What did Jesus mean by the phrase, “a prophet’s reward”? Christians in America are learning what this means – the bad, the ugly, and the good.
In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus urged his disciples to go out into the surrounding communities and offer compassion, healing, and transformative love in a broken world suffering from oppressive systems.
“Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. Whoever welcomes a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward; and whoever welcomes a righteous person in the name of a righteous person will receive the reward of the righteous; and whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple—truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.” (Matthew 10:40-42)
What did Jesus mean by the phrase, “a prophet’s reward”? What is a prophet’s reward?
Christians in America are learning what this means – the bad, the ugly, and the good. As I read Jesus words about “offering a cup of cold water” earning the “prophet’s reward,” I could not help but think of recent events that happened at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Washington D.C. on June 1.
Rev. Gini Gerbasi, the rector at St. John’s, wrote a post on her Facebook page describing what happened that fateful day. She and members of the church were offering respite to Black Lives Matter protestors who were demanding justice for George Floyd, the latest in a long procession of black lives ended by murderous police violence. Gerbasi described the scene that afternoon:
We were passing out water and snacks, and helping the patio area at St. John’s to be a place of respite and peace. All was well until about 6:15 or so . . . [when] police started really pushing protestors off of H Street (the street between the church and Lafayette Park, and ultimately, the White House.) They started using tear gas and folks were running at us for eyewashes or water or wet paper towels. At this point, Julia, one of our seminarians for next year (who is a trauma nurse) and I looked at each other in disbelief. I was coughing, her eyes were watering, and we were trying to help people as the police – in full riot gear – drove people toward us.
Let me pause there. In the ancient world, it was understood that when you showed hospitality, you didn’t just welcome a single individual. By extension, you also welcomed the community who sent that person. You welcomed all that this person represented.
So, when St. John’s welcomed the protestors, we can say that the church welcomed the justice movement they represented.
This church was supporting the people who were putting their bodies on the line in order to call for justice. They were acting with compassion, giving out water and snacks, offering a place to rest, and, if needed, a place to recover from tear gas or any other injuries they might endure during the march.
Little did the priest and congregation members realize that when they opened their church patio to the needs of the world that day, they would be in need of these first aid items themselves.
Gerbasi’s story continues:
Suddenly, around 6:30, there was more tear gas, more concussion grenades, and I think I saw someone hit by a rubber bullet – he was grasping his stomach and there was a mark on his shirt. The police in their riot gear were literally walking onto the St. John’s, Lafayette Square patio with these metal shields, pushing people off the patio and driving them back. People were running at us as the police advanced toward us from the other side of the patio. We were literally DRIVEN OFF of the patio with tear gas and concussion grenades and police in full riot gear. We were pushed back 20 feet, and then eventually – with SO MANY concussion grenades – back to K street.
Is this a “prophet’s reward”? Is this the “reward of the righteous”?
To be tear-gassed and forced out of your own church by militarized police? To have your eardrums pummeled by the shockwaves of concussion grenades? Is this a “prophet’s reward”?
Unfortunately, the answer to that question is: yes. This is the bad and the ugly of the prophet’s reward. In other sections of Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus says that prophets receive persecution (5:12), that they are rejected (13:57), and that some will even die (23:30-35, 37).
For most mainline Protestant Christians in America, we have not had to endure the “prophet’s reward.”
We have been safe in our churches. We have been exempt from state-sanctioned violence. The church has been considered a “no fly zone” of sorts – a place that is set apart and respected. We are generally left alone to do our ministry of caring, feeding, teaching, and gathering for worship.
Because on that day, the occupant in the White House decided he wanted to march across Lafayette Square to commandeer that church property and have his picture taken holding a backwards Bible.
Gerbasi, of course, was livid.
I literally COULD NOT believe it. WE WERE DRIVEN OFF OF THE PATIO AT ST. JOHN’S – a place of peace and respite and medical care throughout the day – SO THAT MAN COULD HAVE A PHOTO OPPORTUNITY IN FRONT OF THE CHURCH! PEOPLE WERE HURT SO THAT HE COULD POSE IN FRONT OF THE CHURCH WITH A BIBLE! HE WOULD HAVE HAD TO STEP OVER THE MEDICAL SUPPLIES WE LEFT BEHIND BECAUSE WE WERE BEING TEAR GASSED!
She went on to say that before the invasion, the patio of St. John’s had been holy ground that day. It had been “a place of respite and laughter and water and granola bars and fruit snacks. But that man turned it into a BATTLE GROUND first, and a cheap political stunt second. I am DEEPLY OFFENDED on behalf of every protestor, every Christian, the people of St. John’s, every decent person there, and the Black Lives Matter medics who stayed with just a single box of supplies and a backpack, even when I got too scared and had to leave. I am ok. But I am now a force to be reckoned with.”
Indeed, this is also the prophet’s reward, the reward of the righteous.
It is the reward of becoming a force to be reckoned with.
A force for goodness and fierce compassion that gets back up after it has been knocked down and says: we will not back down from this ministry. Even if you come at us with riot-geared police, even when you try to desecrate holy ground and holy scriptures, even when you use a house of worship for political purposes, we will hold the line. We will defend this sacred space for the work it has been designated to do. We are called to welcome the prophets, the righteous ones, and the ‘little ones’ – the vulnerable ones – who are in need of a cup of cold water to quench their thirst and wash the tear gas from their eyes.
In fact, many clergy are rising up in response to the authoritarian incursion on St. John’s.
Leaders of houses of worship and denominations have denounced the president’s actions. Because this event struck a nerve. The president has crossed many lines, and this one showed us his willingness to overtake any space he chooses – including religious space – to further his political agenda.
In response, a group of clergy have been organizing this month to form a group called the Clergy Emergency League.
Loosely modeled on the Pastor’s Emergency League in Nazi Germany that rose up to resist the Third Reich, the Clergy Emergency League is made up of primarily Christian clergy (although clergy of other faiths have also joined). We are united in standing against the oppressive systems upheld and perpetuated by those in power at all levels. We are addressing abuses of power while being in covenantal solidarity with each other. We’re pushing back against the fusion of politics with radical, right-wing, fundamentalist Christianity; as well as the growing power of racist white nationalism and a militarized police state. And we are called to empower those who are vulnerable – black and brown bodies, children in cages, differently-abled folks, LBTGQIA+ folks, those who have no health care, those who speak a language other than English, and whose country of origin lies beyond the borders of this country, and many more.
In just two weeks, more than 500 people have already joined the Clergy Emergency League, and we are planning an official launch on July 4.
Our members are encouraging each other, sharing resources, holding each other accountable, preaching and teaching with courage, and stepping into the public square for justice. In fact, just yesterday, a group of clergy joined the Black Lives Matter movement in Louisville, Kentucky, to offer peaceful support against the threat of a heavily armed white nationalist group. One of our CEL members, Rachel Anderson, a Presbyterian pastor, joined the event that was planned by SURJ (Showing Up for Racial Justice). They met at a local church for prayer and preparation, then marched in together. Fortunately, the white nationalist group was very small and decided not to engage the group. But here you can see that group of clergy, about 35 of them, lined up with their hands outstretched in peaceful defense.
You see, this is also the “prophet’s reward” – joining your voice and your hands and your heart with a movement of justice and restoration that is bigger than any one person. Yes, persecution is a reality. Yes, the risks are real. The prophet’s reward includes the bad and the ugly. But it also includes the good. Here’s what Jesus said about those who are persecuted for righteousness:
“Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven” (5:12). Similarly, Jesus promised that the righteous “will shine like the sun in the Realm of God” (13:43).
So I want you to know that a movement is rising up.
There are groups across the country who are linking people to confront injustice as well as advocate and activate for structural and systemic change. Groups like Faithful America, the Poor People’s Campaign, Faith and Public Life, Black Lives Matter, the Women’s March. And now, the Clergy Emergency League which provides support, accountability, resources, and networking for clergy to minister in their congregations and the public square. Our goal is to protect and sustain the prophetic voice of the church and the clergy to speak truth to power.
This is the prophet’s reward. All of it – the bad, the ugly, and the good. The persecution and the empowerment. The tear gas and the eye wash. Concussive grenades and shouts of protest, laughter, and singing. The flagrant violation and the flagrant grace. People are waking up. Eyes are opening. And what we are seeing will shine like the sun in the Realm of God.
[If you are a clergyperson interested in joining the Clergy Emergency League, you can ask to join the Facebook group here.]
Leah D. Schade is the Assistant Professor of Preaching and Worship at Lexington Theological Seminary in Kentucky and ordained in the ELCA. Dr. Schade does not speak for LTS or the ELCA; her opinions are her own. She is the author of Preaching in the Purple Zone: Ministry in the Red-Blue Divide (Rowman & Littlefield, 2019) and Creation-Crisis Preaching: Ecology, Theology, and the Pulpit (Chalice Press, 2015). She is also the co-editor of Rooted and Rising: Voices of Courage in a Time of Climate Crisis (Rowman & Littlefield, 2019).