Jesus’ remarks at the beginning of today’s gospel reading are not only harrowing, but don’t sound much like something Jesus would say during his lifetime. They appear to reflect a later era of rejection and persecution. The selection ends on a much more positive note – that of welcome and hospitality. But we may misunderstand what’s at stake here. [2 Kings 4:8-11, 14-16; Rom 6:3-4,8-11; Matt 10:37-42]
The background of today’s theme is found in the ancient code of hospitality that prevailed in desert cultures not only of the Middle East but throughout the world. To share food and drink with someone in the desert was to establish an enduring bond of friendship. It still is, as I discovered several times in Iraq. A tragic echo of that profoundly humane culture exists in the account of the Last Supper, when Judas leaves the upper room to betray Jesus after he has eaten with him, even out of the same dish. Such intimate sharing indicated an even stronger bond of loyalty and its violation the deeper disloyalty.
Perhaps we can discover what hospitality is by considering its opposite: not merely coldness or even antagonism towards strangers in our midst, but the treachery, deceit, and violence directed against harmless and defenseless people whose only crime is being different and in need. The gospel of Jesus calls us to a different kind of life, an approach to others characterized by openness, trust, and friendliness.
Today’s first reading from the Second Book of Kings introduces the theme of hospitality. It contains the beginning of the story of the Shunammite woman, whose hospitality to the prophet Elisha is rewarded by the gift of a son, who is born to a couple who have no hope of having a child, like the parents of Isaac, Samuel, Samson, and John the Baptist. The mother and the little boy are also the focus of a later story, in which the boy falls ill and dies. Responding to his now-widowed mother’s frantic and persistent pleas, Elisha goes to him and restores the little boy to life. Such was his gratitude for what people today sometimes call “random acts of kindness.” [For the whole account, see 2 Kings 4:25-37.]
In the selection from the Letter to the Christians at Rome, St. Paul gives us a clear, simple reason for practicing such random acts of kindness. They are expected of us. And, if we are really living the life Christ has offered us, we can’t help performing them. For, Paul tells us, we are raised to a new life in Christ, which is to say baptized into his death so that we might live a new life: his new life. And Christ’s life is one of mercy, forgiveness, and continuous welcome.
That English word “welcome,” which we hear in today’s gospel, comes from the Old English word ‘wil,’ which means “pleasure,” and ‘cuma,’ which means “to arrive.” It refers to someone whose arrival gives us pleasure. To welcome someone means to receive them with joy.
Jesus goes much further than might be expected, when the Holy Land was overrun by soldiers of an occupying nation and whose people were in effect caught between collaboration and rebellion. His counsels are radical even to us today: walk the extra mile, give your coat as well as your shirt, in short, see the human being within the uniform and respond with love. Don’t strike back. And in today’s reading, “anyone who gives even a cup of cold water to one of these lowly ones because he is [called] a disciple will not lose their reward.”
Jesus, like Elisha, knew the meaning of hospitality. He was welcomed into peoples’ homes. He frequently stayed with Lazarus, Martha, and Mary. But he also knew rejection: he was thrown out of his own home town, and almost killed by a resentful mob. On several occasions, he seems to have been treated inhospitably by Samaritans and, with a few exceptions, as in the story of Zacchaeus, was snubbed by the rich and famous. He was betrayed by his table companion.
As for the demanding note of those earlier statements told of Jesus about being “worthy” of him, when we peel away the dust of centuries of translations, the word he is said to have used is ‘hikanos,’which means “fit, or able.” To be fit disciples, we must be able to follow where Jesus led. Even to the cross.
God’s word to us today, then, is about receiving others in their need and with joy in our hearts. Hospitality takes many forms, not least today in the era of COVID-19, when in many places in the world hospitals are overcrowded with patients and where the toll has been reduced it is largely because of the heroic and self-sacrificing devotion of carers. I frequently remind my students that the words “hospitality” and “hospital” are closely related. Both come from the Latin word ‘hospes’, which means both “guest,” and “host,”‘ Whether they know it or not, those who care for the sick and dying are hosts to one another in the spirit of Christ. They shall not lose their reward.