IV Pentecost, Year A
God tested Abraham. He said to him, "Abraham!" And he said, "Here I am." He said, "Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you." So Abraham rose early in the morning, saddled his donkey, and took two of his young men with him, and his son Isaac; he cut the wood for the burnt offering, and set out and went to the place in the distance that God had shown him. On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place far away. Then Abraham said to his young men, "Stay here with the donkey; the boy and I will go over there; we will worship, and then we will come back to you." Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering and laid it on his son Isaac, and he himself carried the fire and the knife. So the two of them walked on together. Isaac said to his father Abraham, "Father!" And he said, "Here I am, my son." He said, "The fire and the wood are here, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?" Abraham said, "God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt offering, my son." So the two of them walked on together.
When they came to the place that God had shown him, Abraham built an altar there and laid the wood in order. He bound his son Isaac, and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. Then Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to kill his son. But the angel of the LORD called to him from heaven, and said, "Abraham, Abraham!" And he said, "Here I am." He said, "Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me." And Abraham looked up and saw a ram, caught in a thicket by its horns. Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering instead of his son. So Abraham called that place "The LORD will provide"; as it is said to this day, "On the mount of the LORD it shall be provided."
The prophet Jeremiah spoke to the prophet Hananiah in the presence of the priests and all the people who were standing in the house of the LORD; and the prophet Jeremiah said, "Amen! May the LORD do so; may the LORD fulfill the words that you have prophesied, and bring back to this place from Babylon the vessels of the house of the LORD, and all the exiles. But listen now to this word that I speak in your hearing and in the hearing of all the people. The prophets who preceded you and me from ancient times prophesied war, famine, and pestilence against many countries and great kingdoms. As for the prophet who prophesies peace, when the word of that prophet comes true, then it will be known that the LORD has truly sent the prophet."
Do not let sin exercise dominion in your mortal bodies, to make you obey their passions. No longer present your members to sin as instruments of wickedness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and present your members to God as instruments of righteousness. For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace.
What then? Should we sin because we are not under law but under grace? By no means! Do you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness? But thanks be to God that you, having once been slaves of sin, have become obedient from the heart to the form of teaching to which you were entrusted, and that you, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness. I am speaking in human terms because of your natural limitations. For just as you once presented your members as slaves to impurity and to greater and greater iniquity, so now present your members as slaves to righteousness for sanctification.
When you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness. So what advantage did you then get from the things of which you now are ashamed? The end of those things is death. But now that you have been freed from sin and enslaved to God, the advantage you get is sanctification. The end is eternal life. For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Jesus said, "Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. Whoever welcomes a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward; and whoever welcomes a righteous person in the name of a righteous person will receive the reward of the righteous; and whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple– truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward."
Back to top
Who are ‘one of these little ones’ (ton micron)? ‘Little Ones’ is the term used in the scandal pericope ( Mt 18:6ff, par Mk 17:1ff, Lk 17:2ff). While found only here in Mark, Luke uses it of the ‘church’ (Lk 12:32 although it is not a Lukan word) and Matthew uses it of the disciples. Matthew uses it first here in our text today; he will use it again 3 times in Matthew 18: 6, 10, 14. The fourth major discourse in Matthew, the ‘ecclesiological’ discourse, contains an elaboration of a theme begun at the end of the missionary discourse on little ones and scandal.
There is another Matthean connection to be drawn. It lies in the use of the term ‘to give to drink’ (potizo). Matthew has taken over the saying from Mark which reads, “I tell you the truth, anyone who gives you a cup of cold water in my name because you belong to the Christ will certainly not lose his reward.” The Markan form of the saying has been applied to the grace of hospitality shown to followers of Jesus.
For Matthew, the cup of cold water plays a central role at the end of the ‘eschatological discourse’ where ‘potizo’ is used three times in the parable of the sheep and the goats, the parable that closes out the entire series of discourses (25: 35, 37, 42).
Who are these little ones according to Matthew in chapter 25? They are all those within the community of saints who find themselves in need. The community is called to meet those needs, no matter how small or humble. The emphasis in today’s text is not on the greatness of a prophet’s reward but the certainty that comes from knowing that caring for the ‘least of these my brothers and sisters’ is the believer’s central purpose.
There is a logic to the Matthean attitude toward ‘little ones’ in the church. We begin with the scandal narrative. How can the ‘little ones’ be scandalized? If they belong to a community of followers of Jesus and are not cared for they may wonder if Jesus is real since he does not appear to be modeled in the lives of those who claim to follow him. Did Jesus not meet needs, bring healing, show compassion, is that not the story they tell about him? Then why do these followers of Jesus behave differently? We have often interpreted the scandal text to mean that we should not behave in such a way as to cause people to lose their faith, and primarily what is preached is a morality code of do’s and don’ts so we don’t cause offense: don’t drink, don’t smoke, don’t dance, don’t be this, don’t be that because if you do people will be offended.
This text has nothing to do with giving social offense. The gospel is socially offensive; it is actively deconstructing our contemporary human culture. Matthew would turn our heads toward the fruitful display of positive mimesis, to discriminate no longer between the greatest and the least. In so doing we shall find that the least are the greatest and as we care for them we shall demonstrate that indeed we have ‘received’ Jesus and in so doing have ‘received the One who sent him.’ In this we shall fulfill what Matthew understands about being a disciple (mathetes), a follower of Jesus.
When Jesus concludes this discourse, he ends with a powerful note: if people give you a cup of cold water as you journey through life telling others about Jesus know this: God sees their devotion. Never make light of the hospitality offered you.
Jesus has told his disciples that people will not want to hear what they have to say (‘preach the nearness of God’s reign’). People will not want them to do what they have to do (‘heal the sick, cast out demons’). How can this be? Why will people reject the gospel?
The gospel breaks apart the mechanism of violence that structures our reality, our relationships and our hermeneutic (it has the power to break apart families and the violence within family systems; cf last week’s reading). This mechanism, this principality and power (A/K/A satan) is a structuring of our own creation, our own design and as a species we are comfortable with it, we have become accustomed to it, we think we need it. The gospel is a declaration of war on structures of violence but its solution to violence is not victimage or retaliation or justice. The gospel solution to violence is forgiveness and hospitality, which is peacemaking, also called reconciliation or atonement (cf Matthew 6 and 18). This is certainly the Matthean worldview.
Sadly, the ‘little ones’ are frequently our cultural and ecclesial scapegoats. The little ones; the powerless, the weak, the hurting, the abused and the abandoned make the easiest targets for our wrath. Even so, Christianity has, through its long and storied history, scandalized the world by not taking care of its own little ones.
We may say what we like about the greatness of the Bible or God, but our care for the “little ones” in our neighborhoods and in the world speaks a better word about the place of Jesus in our lives. The way we choose to include the marginalized in our societies, with those unjustly accused, these actions constitute our “positive mimesis,” our imitation of the Prince of Peace.
Matthew alters ‘because you belong to Christ’ to ‘because he is my disciple.’ Matthew’s tripartite saying prophet-righteous one-little one bears hallmarks of dominical authenticity, although it could be argued that the argument from greater to lesser [which is really lesser to greater] might also be a product of the Matthean ‘school.’
Please consult Dale Brown’s compelling demonstration of Matthew’s preference for 3’s or tripartite structures in his commentary on Matthew with W.D. Davies (in the ICC series). For Matthew’s midrashic technique Michael Goulder is best Midrash and Lection in Matthew.
As church we have a mission. Not of our own choosing, but given us by Jesus to continue his work of healing, of proclaiming GOOD news and of deconstructing the principalities and powers of this age. We do this everyday in the way we choose to relate, to exist in relationship (to acknowledge our ‘interdividuality’).
We may find this mission to be full of surprises and power, the disciples did, they could hardly believe their own eyes while they were actively involved in Jesus’ mission to Galilean villages. The God of the Bible is a God of surprises, but they are always good, kind, healing, beneficial surprises. God saw in the beginning that ‘everything was very, very good.” Joseph said that even the evil intentions of his brothers “God meant for good”, Paul says that “God works all things together for good for those who love God” and Jesus pointed out that if we, being human fathers, imperfect in many ways, and yet we love our children with our whole hearts, how much kinder and loving is God as our abba? God is good. This is the God we preach and proclaim, the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. It lies in the very act of showing this goodness to all, especially the “little ones”, that we follow in Jesus’ footsteps and reveal this God of love.