40 “Whoever receives you receives me, and whoever receives me receives the one who sent me.41 Whoever receives a prophet because he is a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward, and whoever receives a righteous man because he is righteous will receive a righteous man’s reward.42 And whoever gives only a cup of cold water to one of these little ones to drink because he is a disciple—amen, I say to you, he will surely not lose his reward.”
The dialog shifts from a focus on the disciples in mission, to those they encounter on the way. No doubt they have already met people along the way who enthusiastically greeted Jesus, and were willing to offer support and shelter to the disciples. They are perhaps not committed to the more rigorous demands of discipleship, but there is a positive attitude to the disciples and their mission. Jesus is happy to recognize this less committed level of following him as good and true, and which deserves and will receive its reward.
These verses are not simply a commentary on hospitality. Underlying such sayings, with their repeated implied reference to receiving the one being “sent”, is the principle later enshrined in the Jewish legal institution of the šälîaḥ, the “one sent,” an ambassador or representative who was understood to have the full authority of the one who sent them. It is those who recognize such authority in the disciples who will welcome them, just as it is those who recognize Jesus as God’s representative who will welcome him. The unspoken corollary (but spelled out in Luke 10:16) is that those who reject the disciples on their mission are guilty of a far graver fault than merely lack of hospitality to a fellow human being; they are rejecting God. (France, 413)
Jesus’ words appeal to the deep, understood tradition of Israel. The “prophets” were those sent from God and are to be received as having the authority of God as regards the message sent. Jesus’ reference to the apostles as “prophets” is not new in this passage. In 5:11-12, he has already connected the disciples in their suffering and persecution to “the prophets who were before you.” In Israel’s understanding, welcoming (or reception) of the prophets would yield a prophet’s reward, i.e., the blessing conferred (1 Kgs 17:8–24; 2 Kgs 4:8–37). The parallel reference to the “righteous” is the same message. In Mt 13:17; 23:29 “prophets” and “righteous people” will again be paired as a way of speaking of the godly, there with reference to the period before Jesus’ coming.
There is sometimes a tendency to read “little ones” as to imagine children. But this is (apart from 18:6-14) a manner is which Jesus identified the disciples. France (415-6) writes: “Compare also the designation of true disciples as ‘little children’ in contrast with the ‘wise and intelligent’ in 11:25. So here there is no indication of a reference to children as such (though the saying would of course be applicable to a child no less than to an adult) or to any special sub-group; all disciples are ‘little ones.’ Those who go out to represent Jesus in a hostile society have no status, and may easily be pushed aside. It is only when people recognize the special significance of these ‘little ones’ through their relationship to Jesus and to ‘the one who sent him’ that they are willing to take them seriously, and so to welcome them with acts of basic hospitality. The cup of cold water is an essential though inexpensive provision in a hot climate, an act of expected hospitality as well as of kindness. It is not much, but even that little (‘just one,’ representing monon, ‘only,’ emphasizes how little it is), because of the attitude it represents, is enough to bring the reward.”
- Eugene Boring, “The Gospel of Matthew” in New Interpreter’s Bible. Ed. Leander E. Keck. Vol. 8. (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1994–2004) 261-4
- R.T. France, Matthew: An Introduction and Commentary, Vol. 1 in Tyndale New Testament Commentaries (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1985.) 192-3
- R.T. France, The Gospel of Matthew (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publication Co., 2007) 406-416
- Daniel J. Harrington, “Matthew” in The Collegeville Bible Commentary, ed. Dianne Bergant and Robert J. Karris (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1989) 876-78
- Scripture – New American Bible, revised edition © 2010, 1991, 1986, 1970