The conditions of discipleship outlined in Matthew’s Gospel underline for us a truth—choosing anything with one’s whole heart has consequences. Choosing life with Christ means that every relationship we have must be understood from a new perspective, and for many in Matthew’s community, this choice brought division to their family.
Matthew then outlines for his community and for us the reward of hospitality offered to Jesus’ followers. To welcome another in Jesus’ name is to extend hospitality to Jesus himself. We have many opportunities in our daily life to reach out to others, to be a welcoming presence and a sign of God’s love.
Just so we get this straight: whoever welcomes you welcomes Jesus, and whoever welcomes your friend or neighbour or family member or work colleague or mother-in-law or next-door neighbour and so on and so forth…welcomes God. The bottom line emphasis seems to be on inclusion, reciprocity, welcome and doing for others—all those things it takes to build up community, to include the stranger as neighbour. Jesus and the early disciples and later apostles put a high value on welcoming and proclaiming the presence of God.
So, just pause for a moment and think about what we’ve been hearing about today, division, exclusion, keeping people separated, kicking people out. Now there may be legitimate and compelling reasons to consider the economic impact or national safety issues in such things, but if an inhospitable, exclusive attitude goes along with these ideas, then they are antithetical to the teachings of Jesus who talked so very much about welcome, inclusion, hospitality.
Such an understanding of hospitality, of the obligation of welcome, dates to well before the time of Jesus. It was a matter of survival and community health which translated into the religious understanding of what God wants of us. Still today hospitality is a primary ethic of the cultures and peoples of the Middle East. Whether one is brought into a family home of Muslims, Christians or Jews, there is joy in welcoming, there is the belief that it is desired of God, the welcoming of strangers who are strangers no longer, but beloved friends, believing that in welcoming people into one’s home they are earning their crown in heaven, doing as God would have them do in welcoming the living God among us. Where and how do we experience such welcome today?
“Jesus said, ‘Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.’” Is this what we hear? Or do we hear, instead, words of separation, words of breaking relationship, words of opposition and repudiation?
So many of the ugly attitudes playing out on the world stage and in the evening news have spilled over into our popular culture, showing up in a variety of television shows with comments about the increase in bullying not only among children in our schools, but flowing out into our neighbourhoods, showing up in stepped-up immigration strictures among other things.
Where is our witness to welcoming others, and thereby welcoming Jesus and the one who sent him?
This Sunday comes just after the Feast of Saints Peter and Paul last Thursday and that is important to note. Think about Peter and Paul. They did not agree on many things, didn’t get along at all, and finally went their separate ways in the proclamation of the Gospel. Peter insisted that the early believers must follow Jewish ways, must be circumcised, must hold to the Law. Paul’s vision led him to distant lands proclaiming faith in a risen Christ and urging believers to conform their lives to that faith. What they had in common, though, was the conviction that God had visited humanity in Jesus, and that Jesus had brought something new and remarkable to humankind demonstrated in a way to live, a way to relate and a way to witness to God’s love. And they both understood that the welcome of God was an invitation to a place in God’s kingdom.
We may believe differently about the details of faith, as Peter and Paul certainly did and as Christians often do. But for us as Christians, the question of the day growing out of this gospel text asks: What does it mean to welcome, and how do we do that? What does it look like in our churches, in our neighbourhoods, in our national policies, in our very attitudes?
Jesus didn’t say that we must agree on everything, but he clearly told us to be welcoming. Like Peter and Paul, we won’t all agree on everything. And as we live our Christian faith in daily practice we are called to be welcoming, for in welcoming others we welcome God. As the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews reminds us, when we welcome strangers, we may be entertaining angels unaware.