Jesus expects his disciples not only to offer hospitality, but to receive it: for through this exchange they will be transformed. (Listen.)
Last week, back when it was legal, we had a couple of school families over to mark the winter solstice. We lit a big fire in the fire pit; cooked up a storm; and gathered around our long table for a meal. We chatted and told stories, and gradually the talk turned to politics. At this point, one of my daughters entered the conversation; and she set out her strong and considered opinion on the intersection of power and violence.
One of the men looked stunned. When she left the room, he said, ‘She’s pretty forceful. But it makes sense. I mean, you and your husband are already on the margins because of your faith, and you’re obviously comfortable there … so I guess your kids feel free to express themselves even when their opinions aren’t mainstream.’
It made me stop and think. Not about my daughter’s opinions (which I happen to largely agree with), or whether she should have expressed them (I was so proud when she did); but about being seen as marginal. It’s not so long ago that the church claimed a central place in Australian life; and indeed many in the church try to insist that they are still entitled to this place. But decades of corruption and, indeed, of willing participation in the intersection of power and violence, have driven countless people away from faith and have rendered much of the church morally bankrupt (and you can fill in the gaps here for yourself).
And so of course the church occupies a marginal space: but maybe this is not something to be mourned. Maybe the margins are where we were always supposed to be. And maybe the gospel is best known in places of vulnerability, poverty, and powerlessness.
At least, Jesus seems to think so.
‘Whoever welcomes you welcomes me,’ he says: because he expects his disciples to require hospitality. Not just to be in a position to offer it, but to require it. These words come at the end of a series of instructions. Jesus has just told his disciples to hit the road. They are to announce the nearness of heaven’s culture and bring healing, taking nothing but his authority to commend them. They are to carry no bag, no money, no food, no weapons, and no status. Instead, they are to rely on others to feed, clothe and shelter them, because the gospel is realised through hospitality.
In other words, disciples are not expected to be wealthy. They are not expected to be at the centre of power, and they are not expected to be popular. Their radical trust, their words of healing, and the people they hang out with will place them in a marginal position. Because of this, Jesus warns, they might be rejected by their families, persecuted by religious organisations, and punished by the authorities: and yet Christ’s life will flow through them and into all who welcome them: for ‘whoever welcomes you welcomes me.’
Jesus then goes on to talk about rewards. He says that whoever welcomes a prophet, a just person or a vulnerable person will be rewarded in the same measure. Those of us who maybe don’t feel quite transformed yet into a prophet, a just person or a little one, often latch onto this promise. Because welcoming people, offering cups of cold water, all sounds pretty easy … until we stop and think.
Because prophets are prickly people; they’re dangerous people to have around. They speak truth about power; they challenge the status quo; they upset our expectations and turn the world on its head. And they do this even over the dinner table, destabilising polite conversation, asking people to think, marking the hosts as people who also live in the margins, and challenging us all to see through prophetic eyes. Prophets can change us.
Just people can also be hard to have around. They see how unfair the world is, and they work towards transformation. They hold themselves to account, and live authentically and transparently. They unwittingly put the rest of us to shame for our complacency, our selfishness, our trust in human things; and in doing so they challenge us to live more justly ourselves: yes, just people can change us.
And Matthew’s ‘little ones’ can be hard to have around. Everything in our culture tells us to protect our time, our resources, our money, our selves: that these are limited goods which we have earned, which we deserve, and which nobody else has a claim on. And as long as everyone around us is similarly placed, we can give away little dribs and drabs, and talk about the gospel with complacency.
But once we welcome in the name of Christ people who are marginal, poor and vulnerable, then our notions of hospitality and generosity will be seriously challenged. We will be called to prophetic speech; we will be called to justice; we will be called to a life of radical sharing. We will end up on the margins ourselves: even the little ones can change us.
And as long as we cling to being respectable, self-sufficient, mainstream, at the centre of things, this will feel very costly. And it is. Most of us have grown up in a church which is comfortable, mainstream and powerful: and who wants to give away power? Yet, as we have seen time and again, when the church is powerful, it is tempted to dominate; it is corrupted by violence. It congratulates itself for charity towards ‘those needy people’; it hoards property, power and wealth; it protects its own: and it entirely misses the point.
And the point is this: The gospel is marginal, and those who welcome the bearers of the gospel become marginal, too: yet they receive the reward. And what is the reward? It is to have Christ flow into us and through us, making us prophetic, just and humble, too; and to find ourselves in strange new contexts where we, too, proclaim good news and healing.
So I wonder: Who speaks difficult truth into your life? Whose passion for justice challenges the way you live? Who makes you uncomfortable by their very vulnerability and need?
Listen! writes John of Patmos: Christ is standing at the door and knocking. Can you hear his voice in a strident teenager, a radical feminist, a gay activist? Can you hear his voice in a Blak protester, a victim of abuse, someone on NewStart? Can you see him in the face of a hungry child? And are you willing to welcome him in? And are you willing to be changed? Ω
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