There is a certain irony is the juxtaposition of today’s scripture readings and news reports from the Middle East and Africa. This is World Refugee Day, instituted to focus our attention on the plight of children, women, and men forced to flee from their homes by the violence of war or natural and human-made disasters. At the moment, thousands of refugees are fleeing North Africa on flimsy, overcrowded boats. This year alone, some 2,000 have perished crossing the Mediterranean, victimized by unscrupulous smugglers who cram them onto these crafts for exorbitant cash payments. Refugees from war-ravaged Syria and African nations of the Sahel add hundreds of thousands more displaced persons seeking refuge and safety. Only yesterday, a fast-spreading fire destroyed hundreds of refugee tents in eastern Lebanon, leaving many hundreds of Syrian families more destitute than they were before.
And increasingly, some of the most prosperous countries in the world, particularly the United States, are slamming the door of mercy in the faces of these desperate people.
Today’s theme of Prophetic Hospitality stands in stark contrast to this dreadful situation. The background 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. 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.
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 Shunamite 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.”
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. The Greek text of the gospel simply has the word for “receive.” For once, at least, the translation is even truer to the gospel vision than the original. To welcome someone means to receive them with joy.
Jesus goes much further than might be expected in his day, 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.
God’s word to us today, then, is about receiving each other with joy in our hearts. As you might suspect, the word “hospitality” and the word “hospital” are related. Both come from the same Latin word for both “guest,” and “host,” hospes. We are to be hosts to one another in the spirit of Christ.
And that is why we have ministers of hospitality, members of our communities who work as greeters. Their task is to make new members and visitors feel welcome enough to want to return, and so, on a deeper level, to build and foster community. They are not here to excuse the rest of us from being hospitable, but to remind us of Christ’s call to each of us, to receive one another with joy in our hearts, especially those whom the world regards as of no account. On this World Refugee Day, it is a thought worth thinking — and acting on. For that is to live the new life we have been baptized into in the death and rising of Jesus, the homeless refugee.