The Value of the Vulnerable
A sermon on Matthew 10:40-42 & Genesis 22:1-14
[for an audio recording of this sermon, click here. Photo by Morning Brew on Unsplash]
In my first career in the non-profit world I had responsibility for planning a number of conferences and events. The point of these events was the information being shared. So, of course we wanted as many people as possible to attend. And since we sometimes had sponsorships to cover the costs, one might think that the best practice would be to offer the programs for free. Surely more people would come if they did not have to pay, right?
Well, not necessarily. As it turns out people tend to associate more value with an event if there is a cost to attend. They will make it a priority, because they expect it to be worth their investment.
I think that this principle for recognizing value can translate in a way that is helpful for interpreting our gospel reading, with its heavy focus on “rewards”:
“whoever welcomes a prophet… will receive a prophet’s reward;”
“whoever welcomes a righteous person… will receive the reward of the righteous;”
“who ever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones… none of these will lose their reward.”
At first reading, these promises seem a bit mercenary, don’t they? Don’t offer welcome just out of the goodness of your heart, or because it’s the right thing to do, or because there is need in front of you… Be welcoming because there’s a REWARD in it for you!
That doesn’t sound very Jesus-y! At least not for those of us who have been conditioned by a culture in which the “reward” IS so often the point. We are constantly being bombarded by messages about “no pain, no gain,” and being told to work harder so that we can earn more, and living in a political and media context that is obsessed with “winning,” whatever the cost.
But what if this self-centered orientation is not actually the point of Jesus’s words about rewards? What if, instead, Jesus is viewing the rewards in the way that the non-profit sector views registration fees: as a way to signify the value of the activity or person to whom the reward is linked?
It’s not much of a leap for the first two exhortations: the prophet and the righteous person. In a religious context we are pre-disposed to see value in such people and to assume that it is a good and worthy thing to offer them welcome.
[Of course, if we actually encountered a prophet, with their tendency to violate social norms, challenge comfortable injustices, and remind us all how far we are from God’s will, it might be a bit harder to extend an open welcome! But at least in theory it makes sense that God would assign a reward based on the value of the prophet’s work.]
But what about “these little ones”? Well, sure! If we make a sentimental association with this phrase, picturing cherub-faced children, whom we have no trouble valuing. But that assumes our worldview, which is very different that that of Jesus’s original audience. In first Century Palestine “little ones” could certainly refer to children, but not just because of their small size, and certainly not because of their cuteness and assumed value. The term has a much more general meaning of “insignificance.” And thus, it can apply to anyone seen as unimportant. Anyone on the margins, without access to rank, or power, or influence. With this perspective, it’s much less intuitive to see the promised reward as deriving from the value of the one receiving the welcome.
It’s more natural, perhaps, to see it as a response to the generosity of heart on the part of the welcomer. God rewards those who magnanimously give to those unable to give back in return. Except… the generosity in question is pretty minor! A cup of water? That’s a pretty low bar. And so, it must not be the effort involved that is earning the reward… it must be the value of the person served!
It’s a profound claim, especially coming on the heels of the call to welcome lauded prophets and righteous people. It’s a claim that the most insignificant, most marginalized, least important members of society are just as valuable as those obviously blessed by God. It’s a claim that Jesus does not measure human value on the same scale as society does.
Which raises the question: who are “these little ones” in our society?
Well, of course there are the traditional marginalized groups, whose needs and value are all too easily ignored: people with disabilities, refugees, victims of abuse, people in poverty, gay and trans teens kicked our of their homes for coming out… any of the people told over and over again by our society’s inattention or inaction that they just aren’t that important.
And then there are the groups whose vulnerability is newly obvious to mainstream society:
The very young and old, and all with physical risk factors, whose lives might depend on a stranger’s willingness to wear a mask;
And the grocery workers, suddenly seen as essential, risking their health and families for low wages so that we can buy food;
The small business owners, small farmers, laid-off workers who don’t have savings to protect them from the devastation of this pandemic;
And, of course, every Black or Brown child of God who has to run a mental risk assessment every time they leave the house, because of the unprovoked violence they may face.
It has been far too easy, for far too long, to see so many people as insignificant, marginal, not particularly valuable. But, if even such an insignificant action as offering a cup of cold water earns a reward from Jesus… then the people treated as unimportant by society, the people who are most vulnerable … they hold deep, unequivocal value to Jesus.
But this conclusion brings us up sharp against our first reading, doesn’t it?
I’m sure I can’t be the only one who shudders when I hear this story read. It’s horrifying! A command for not just human sacrifice, but the sacrifice of Abraham’s own child?! A child who is dependent on him?! Who trusts him?! How could a God who cherishes the vulnerable command such a thing?!
And it doesn’t work to just brush it off by jumping ahead, claiming that God was always planning to save Isaac, because Abraham doesn’t know that… Isaac doesn’t know that! The story begins with the introduction that “God tested Abraham,” but what kind of perverse, sadistic test is this?
It’s an important question. What IS God testing?
The traditional answer is that God was testing Abraham’s faith, his willingness to trust God with no reservations. The author of Hebrews seems to read the story this way, reminding readers that Abraham trusted that God could raise Isaac from the dead.
But the Genesis story does not actually say what it is that God is testing.
Moreover, read in the context of the preceding chapter, God doesn’t have to test if Abraham is willing to sacrifice his own son on God’s command. He has already proved that he will: casting his son Ishmael into the wilderness to die with his mother.
But what if God is testing something else? Maybe God is testing if Abraham understands who God is. Maybe the test is to see if Abraham applies to the Living God the models for divinity that he has gathered from the cultures around him: characteristics of caprice; cruelty; and a need to be appeased?
Or, does Abraham understand that God is actually the God who values the vulnerable, the “little ones”? That God would never approve of sacrificing the weak for the benefit of the strong?
In fact, maybe the test is even harder. Maybe God is testing whether Abraham is willing to sacrifice his OWN reward – a reward he will earn through supposed faithfulness – in order to protect the vulnerable. (In the same way that God is willing to suffer, to lay aside divinity, to take on human form, and even to DIE, for the sake of the weak, the vulnerable, those who are wholly dependent on grace… in other words, for all of us).
If that is what God is testing, then maybe Abraham didn’t actually pass the the test. Maybe what Abraham demonstrated was less about his own “faith” and more about his willingness to cast aside others in pursuit of his reward. Maybe he failed to understand who God really is… that is, until God showed him.
Because the story ends with God revealing God's nature as the God who provides!
God tells Abraham to stop, with an ambiguous assessment of Abraham’s actions: “now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only (remaining) son, from me.” Abraham proved that he feared God, but that doesn’t mean he passed the test. Not if the test was to show that he understood God’s character. Not if the test to was show whether Abraham was willing to sacrifice his own good for the sake of others.
You see. if the reward for our actions isn’t the point – if it’s only a way to demonstrate the value of the people we serve, then their value is the point. Which means that we can never excuse our abuse, or even our negligence, of others because of the benefit it brings to us. And this holds true for how we invest our money, and our votes, and even how we follow guidelines to protect the public health. Our self-interest is never more important than the God-given value of “the least of these.”
Jesus calls us to a life of welcome. We are called to give service, to take care, to even lay down our lives for others not because of the reward we will earn, but because of the VALUE of the other person – even – especially – the most vulnerable.
After all, that’s what Jesus did for us.
Thanks be to God.
 Hebrews 11:17-19.