Matthew 10:40-42

Most Sunday evening, my wife works the overnight shift at her hospital and therefore takes a nap in the afternoons. Some weekends, like this past weekend, she works both Saturday and Sunday nights. As one might imagine, trying to keep a four-year-old and two dogs quiet the whole afternoon gets old fast, so I’ve begun a habit of going over to my parents to spend the day. I pack some clothes for Lexi, bring food for the dogs, grab my running gear, and load up Lexi, the dogs, and myself and drive down to Littleton to spend the rest of the day with my parents. Once there, we sit down on their deck, let all the dogs play together, and watch Lexi explore outdoor adventures at Grandma’s house. As my mom and I talk, the subject of church often comes up as my father is a pastor at a church in Denver and my mom is highly involved as well, organizing the food bank and other ministry programs. Since church is such a big part of both of our lives, often our conversations revolve around us “comparing notes” about each other’s churches!

Inevitably, she shares her frustrations with some of the behaviors of the many people she serves at her church—and in fairness to her, she has every reason to be offended. Often, she interacts with people who are dishonest, disrespectful, and down-right disgusting in some of their behaviors—people trying to steal food, people lying about their family needs, and people behaving in repulsive ways.  Listening to her complaints, I can understand why she gets so frustrated with people who behave in these ways. Whether we mean to or not, we have this tendency to place expectations on people to whom we are being generous or kind—we expect them to recognize and appreciate our generosity/service/kindness/etc. that we are so wonderfully bestowing upon them.  And if they do not—well then, they are not deserving of our kindness, service, or generosity in the future!

In fairness to us, we’re set up for this expectation by what we see on TV so often; a politician serving soup at a homeless shelter to happy, smiling faces, an athlete having fun with a group of low-income children at a sports camp, a celebrity visiting young people and their families at the local children’s hospital. What the film crews edit out are the clips of the drunk, homeless man yelling at the server about getting a bigger serving of food, the clips of the young kids quarreling with their siblings and refusing to listen at the same sports camp, and the clips of child or family so overwhelmed and exhausted from their health issues that they refuse a visit from the big-name celebrity.  In other words, in real-life, helping people isn’t always as glorious as what it’s made out to be in commercials and expect in our minds.

People are people, dealing with their own issues and struggles—just as we’re not always friendly and receptive to the store clerk or restaurant server who shows us excellent service, neither sometimes are the people who we are helping. Their thankfulness should not determine whether or not they receive our help—it’s not our decision to make. Yet, it is a decision we often do make—deciding who is and is not deserving of our help, charity, or kindness. If you’re like me, you have a mental check-list in your mind of who is worthy of our service and giving—children, veterans, and single moms—and those who we think probably just need to “get a job.” Show me a child who is suffering or a veteran who is struggling with PTSD or some other ailment from war and I’ll rush to help—but show me a middle-aged homeless drunk man and I’m not nearly as passionate or enthusiastic to come to his aid. We like to pick and choose who is deserving of our help.

The thing is, this directly conflicts with what Jesus taught. In the verses we read today from Matthew, Jesus said we are to welcome and receive, and that God looks kindly on those who give even a cup of cold water to a “little one.” But what we don’t always catch in our reading is that Jesus said we are to help no matter what. One commentator says it this way. When we find someone in need, we should give to that person as if they too were a disciple of Jesus, regardless of whether that person does, in fact, fit into any definition of “disciple” that we know.[1] Jesus wants us to treat the people we meet as equal to us and deserving of our help whether or not we ourselves perceive them as being equal or worthy of our help. Basically, it’s not our job to judge, it’s our job to serve. After all, it’s in service to others that we make Jesus visible to others. If we never welcome and serve, Jesus has no opportunity to be made known to others.[2]

Sure, I get that it’s hard when our giving and kindness is not reciprocated with the gratefulness and appreciation it does deserve, but that’s no excuse for us to stop showing love and kindness to everyone. Love is not always met with love.[3] Sometimes, love is met with crucifixion. Remember, Jesus came to our world offering love and welcome, yet beyond being simply ungrateful, there were people who were so unappreciative and disrespectful of his gift of love and grace that they had him killed! Yet this is indeed the beauty of Christianity and the mystery of following Jesus; crucifixion is followed by resurrection! When we serve others, when we show Jesus’ love and welcome, when we give to all those in need—even if the people seem ungrateful, even if the people seem disrespectful, even if we are rejected—something good is happening within us. Our old ways, our old attitudes, our old behaviors of determining who deserves our kindness and who does not, these old ways, attitudes, and behaviors are dying within us, and out of that is arising a new us and a new way of looking at the people around us.

The importance of Jesus’ teachings of showing kindness to everyone cannot be understated—nor can its relevance. In Washington, our politicians are leaders are debating who is “deserving” and “undeserving” of affordable healthcare. We all want to make sure there is affordable healthcare for children and veterans, but we find ourselves far less sympathetic towards people who we feel to be undeserving, people we think should just “get a job.” What would Jesus say? Is our kindness and compassion to be limited to those we deem worthy? Or are we to treat that person as if they too were a disciple of Jesus, regardless of whether that person does, in fact, fit into any definition of “disciple” that I know? I believe the principles of Jesus teaches us to live by extend beyond simply our own day-to-day lives and rather into the way we live with one another in society.

And they also extend into our places of worship, our churches. It’s easy to get the idea that church is supposed to be about us. One commentator says that we are not “consumers” but “providers of God’s love”: we’re not supposed to seek a place of safety and reassurance in the church–it’s not “a hideout,” not “the place where those of us who know the secret password can gather to celebrate our good fortune,” and we are not people chosen simply because we deserve God’s love and kindness. Instead, God wants to disturb churches that have become members-only meetings and remind us that it is time to share.[4] When we look at ourselves as privileged and exclusive recipients, we assume our church and our ways of practicing church are sacred and untouchable. If instead we see ourselves as equal recipients of God’s grace and love, we’re willing to let new people in and their new ideas, we’re willing to reconsider what it means to be church and how we practice church, because God’s gifts are not unique to us and we recognize God’s gifts in others as well.

To live in the way of Jesus may require us to turn from familiar patterns of behavior that do not welcome others,[5] it may require us to recognize that our positions of privilege are not that privileged after all. To repent, and see that we have been given God’s love and grace like every single person on this planet. And the fact that we recognize that doesn’t make us special or more important—rather it compels to share that love and kindness with others so they too see the love and appreciation God has for them. And sometimes, that means doing things differently—which is what it truly means to repent.  God doesn’t want us to feel sad or sorry, that’s more self-centered thinking—God wants us to change our mind and do things differently!  Our task as disciples should be active service, inspired by seeing Jesus in the faces of others in need. We serve him by serving our neighbors.[6]

Once again, I’m reminded of the story of the Good Samaritan. Remember, religious scholars came to Jesus trying to get Jesus to define who was and who was not their neighbor. They knew the teaching that they were to love their neighbor, but they wanted to strictly delineate was deserving of their love. It was in this this context Jesus told the story of the Good Samaritan. We too come to Jesus and ask, “who is my neighbor? I’m okay helping the child or the veteran, but not the immigrant or the homeless man. Jesus says not only are we to love our neighbor, but Jesus also reminds us that we’re all neighbors. And more, Jesus teaches us that in welcoming those different then us, in showing kindness to those others may label as undeserving, and in even giving a cup of cold water to a thirsty person—in doing this, in treating each person as a beloved child of God, we welcome and receive Jesus and the one who sent him…God.

 

[1] L. Mark Davis, “Welcoming and Watering,” LeftBehindandLovingIt <https://leftbehindandlovingit.blogspot.com/> (accessed June 29, 2017).

[2] Liddy Barlow, “Living by the Word: July 2, 13th Sunday in Ordinary Time,” in The Christian Century 134, no. 12 (June 7, 2017): 21.

[3] Emilie Townes, “Matthew 10:40-42: Theological Perspective,” in in Feasting on the Word, ed. David Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, Year A (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2011), 3:191.

[4] Barbara Brown Taylor, quoted in “Even a Cup of Cold Water,” <http://www.ucc.org/daily_devotional_even_a_cup_of_cold_water?utm_campaign=ws_jun23_17&utm_medium=email&utm_source=unitedchurchofchrist> (accessed June 29, 2017).

[5] Emilie Townes, 192.

[6] Liddy Barlow, 21.

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