter who originally said it, we can all sense the truth in it. There is something significant in how we welcome and how we are welcomed. Jesus is telling the disciples that this road of making disciples, sharing the good news is a difficult one, but that there are blessings to be found on it. Often, those blessings are small and simple and likely to be overlooked. But if we open our eyes, open our ears, and open our hearts, we’ll begin to experience those treasures in the kin-dom of God right now.