“Whoever receives you receives me, and whoever receives me receives him who sent me. The one who receives a prophet because he is a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward, and the one who receives a righteous person because he is a righteous person will receive a righteous person’s reward. And whoever gives one of these little ones even a cup of cold water because he is a disciple, truly, I say to you, he will by no means lose his reward.”
In 1336 a law was passed in this Green and Pleasant Land, which sought to protect the moral and economic life of the nation. The legislation was a response to an unnerving and recent practice which had caused not a little shudder amongst the upper classes of that medieval society. One clause read:
” no knight under the estate of a lord, esquire or gentleman, nor any other person, shall wear any shoes or boots having spikes or points which exceed the length of two inches, under the forfeiture of forty pence."
Take that, you wearers of over pointy brogues!
But things were not so simple, and so in 1363 legislators once more turned to the scourge of inappropriate attire and determined once and for all to sort things out. The list of new offences is both wide-ranging and intriguingly specific. Are you wife of a labourer? If so, don’t you dare wear a girdle with silver decoration. Does your doublet contain purple silk? You’d better be a member of the Royal family, or there’ll be trouble. And if your husband is a knight-bachelor (which, if you think about it, sounds like a contradiction) you’d better not even think of wearing velvet. Or lace from Lombardy .
These ’Sumptuary Laws’ were a staple of medieval Europe, firmly designed to keep people in their place and stop them buying material from overseas. One glance at a distant figure would distinguish peasant from knight, noble from labourer. There would be no embarrassment in addressing a chap as an equal, only to find out that the blighter is rat-catcher.
Clothing and authority are still tightly woven together. When I turn up to the church in full sail, surplice rippling in the wind, I carry in my body the full authority of the Church Established by Law. What I say, I say in the name of the church. When a policewoman puts up her hand, I stop the car “in the name of the law”. When a man in an Asda hi-viz jacket says “park over there”, there I park. Take these people out of uniform and put them into the clothes they would wear on a Tuesday night and their authority evaporates. It is who they speak for that counts. The honour I give them is not due to who they are, but who they represent.
This is the idea which is in play in the passage above. We represent Christ, so that “whoever receives you receives me”. A prophet speaks the words of God, which means that whoever “receives a prophet because he is a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward”. The righteous person is the one who lives by the patterns set out by God, so that “the one who receives a righteous person because he is a righteous person will receive a righteous person’s reward”. The disciple is a person who seeks to follow the teachings of another, and places themselves under the authority of another. The result is that “whoever gives one of these little ones even a cup of cold water because he is a disciple, truly, I say to you, he will by no means lose his reward”. When we acknowledge the authority of God which lies behind a prophet, or follower of Christ, we acknowledge God himself.
There is - I hope - now a nagging question in your head: how do I know if someone is a prophet or a follower? After all, did Jesus not say “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep's clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves” (Matthew 7:15). Do we not read in newspapers of people who dress up
How can you tell if someone is wearing the wrong uniform? You can listen carefully to what someone says.
If woman in a white coat with a stethoscope hung around her shoulders told me the best way to mend my broken leg was to eat a diet of digestives and snails I might smell a fish. If a man in an Asda jacket told me help myself, and just wheel my trolley past the checkouts and straight to the car I would suspect he’d stolen the jacket. There are things you simply don’t expect to fall from the lips of someone in a particular uniform.
So it is with those who claim to speak for God. They may look the part, but do they know the words? One of the building blocks of our understanding of God is that he is changeless, something implied in his very name: I AM WHO I AM (Exodus 3:14). He always is: “For I the LORD do not change; therefore you, O children of Jacob, are not consumed” (Malachi 3:6). Or we might listen to James: “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change” (James 1:17).
One consequence of this changelessness is the timelessness of the Bible. The words which the prophets spoke then, are still the words of the changeless God. The words of Jesus then, are the words of Jesus now since“Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever” (Hebrews 13.8). So one way to test those who claim to speak for God, therefore, is to hold their teachings up to the standard of Scripture. Do they speak in contradiction to it? Do they see themselves as having a higher authority than the Bible?
One great preacher (Charles Spurgeon) said of an earlier great preacher (John Bunyan):
“Read anything of his, and you will see that it is almost like reading the Bible itself. He had studied our Authorized Version … till his whole being was saturated with Scripture; and, though his writings are charmingly full of poetry, yet he cannot give us his Pilgrim’s Progress—that sweetest of all prose poems,—without continually making us feel and say, ‘Why, this man is a living Bible!’ Prick him anywhere; and you will find that his blood is Bibline, the very essence of the Bible flows from him. He cannot speak without quoting a text, for his soul is full of the Word of God.”
Here is the test of whether someone speak for God or not: do their words echo the other words of God we find recorded in Scripture? Can the speaker stand proudly in the line of witnesses which stretches back to the opening chapters of Genesis, or are they speaking something novel.
Is their blood Bibline?