Masada is an ancient fortification located on top of an isolated rock plateau in the Biblical province of Judea, today’s southern Israel. The surrounding land is generally desert. Picture a TV advertisement with a car racing along a highway in Arizona or New Mexico with little else than tall rock formations and a sandy terrain for scenery. Masada is a similar bleak spot. Herod the Great built palaces for himself on the mountain and fortified Masada about thirty years before the birth of Christ. At the beginning of the Christian era, Roman troops besieged the remains of this fortress where Jews who had escaped the Roman pillage of Jerusalem had taken refuge. None of the refugees survived this final onslaught. Today Masada is one of Israel’s most popular tourist attractions.
The Masada plateau was one of the historic spots that I was fortunate enough to visit on a tour of the Holy Land thirty years ago. Rocky paths, sandy fields, barren stone formations, and a few tumbled-down fortress walls glowed almost white under the blazing sun. A small water trough, simply a pipe and faucet coming up out of the ground, offered a bit of comfort to the weary tourist. Quite obvious amid the barren landscape was a very narrow strip of mossy green vegetation that managed to blossom added only by the perpetual sun and the water that dripped from the tourist’s water spout. Obviously the contrast between the immense sterile landscape and the inches-wide green strip extending out from the water pipe has remained vivid in my recollection even after three decades.
The availability of water has probably never been a problem for anyone reading the Quiet Corner. Those of us living in temperate climates have rivers and lakes and ponds and reservoirs within close reach. Water is readily available in our kitchen sinks, in our showers, in the washing machine and in the garden hose. Clearly this good fortune is not true of many of our fellow earth dwellers who live in desert locales. Ponds and streams might be unknown. Rain can be very scarce. Wells are certainly not as handy as a kitchen faucet. And the availability of water in an ancient desert home was quite acute. Plumbing lay in the distant future. Drawing water from a common well or from a cistern filled by rain was a daily chore for the ancient householder. Once carried home the water quickly became tepid — at best — in the torrid climate. The ancients refreshed themselves with soothing oil not with standing water.
A small detail in the Gospel passage from St. Matthew to be heard at Mass this coming Sunday takes on great significance in the light of the premium placed on water in the ancient Biblical world. St. Matthew quotes Christ’s words on fraternal charity: “And whoever gives only a cup of cold water to one of these little ones to drink because the little one is a disciple—amen, I say to you, he will surely not lose his reward.” The key word here is “cold.” Christ expects “cold water” to be offered as sign of fraternal concern and personal respect. As noted, cold water would be at a premium in any desert area. The clay pots in an ancient home would be holding water long ago warmed by the bright sun. Cold water was available only by a hike to the common well, the lowing of the wooden bucket into the well’s cool depths, the hauling up of the now heavy bucket, and a hasty return to one’s guests while the water still had a bit of chill. Jesus’ point, of course, is that authentic charity and genuine concern are not off-handed, casual gestures like tossing change to a pan-handler at a highway entrance ramp. True charity, real concern, involves some effort, in fact, a great deal of effort, in the mind and plan of Jesus Christ.
“Cold as charity” is a sad expression possibly dating back to the work houses and orphanages of Charles Dicken’s nineteenth century London. Routine services were rendered but personal consideration was lacking. On the contrary, authentic Christian charity is never cold, never heartless, never callous. True charity originates in a heartfelt and proper appreciation of the genuine needs of one’s neighbor and then culminates with a practical response and a suitable answer to that neighbor’s need. Christian charity extends well beyond pity. It is much more than a warm feeling or a kind gesture. Christian charity is truly compassionate, always taking appropriate steps to alleviate a friend’s burden, like cold water to the weary neighbor. Jesus happily reminds his disciples that in reaching out toward the neighbor they are really reaching out toward him and toward the One Who sent him. He gladly assures them — and us — that the kindly believer will not lose his or her reward.