The 13th Sunday in Ordinary Time
In his life of the 17th-century poet John Milton, Samuel Johnson wrote that “To be of no church is dangerous. Religion, of which the rewards are distant, and which is animated only by faith and hope, will glide by degrees out of the mind unless it be invigorated and reimpressed by external ordinances, by stated calls to worship, and the salutary influence of example”. To go to church in order to worship is to allow yourself to be “reimpressed” by Jesus’ saying that there are rewards for external ordinances, even if they are distant: “Whoever gives only a cup of cold water to one of these little ones because the little one is a disciple, will surely not lose his reward”.
What then happens to someone who receives a prophet because he is a prophet? Jesus says that he “will receive a prophet’s reward”. And the same will happen to anyone who welcomes a holy man or a disciple: the welcomer will have the same reward as the one he welcomes. The prophet and the one who receives him as such both stand on the same level, and both will receive a prophet’s reward, even though only one of them may be inspired by God and the other may never have said a word for God.
That is a remarkable statement. It seems to be saying that the power to recognize character in someone else is to have something of that character in ourselves. Anyone who is capable of being profoundly moved by one of Michelangelo’s frescoes in the Sistine Chapel is an artist, even though he may never have painted a single brush stroke. Anyone who can appreciate the grandeur of Milton’s “Paradise Lost” has something of a poet in him, even if he’s a “mute, inglorious Milton”, as Thomas Gray describes him in his “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard”: someone with talents that were never discovered.
Any recognizing of character in another person involves some likeness to that character. The woman of Shunem pressed Elisha to stay and eat there because she recognized that he was a holy man of God. That was her way of entering into the prophet’s mission, and she shared in the prophet’s work and reward, even though his task was to anoint the kings of Israel, and hers was only to bake Elisha’s bread. Anyone who helps a prophet, because he is a prophet, has the makings of a prophet in himself or herself. So long as prophet and helper have the same spiritual motive, they will have the same reward.
There is much encouragement for all of us in this. Even if we never utter a word of prophecy, if we give recognition to the workers who are trying to serve God, and do what we can to help them, and identify ourselves with them as fellow members of Christ’s body, then his saying will apply to us: “Whoever receives a prophet because he is a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward”. Monks who have a contemplative vocation, and can only give silent sympathy and prayer and help, are one with the people they help. That was the reason Pope Pius XI declared St Thérèse patroness of the missions, even though she never left the Carmel of Lisieux.
The doctrine of reward has one other element that St Paul speaks about in the second reading: Christ “died, once for all, to sin”, and “you too must think of yourselves as dead to sin”, not devoting any part of your life to pride or any other sin, but taking up your cross and following in the footsteps of Christ. If you lose your life for his sake, you will find it, not as a right, but as a gift; not as a reward, but as a free bestowing of God’s love. And then, however feeble may be your efforts, however, limited the things you can do, your life will be worthy of Christ. And you will find, to your own amazement and to God’s glory, that the one you love will be your judge, that in welcoming others you have welcomed Christ, and he in turn will welcome you in to his eternal kingdom.