Thursday, June 29, 2017

Rewards of the Righteous

Matthew 10:40-42, the gospel lesson appointed for the Fourth Sunday after Pentecost, is an unusual text for several reasons.  First, it is only 3 verses, second it focuses almost completely upon rewards, and lastly it comes as an assurance to the apostles who are sent out "like sheep into the midst of wolves" (10:16).  As such it is hard to categorize in our traditional categories of law, gospel, or call to obedience.  The question is:  What is a promise of assurance?  Is it good news?  Is it the call to obedience?  Or is it actually a way of unmasking our fears?

(The following questions are not meant to be exhaustive, but simply to lift up some of the fundamental concerns of Law and Gospel preachers.  These questions come from the appendix to my brief guide to Law and Gospel preaching, Afflicting the Comfortable, Comforting the Afflicted, available from or amazon.)

1.  How does the Word function in the text?  Since Jesus is clearly announcing rewards, this text functions mainly as gospel.  It is certainly good news to the disciples to know that the people who welcome them will be rewarded, since such people are apparently going to be rare given the "wolf-like" characteristics of those to whom these "sheep" are called.

2.  How is the Word not functioning in the text?  There is not a clear word of Law here - no word which exposes our need for Christ.  In the verses prior to these we hear all about the hardships likely to come upon those who are called to "take up their cross and follow" Christ, but here these hardships are not mentioned.

3.  With whom are you identifying in the text?  We are those who are called to follow, and who are receiving assurances here that all who welcome us will receive their reward.  Even those who give us a cup of cold water are rewarded.  We too,when we do the same, are assured of a heavenly reward.

4.  What, if any, call to obedience is there in this text?  This text assumes the call to follow has been answered.  The disciples addressed here, however, are not called to further obedience, but assured that as they follow, God will provide for them through those who welcome them.

5.  Exegetical work:  The NRSV translation is curious to me in that throughout the passage the word "whoever" is used:  "whoever welcomes you... whoever welcomes a prophet... whoever welcomes a righteous person... whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these."  This translation suggests the presence of a subjunctive (i.e. contingent) circumstance.  In the Greek text we see that this is not the case, except in the last phrase.  The RSV, though less inclusive, has it right:  "He who receives you receives me... He who receives a prophet... He who who receives a righteous man."  There is no contingency, only the thought that when this welcome happens, a reward comes.

Kittel has an interesting article on the word for reward (misthos):  "As agape is relationship to the neighbor, so its reward is connected with the final destiny in the kingdom of God of those to whom it refers.  Thus he who receives a prophet because he is a prophet, or a righteous man out of regard for the greatness of the obedience which he demonstrates (Mt. 10:41), or he who in the burning heat of the eastern sun simply gives a disciple a cup of cold water because he is a disciple (Mt.  10:42), will have a place with him in the kingdom of God (misthos lambanein)." (Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, vol. IV, p. 700)

6.  How does the Crossings Community model work with this text?  Lori Cornell's analysis, archived under Year A Gospel for the 2nd Sunday after Pentecost, 2011, is a good example of interpreting this text as a call to obedience.  Cornell takes this text as an exhortation for us to welcome others, showing how essential that is, and what may be at stake when we fail.  See the complete analysis by going to study.

Blessings on your proclamation!

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