A prophet’s reward
Today we are given a very short and deceptively simple passage to ponder. Our gospel lesson about “the prophet’s reward” comes at the end of the so-called “Missionary Discourse,” Jesus’ instructions to his disciples on how to bring about God’s Kingdom here on earth. Do you remember those instructions?
- Go two-by-two.
- Take nothing with you, except the clothes and sandals you are wearing.
- Stay wherever you are offered hospitality.
- And shake the dust off your feet if you are not welcomed.
Well, these three verses SEEM to be about the rewards inherent in providing hospitality to those who are on this missionary journey. Jesus said, “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.” And then Jesus added that the one who extends welcomes will receive the reward of the person they welcome. In Matthew’s economy, welcoming a prophet gets a prophet’s reward.
Jesus was speaking to his prophets, not to those who would provide them with hospitality. Jesus was telling his prophets to radically welcome all whom they would meet, and that those who gave them the hospitality they needed would be amply rewarded by God.
Today we hear this passage differently. We have professional prophets, all telling us that if you support their work (“by midnight tonight”) we will receive a Godly reward. If we strip away our cynicism, this arrangement seems like a good idea. We can’t all be prophets, so financially supporting or extending hospitality to a prophet seems like a good exchange. Until we think about what, exactly, a “prophet’s reward” is.
Hebrew scripture tells us that prophets do not have a fun life. They are compelled to speak words not their own and to be judged and reviled and persecuted and even killed for doing things that weren’t their own choice to do. Plus, they often had to wear truly horrible attire. Where’s the reward in THAT?
This is where human error enters in. We think that because a prophet’s reward seems so lacking, that Jesus must have meant that the reward would be in the life after this one, in heaven. Focusing on what our reward will be makes us lose sight of what we are supposed to be doing, and why.
A very well-known example of a “prophet’s reward” miscalculation is the “72 virgins” who supposedly await martyrs for Allah. Perhaps you have seen the cartoon [on the front of today’s bulletin] [on the screen]. In the cartoon there are 72 Roman Catholic nuns in heaven all lined up to meet the newly arrived martyr. We Christians have our own versions of this kind of “reward thinking.” A Jesus-follower, a holy man, recently thanked Resurrection for helping him out by promising us a “heavenly payday someday.” So we all get caught up in thinking about eternal rewards for doing what we decide (rightly or wrongly) is God’s work here on earth.
An eternal reward is not what Jesus was talking about here, though. What we are supposed to be doing, as people of God, is to do the will of God. And what God wills is that we all radically welcome others as if they were God. Doing this work, God’s work, is self-rewarding. The prophet’s reward is that, when we do God’s work, we draw closer to God.
So the reward part in our gospel lesson is a distraction. The real focus here is the radical “welcome” we are supposed to extend to others, as if they were God himself. We hear today that doing this God’s work doesn’t have to be onerous. Merely offering much-needed free drink to those in need is God’s work. And this work itself is the reward.
Today’s lesson came just in time to remind me to stop worrying about how many people would come today (Too few? Too many?), and whether we could all fit into the space, and how long we would need to pack 10,000 meals to Stop Hunger Now as we worship. The lesson is that there is inherent value in helping others in need, regardless of the costs. Our reward—a prophet’s reward—here on earth will be great.