These final verses [from Matthew 10] take up the matter of the reception of the disciples by those to whom they are sent. Jesus tells the disciples that when people receive them in their mission they are actually receiving Jesus himself. In fact, they are receiving the God who sent Jesus to send the disciples. Hospitably receiving the disciples is an act of receiving God…Receiving a prophet because one is a prophet is to receive a prophet’s reward. Receiving a person who is truly righteous is to receive a righteous person’s reward…To give a cup of cold water to a disciple, a “little one,” will also bring a reward to the hospitable one….
Scholars have also maintained that the “least of these” in the judgment parable in Matthew 25:31–46 (vv. 40, 45) also refers to the reception of the disciples of Jesus. The parable announces that the Human One who comes from God to judge the nations will separate them like a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats…The sheep inherit the kingdom prepared for them because they saw Jesus hungry and thirsty and a stranger and naked and sick and in prison and ministered to him. The righteous are stunned! [They] are totally unaware of their own righteousness. Thus it is always the way with the truly righteous. They never keep score of their own righteousness…Reception of “the little ones,” deeds of mercy done to the “least of these,” has its rich reward in the eyes of God.
The contrary is true of the goats that are to depart into eternal fire. They failed to see Jesus in the face of needy humanity…“When did we not see you and not minister to you?” [They] have kept score of their righteousness and they seek to present their case before the judge. But the judge says, “No!…as you did it not to the least of these, you did it not to me” (20:45).
There is much food for sermonic thought in these parallel verses from Matthew 10 and 25. One could preach a quite surprising sermon on “true righteousness” based on these verses. In our contemporary context another possibility comes to mind. We live today in an incredibly new multifaith world. This can be just as true for people living in rural areas as for people living in urban settings. Our neighbors today might very well be Muslims or Hindus or Buddhists or any of a vast panoply of religious backgrounds.
How do we live in a multifaith world? How do we relate to our neighbors of many faiths? …In our outreach to people of other faiths we become the “little ones”; we are “the least of these” …those who receive us with hospitality receive Jesus as well! Those who offer us a cup of cold water shall not lose their reward. [Richard Jensen, "Ideas and Illustrations," Homily Service 38.7 (June 2005): 43-45.]
Richard Jensen is Carlson professor of homiletics emeritus at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago.