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In Matthew 10:40-42, Jesus identifies himself with his disciples and lays some expectations for how he expects them to be treated. I'm curious, though, about the the significance of his "cup of cold water." What is the significance of this act? I'm looking for a socio-historical (or perhaps grammatical/linguistic) information.

Matthew 10:40-42

40 “Anyone who welcomes you welcomes me, and anyone who welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. 41 Whoever welcomes a prophet as a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward, and whoever welcomes a righteous person as a righteous person will receive a righteous person’s reward. 42 And if anyone gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones who is my disciple, truly I tell you, that person will certainly not lose their reward.”

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  • You might be interested to know that the word “water” is not in the original Greek text (the KJV puts it in italics, meaning that it was supplied by the translators). The text says simply ποτηριον ψυχρου “a drinking-cup of (something) cold”; it could be anything: water, wine, milk. On the whole, people in the ancient world did not drink water; it was not considered wholesome.
    – fdb
    Sep 2 '14 at 21:37
  • I do not know about what socio-historical means. Yet the cold cup of water its of a correction from the word without the heat of yelling. For the arguing ones yell at each other putting themselves into the lake of fire.
    – Decrypted
    Mar 31 '16 at 1:27
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Short answer. I think the significance is to be understood in the often hot climate of the region as well as the low amount of technology in that society. As it was hot and people had to use water wells to obtain fresh water, giving a cup of water to someone would have been a very common thing. It would be like holding open the elevator for someone today. In other words it is a sample of the smallest act of charity commonly practiced at the time.

The only reference I could dig up is the social atmosphere at 'watering place' where 'singers' would congregate:

“You who ride on white donkeys, sitting on your saddle blankets, and you who walk along the road, consider  the voice of the singers at the watering places. They recite the victories of the LORD, the victories of his villagers in Israel. (NIV, Judges 5:10-11)

Jesus also speaking to a women at a well shows that it was a social place where people might pass common courtesies to each other by sharing a cup.

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I have this to add to Mike's fine answer. In context, Jesus is talking prophetically about the persecution his disciples can expect to encounter in the near future. He addresses as well the necessity for his disciples to die to themselves in their service of their master, Jesus, as He sends the twelve out on a preaching mission.

Then Jesus gives His disciples some practical advice concerning their reception by the people to whom they are being sent; namely, the lost sheep of the house of Israel. As commentators have suggested, there is a descending climax in Jesus' words. At the very head of the list is the Father; next is the Son; followed by a prophet; then comes a righteous man; and last but not least a little one.

I suggest the phrase "one of these little ones" refers to all those disciples of Jesus who by dying to themselves find themselves serving others. Each act of service, Jesus assures the twelve, is unto God and has its reward. Just as Jesus came not to be served but to serve and to give His life as a ransom for many (Ma 20:28; Mk 10:45), so too are His disciple to serve and even to endure persecution on His account.

In the sense of serving, then, we all are servants of the most High God and Father: whether Jesus (but only for a time!), or a disciple, or a prophet, or a righteous man, or even a little one. All of God's servants will be rewarded, even a person who in the name of a disciple gives a drink of cold water to one of God's "little ones" (i.e., His servants)--a cup of cold water being the smallest act of courtesy possible, especially when it is given with a smile (rhetorician's translation!).

In conclusion, the "hierarchy" in God's kingdom turns the normal human hierarchy in society upside down, except for the king. Under the King in the kingdom of heaven, however, come not viceroys and presidents and governors and mayors and advisors and lesser bureaucrats, but "little ones" who recognize their littleness before the King, who gladly take their place as mere servants of their King and who distinguish themselves through acts of service to others and thus to God, the rewarder of those who diligently seek Him (He 11:6).

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The point of Jesus using a cup of water as an illustration was, in the view of the Church Fathers at least, not because of any cultural significance, but rather because it illustrated that even someone who is poor is capable of giving alms. Cyprian of Carthage, for example, wrote:

Break thy bread to the hungry, and bring the houseless poor into thy dwelling. If thou seest the naked, clothe him; and despise not them of thy own seed in thy house. Then shall thy seasonable light break forth, and thy garments shall quickly arise; and righteousness shall go before thee: and the glory of God shall surround thee. Then thou shalt cry out, and God shall hear thee [Isaiah 58:7-9 LXX] ... That even a small work is of advantage: “And whoever shall give to drink to one of the least of these a cup of cold water in the name of a disciple, verily I say unto you, His reward shall not perish.”

Treatise XII.III.1

Similar interpretations can be found in the writings of Cyril of Alexandria (Sermon CVIII of Commentary on Luke), Chrysostom (Homily XXXI on Hebrews), and Ambrose (On the Duties of the Clergy II.XXI). Leo the Great wrote:

Therefore those who do the things which are good must have no manner of fear lest the power of doing should fail them; since in the gospel the widow’s devotion is extolled in the case of her two mites, and voluntary bounty gets its reward for a cup of cold water. For the measure of our charitableness is fixed by the sincerity of our feelings, and he that shows mercy on others will never want for mercy himself. The holy widow of Sarepta discovered this, who offered the blessed Elias in the time of famine one day’s food, which was all she had, and putting the prophet’s hunger before her own needs, ungrudgingly gave up a handful of corn and a little oil [1 Kings 17:11ff]. But she did not lose what she gave in all faith, and in the vessels emptied by her godly bounty a source of new plenty arose, that the fulness of her substance might not be diminished by the holy purpose to which she had put it, because she had never dreaded being brought to want.

On Lent, Sermon XLII.II

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