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Cold Cup of Water in the Face

Could it be that Simple?

by Russell Rathbun

Gospel  Reading:  Matthew 10:37-42

For Sunday, June 26 , 2011: Year A – Ordinary 13

Let us begin with a thought experiment. Suppose you are walking down the street of a large American urban center. You are, perhaps, going to dinner or the theatre or shopping or maybe you are lost and decided it would be easier to park you car get out and find someone to ask for directions.

At that moment, you are approached by someone who—let us use the phrase—“looks like a homeless person.”

“Spare a Dollar?”

This “homeless person”—and let’s be clear, you do not know the status of this person with regard to home or anything else he just “looks like a homeless person” what ever that might mean to you—this “homeless person” approaches you and says, “Excuse me, could you spare a dollar?”

Maybe he says, could you spare a dollar for the bus; or I need a dollar to buy a hamburger; or I just need one more dollar to get a bed in the shelter; or maybe they just say could you spare a dollar, giving no explanation.

Do you?

The question is simple do you give him a dollar? You don’t know what he will use it for. It might be drugs or alcohol. Can you get a hamburger for a dollar? Are you really helping him? There are larger issues at stake here.

“And whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones—will not lose their reward.”

A cup of cold water?

I love it. Could it be that simple? I think it could. The ethics of the Kingdom of God, concise, elegant, pure, freeing—and practical. It addresses our situation on the street. But it also has larger implications. It answers the great question “how then shall I live?” You should be nice.

If it is embraced, this simple little instruction, takes one out of the realm of moral law, intellectual, ethical philosophizing and puts one on the street—with another person.

It does not start at the top with a grand notion of how the Kingdom of God should restructure society, it simply says, in the most mundane of situations—give a cold cup of water. Offer the most basic of kindness to a stranger.

Water.  A cold cup of water.

Kingdom Kindness

Jesus is not even talking about a situation where someone dying of thirst. It is so casual. “Hey would you like a drink of water?” It tells us to treat a stranger the way we would treat someone who is a guest in our home—can I get you something to drink. It is a way of seeing the world—seeing all people. It is about seeing the other as one of your own. It is about basic human kindness—it is just being nice.

The ethics of the Kingdom of God surely can have implications for global warming or may be able to address poverty and violence—but first it is concerned with being nice to people.

First a drink of water then you can chat a little bit, ask the other about their family, show them pictures of your kid. Tell them a funny story about your cat—then you can move on too how going to MacDonald’s is ruining the rain forest.

My Dethroning

This little verse is also amazing in its freedom. It tells us straight out. Give the man the dollar. “Well what about . . . .” Yeah, forget that. For me to reason out what the appropriate uses are for that dollar and to assess this strangers ability to act rightly—to judge what is best not only for him, but then to extend that to deciding its effects on society as a whole, what makes the world a better place—well, that puts me in charge of the whole world doesn’t it? It makes me “God.”

But that beautiful little cup of cold water, dethrones me, knocks me right out of heaven and back down on the sidewalk.

“Oh, you want a dollar?  Here.  Hey, I’m lost can you tell me where Shinder’s is?”

I love it.

I am just not sure that, that is what this verse is about.

The Hardest Question

Could it be that simple?

Russell Rathbun is a preacher at House of Mercy in St. Paul, Minnesota, the author of Midrash on the Juanitos (Cathedral Hill Press, 2010) and the curator of The Hardest Question.


  1. Nancy Walker says:

    Yes, it is that simple. Jesus instructs us to treat others like equals, like brothers and sisters, without judging. I have been doing this for years, and I have been truly blessed by it. And others have told me that they have been blessed by my attitude, too. And yes, sometimes I have been duped, sometimes people have not used good judgement in their use of my generosity. But that is not my fault, each of us only has to answer for our own actions.

  2. Kurt Lammi says:

    I like this commentary, but I often struggle with the role of being ‘nice’ in Christianity. Yes, we should have good manners and help people – but ‘nice guys’ don’t go and get themselves crucified. If Jesus was just about being ‘nice’ to other people, he would have been Mr. Rogers not the Savior of the world. Yet, quite often the Christian message gets turned into the ‘golden rule’ of ‘Be nice to people.’ (Isn’t it especially boiled down to that for kids and youth? Maybe that’s another question regarding developmental levels. On the other hand, how many Christian youth groups are really about keeping the kids off the streets, out of trouble, away from drugs and alcohol and premarital sex, and being ‘nice’?) Is that all our faith is about?) Given that society does work well when we are nice to each other, what does it mean to be a Christian in this society that can ‘nice’ itself to death? The Red Cross is nice, so what makes nice people in nice clothes in a nice church on a nice Sunday morning who do nice things for people any different? Well, Jesus is what makes us different…but what difference does Jesus make for us? If proclaiming and living out and ushering in the Kingdom of God got Jesus killed, what difference does the Kingdom of God really make for us today if it’s just about the nice manners we learn in kindergarten? Sure, the message of the Kingdom is simple, but I don’t think it’s always that easy.

  3. Michael Skellig says:

    A cup of water says, to me, buy the guy a meal, buy the guy a bus pass. It doesn’t say, to me, give the guy a dollar he could buy booze with. Many panhandlers are fakes and everyone knows that. Jesus was so practical and street-wise.

  4. Beach Walkin says:

    “Oh, you want a dollar? Here. Hey, I’m lost can you tell me where Shinder’s is?”

    I like this. You aren’t giving the person a dollar or water or whatever and then preaching to them about Jesus. You are simply giving. For me, that’s where Christians fall off of the tracks sometimes. We give, and we have expectations of what should be done with what we give. Momma taught me that if I give a gift, then it is that person’s gift, they can do with it what they please, and I don’t have any say so.

    Further, gifts also don’t come with strings attached. Now that I gave you this awesome gift (in my eyes), now you have to do what I want (in our case it’s often listening to me talk about my Lord and Savior). I just wanted the water, not a speech or some sort of string.

    Last, unity, equality, mutal respect, all are in that last phrase – can you tell me where Shinder’s is? Here is what you need, I have a need too. That’s equality. This type of action shows we as Christians don’t know everything and the Lord knows it’s time we admit it.

  5. Joel Walkley says:

    I’m not so sure that this text is about being hospitable as it is about receiving hospitality. This follows Jesus’ sending the Disciples (The harvest is plenty and the laborers are few). Its not so much about be nice to people on your way; but a warning to be prepared to not be received well. But don’t fret – if they reject you they reject me; if they receive you, they receive me. I wonder that the take-away from this text is that we need to put ourselves out there in situations where we might receive hospitality in Jesus name – mission.

  6. Chris Stead says:

    Buy the burger, buy a coffee. In the UK, at least, people are on the street pretty much for one reason only – addiction. Don’t think that you’re helping the guy by giving him money. Money feeds the addiction, it doesn’t help; practical care helps. And no, I’m not good at it – I need to hear Christ too.

  7. Rebekah Eckert says:

    It would be interesting to hear what people who are homeless think about this passage.

  8. Lindsay Faulkner says:

    So often we judge the victims and so miss the the opportunity to give a cup of water, a cup of Christ’s love, in the harsh reality of daily life!

  9. Scott says:

    I don’t think this verse is saying that we shouldn’t be practical. A cup of cold water can’t be used to buy drugs or alcohol. Water directly helps a person who is thirsty, food helps the hungary, shelter helps the homeless. Throwing money at a person is usually more about getting them to leave us alone than it is about providing the actual help they need.

  10. Karl Kroger says:

    I appreciate Joel’s reminder of the context of this passage. Jesus has basically just gotten done saying that you guys (the disciples) are being sent to do my work, and it’s pretty much gonna suck at times. In fact, you’ll probably be hated, tortured, and killed. But don’t be discouraged, because, your task is so vitally important. Those whom you encounter, even if they give you a cup of water–they welcome me. Love Wins.

    With that said, I think the offering of water, as an act of hospitality and embodying the kingdom is a way of really simplifying things down. We can get so caught up in what we think we have to do, or what “they” have to do. Offer some water, offer grace.

  11. Karl Kroger says:

    One other thought, or question really.

    The contrast between the simple act of offering water, and the demand to take up the cross in verse 38 is quite stark?

    Which is it Jesus?

  12. Rebekah Eckert said:

    “It would be interesting to hear what people who are homeless think about this passage.”

    A homeless man in our congregation was helping us serve our Sunday meal after church. He said to the pastor: “Thanks for letting me be on the other side.”

    “What do you mean?” the pastor asked?

    “In prison and in shelters, I am always the one going through the line and getting the food put on my plate. Here, you’re letting me serve. It feels good to be on the other side.”

  13. tracy brooks says:

    1st I’ll admit I did not read every response.

    2nd I’ll say that I have long since moved beyond taking a literal reading to everything in the Bible.

    3rd I’ll wade in and say, “yes, it probably is that simple. give him a dollar.” Shit, what damage could that really do to so someone who is willing to beg/pan-handle. Easy for us to judge and many who do have never been in a place where they have had to beg for a dollar. Will the person buy booze or drugs. Who cares… that is for God to “judge” ours is to remember that we may be surprised at the end when we say, “When Lord, did we see you begging for a dollar and not give you one?”

    As a representative of Christ I am called to extend generosity and grace beyond extravagance and into the ridiculous. If the person begging has asked for a dollar, as Christians we should give that person 10 dollars AND not worry about what it will be spent on but simply acknowledge that what was freely given to us should be shared as freely.

    4th I will say that if my understanding of God gets me a ticket to hell, I’d rather be there with my friends than in heaven with whoever ends up there

  14. Peter NWANKWO says:

    I Guess It’S a little easy for you outside Africa. You Worry About Seeing Your Dollar Used on drug or booz. here most worry about demonic spell or witchcraft attak on them through their gift. and i think both are skewed as one genuine need met, justifies the 99 others “wasted” in mission obidience

  15. whalespoon says:

    Should you give the guy a dollar to buy a hamburger? The truth is that maybe the beggar is a fake and maybe he is not. I don’t ask questions like that–if the beggar is being dishonest with me and intends to use the money to buy booze or dope instead of what he/she said, that’s not my problem. That’s between that person and God. It’s my job to be faithful to what I understand Jesus wants me to do.


  1. […] texts for this week are Romans 6:12-23 and Matthew 10:40-42. I also found this reflection on the Matthew text from Russel Rathbun at the Sparkhouse Lectionary blog very […]

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