‘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.’
(From St. Matthew’s Gospel, chapter 10)
The past week has seen riots, raves, crowded beaches and crowds of celebrating football fans. It might make you wonder whether we’re living in lockdown or a period of liberation.
We can sometimes fail to appreciate that God’s eternal word of challenge and hope is
played out in the lives of individuals, their stories, their places and times. Recovering that understanding, and learning something of the culture and geography in which the Bible is set can help us gain fresh insight into God’s word.
Take for example, the words from Matthew’s gospel about a child and a cup of cold water.
To the Jew of the first century AD people fell into a rigid social order. Men and women, the elderly and children, the healthy and the sick, the Jew and the foreigner all had their specific place in society. And a person’s status defined their place, and importance.
Yet we often find Jesus overturning convention. And here Jesus provocatively places children alongside disciples, prophets and the religiously upright when, in Jewish convention, they would have barely featured in most people’s considerations outside the family home.
And the offer of a cup of cold water, so familiar and seemingly mundane, would have been transformative in a society where much of the land was arid and the temperature for most of the year unremittingly hot. A cup of cold water signified the recognition of an honoured
guest, with all that such a status implied. Jesus places that status on a little child, and
turns the understanding of his disciples on its head.
God does not see us, as human beings so often see one another, according to age, or
status, or wealth. God does not weigh our value according to the colour of our skin, or our nationality, or our position. He looks for how we love one another, and for how we demonstrate that love in the liberality of our care.
In our other reading (Jeremiah 28 verses 5-9), we’re transported six centuries before the time of Jesus, to the court of King Zedekiah; Judah’s last and perhaps most fickle king, and to a titanic religious struggle between two authoritative prophets with competing messages.
Prophets held a particular status in the days of the kingdom of Judah, at least in theory.
But other kingdoms, the kings of Judah had coerced much of the prophetic tradition into
an adjunct of the state, with the central purpose of amplifying the voice of the royal court, just as the state apparatus, and even parts of the Church did in Nazi Germany, and as much of state-controlled media does in Russia and China today.
Standing outside this convention was Jeremiah, who refused to conform. For days, weeks, even months the seemingly eccentric Jeremiah had been carrying a yoke around on his shoulders; the kind of wooden apparatus usually reserved for animals drawing chariots or wagons, or for beasts working the fields. His message was simple and consistent; accept the yoke of the Babylonian Empire. It was an uncomfortable message, not least for Jeremiah, whose reward was the displeasure of the King and many at the royal court. The prophet Hananiah brought a more palatable message; good times for no effort just around the corner. It was pie in the sky… but it was what people wanted to hear; people who wanted an easy life.
Hananiah smashed the yoke Jeremiah was carrying, but despite that, and the hostility of his audience, Jeremiah saw through the lie and stuck to his guns, and to the inner
promptings of God.
The proof of the pudding, said Jeremiah, is in the eating. And within months Hananiah
was dead, and Judah was plunging towards disaster.
Like Jeremiah and like Jesus, we must make sense of our faith in the present, and listen to God’s inner prompting to lead us on a good path, even if it sometimes seems at odds with the world.
And in this present hour we are called to look after one another, and particularly the most vulnerable amongst us liberally, even if there is a cost for us; a need for self-restraint. Cost-free solutions are usually not the right answer, and sometimes we have to look at things differently in order to understand them truly.