In our first reading today from the Second Book of Kings, we can relearn an important lesson about God and God’s relationship with us.
The Old Testament story is told of an influential Shunemite woman who opened her home to the prophet Elisha as he was ministering in the area. She recognized Elisha’s holiness and wanted to be supportive of him. She arranged for a room for him in her house. Elisha was grateful and asked his servant Gehazi if there was something the woman needed. “Yes, indeed,” he said, “she has no son and her husband is aging.” Elisha called the woman and predicted to her that, within in the year, she would be a mother.
Our Gospel reading today gives us a way to interpret the story of Elisha and the Shunemite woman. Jesus says, “Whoever receives a prophet because he is a prophet
will receive a prophet's reward, and whoever receives a righteous man because he is a righteous man will receive a righteous man's reward.” This is to clarify for his listeners that if a person is generous with someone representing God, that person is being generous with God and God will be generous with the person in return. When a servant of God receives welcome from someone, that person will be rewarded. So it went with the Shunemite woman. She hospitably received the prophet Elisha and was granted her deepest wish to have a son. This says something similar to what the Scriptures say in another place, “God loves a cheerful giver.”
It is interesting to note that the prophet or righteous person Jesus is speaking about in today’s Gospel is really the Christian disciple. To be disciples of Jesus, persons make radical decisions about their lives, like Jesus did. Jesus says that worthy disciples make him their number one relationship: “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.” The disciple makes a relationship commitment with Jesus like Jesus made with his Father. But there is something even more radical about discipleship. Disciples leave themselves open to whatever consequences in life the relationship with Christ brings them. This is the kind of openness Jesus spoke about to his Father in the Garden of Gethsemane, “if this cup cannot pass me by, your will be done.” Such openness meant for Jesus, of course, going to his death on a Cross. Jesus describes a similar commitment for discipleship: “whoever does not take up his cross and follow after me is not worthy of me.”
As the disciple identifies with Jesus by a radical life decision for him, Jesus, who has made his own radical decision for his Father, identifies totally with the disciple. The disciple becomes interchangeable with Jesus. When you see one, you see the other. Jesus explains, “Whoever receives you receives me, and whoever receives me receives the one who sent me.”
So the disciple is someone who is the presence of Jesus and of the one who sent him. And however anyone acts toward the disciple, he or she is acting toward Jesus and the Father. “Whoever receives you receives me, and whoever receives me receives the one who sent me.” Whenever someone receives Jesus as a prophet or a righteous man, that person is rewarded. Whenever people receive the disciple as a prophet or righteous person, they are rewarded. Jesus is clear, “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.”
To receive the disciple is to receive Jesus and his Father. To be hospitable to the disciple is to be hospitable to God—and God responds with divine generosity.
What is interesting about this identification between the disciple and Jesus is that just the presence of the disciple is an invitation to people to be generous with God. Elisha’s presence was an invitation to the Shunemite woman to be generous to God through her generosity to him. And she was. And she was rewarded. As you and I move about in the world, we are an invitation to all we meet to be generous with God. And if they are, they experience God’s generosity in return. Just the presence of someone so radically identified with Jesus is an invitation to others to open out to God and be blessed.
As disciples of Jesus, we think a lot about service, about strategies for using our gifts for the Kingdom. But we do not often think that our simple presence in a crowd is sometimes the magic that opens people to God, invites generosity to God and becomes the occasion for blessing for them. What I am saying is that we can easily forget that our simple presence can be sacramental to others, that when we show up as Jesus would show up, a spiritual opportunity is present to those around us. Long before we even do or say anything, the radical image of Christ in us can itself begin the process of evangelization and conversion and the reception of God’s blessing.
Long before we develop skills for ministry, long before the concrete plans are made to be of help to people, our presence alone is a gift of grace. “Whoever receives you receives me, and whoever receives me receives the one who sent me.” If you and I as disciples stay radically attached to Jesus, if you and I grow our hearts for loving to death, we are already in service of a world searching for God. Our simple presence will spark recognition of goodness, truth and beauty deep in the hearts of other human beings. Who we are, the way we are present, can already open people to new relationship with God. We are sacraments long before we open our mouths or engage in helpful service. The presence of the “little ones,” the prophets, the righteous persons Jesus speaks of in the Gospel today, is the beginning of God’s blessing on human lives.
The great challenge for us, of course, is to personally cultivate our identity with Jesus and his Father. We cannot show up as disciple when we are not. How deep is our personal love for Christ and how ready are we for whatever love will ask of us? This is our first formation, to become ever more radical in our relationship with Christ and ever more open to the Cross. When I am like that inside, it will be noticed. It will have social effect. And others who welcome us will experience the reward of their welcome. The is the “newness of life” Paul speaks about today in our second reading from Romans.
This Eucharistic moment is a time for us to make more radical our relationship to Jesus and deepen our openness to loving others to the death.