The provision of hospitality by the Shunammite woman for the prophet Elisha is one of the more engaging episodes of the Old Testament. The caption to the reading fails to indicate the evident reason for its selection this Sunday. Clearly it was chosen because it illustrates the dominical saying in the gospel: “He who receives a prophet because he is a prophet shall receive a prophet's reward.”
What the historian of the Book of Kings means when he speaks of a “holy man of God” is shown by the other woman's reaction to Elisha's predecessor, Elijah, after he had restored her son to life: “Now I know that you are a man of God, and that the word of the Lord in your mouth is truth” (1 Kgs 17:24).
In other words, to be a holy man of God in the Old Testament does not signalize mystical achievement but means to be the bearer of God's word—a word that is “truth,” that is, not that it passes the test of doctrinal orthodoxy, but that it effects what it says on the plane of history. Similarly, Elisha is a holy man of God, not because of the achievements of his piety, but because he, like his predecessor, was entrusted to proclaim to his generation the effective word of Y(HWH).
These verses come from one of the great messianic psalms of the Old Testament that portray the coming of the ideal Davidic king. Understandably, it is a psalm that Christian tradition has associated with the Christmas season. It provided the offertory for the third Mass of Christmas in the Roman Missal, and it has always been the proper psalm at one of the offices of Christmas Day in the Book of Common Prayer.
The last stanza alludes to the messianic king. But this aspect is not stressed today. It is simply a hymn of praise for the steadfast love and faithfulness (chesed w'neth, very important Hebrew words characterizing Y(HWH)'s being and actions). No doubt the Shunammite woman regarded the visits of Elisha to her home as signs of Y(HWH)'s steadfast love and faithfulness.
This passage is used in full at the Easter Vigil. While the references to the Christian's dying with Christ are all in the past tense, the references to resurrection are future and conditional. The new life in Christ is something that has to be constantly implemented. The Christian life means more than aspiring after an elusive ideal does. What happened to us in baptism cannot be made to “unhappen,” however often we stumble and fall. The reality of baptism is always there. Luther, when he was tempted to despair of his faith, used to repeat “Baptizatus sum.” That is something we, too, can always draw upon. So the Christian life is fitting oneself into that which we have already been made by baptism: “Werde das, was du bist” (Become what you are!).
This is the last installment of the Matthean missionary charge to the Twelve. It embraces three complexes of material: the warning that discipleship may involve the breaking of family ties; the saying about taking up the cross; a group of three sayings about the reception given to messengers.
The first two clearly go together. Both concern the cost of discipleship. They appear in various contexts in the gospel tradition, and only in this passage as part of a missionary charge. The first saying in the third group is found in both Matthew and Luke (in a different context in Luke); the second is peculiar to Matthew; the third is found also in Mark.
The fact that the second saying (about receiving a prophet, Mt 10:41) governs the choice of the first reading suggests that this is the saying to which we should pay particular attention today. It is a challenge to those who hear the message of the envoys to receive them properly, not for the sake of their persons, but because they are the bearers of the divine message.
What this passage has in mind may be illustrated from the words that Paul used when speaking of his reception by the Thessalonians: “And we also thank God constantly for this, that when you received the word of God which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God, which is at work in you believers” (1 Thess 2:13).