This weekend, the eyes of the world may be fixed on the moon and the memory of its first human sojourners, but God’s message to us today is about hospitality. There’s a certain irony here as earthlings ponder the possibility of making some kind of home in that most inhospitable of environments in decades to come.
In lush, green Ireland, hospitality was of great importance to early Christians. In a series of ancient proverbs beginning with the word eochair (‘key’), it is claimed that the key to miracles is generosity. A short poem put it this way:
‘O King of Stars!
whether my house be dark or be bright
it will not be closed against anybody;
may Christ not close his house against me.’
Traveling through deserts over the years, whether in New Mexico, China, or Iraq, I discovered how immeasurably more important hospitality is in hot, barren, and unforgiving lands. In times past, to refuse hospitality to a desert traveler was equivalent to murder. And desert people still tend to treat travelers and refugees well.
At some time or other, I imagine we have all benefited from the hospitality of friends, family, and neighbors — or suffered because of its absence, as entire families are experiencing daily along the southern border of the United States. And this leads us to the opening story about Abraham and Sarah in this section of Genesis. It serves as the prelude to the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah we will hear about next week, those ancient cities whose sin was the ultimate act of inhospitality.
The story takes place near what the Bible calls the Terebinth of Mamre — a site near Hebron which was the burial place of the patriarchs — Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob — and is often in the news for reasons that have very little to do with hospitality. Or perhaps everything to do with it. For Hebron lies in the hill country of Judea, about 20 miles south of Jerusalem and has long been a center of devotion for both Jews and especially Arab Muslims. Mamre itself was famous for its oak trees as well as its grove of terebinths — Turpentine Trees, if you’re curious. So it was a place where water and shelter were found, an oasis and therefore a good place to camp. And that is what Abraham and Sarah were doing when God came calling in the guise of three strangers.
How Abraham and Sarah tend to the apparent needs of these strangers bears directly on the future of the Hebrew people and the fulfillment of God’s promises. For Christians, too, it is no small thing to tend to extend hospitality and care to the needy, for as the Epistle to the Hebrews later says, alluding to this passage, “Let brotherly love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares” [3:1-2]. There is more to it than that. The author goes on, “Remember those who are in prison, as though in prison with them; and those who are ill-treated, since you also are in the body.”
In that mysterious final phrase as well as in both the gospel and today’s second reading, St. Paul’s letter to the Christians at Colossae, we learn far more than they seem to tell us about our lives today as followers of Jesus. In the end, it’s all about justice, as the Psalm response chosen for today reminds us: “Those who do justice will live in the presence of God.”
First, St. Paul tells us about the great mystery , “the glory beyond price” that God has revealed in Jesus — a point easy to miss because we are so used to hearing the words. Or they go by so fast in the heat that we might not have been paying attention. He calls it “the mystery of Christ in you, your hope of glory.” That presence of Christ, himself the presence of God among us in visible human form, forms the basis of a whole new ethic. It finds its echo in what Jesus says to his friend Martha of Bethany in this little parable about true hospitality.
Martha has been dashing around preparing a meal for Jesus and complaining that Mary is not helping. Martha is simply carrying out the most fundamental requirement of traditional hospitality, providing generously for her guest. And she is right to wonder if Mary has forgotten how important it is to provide food and drink and the other amenities, just as Abraham and Sarah and my hosts in Iraq, China, and Lebanon did. What Jesus tells her is that she is overlooking what Mary has not forgotten — the presence of the One in their midst.
This is not just a lesson about the relative importance of the active and contemplative lives, as the medieval writers liked to imagine, or how just a single dish rather than many is sufficient as scripture scholars say today. It is about recognizing Christ in our midst, especially in the form of the stranger seeking asylum, the poor, the hungry, those in prison. And here we have the real echo of what Jesus teaches in Matthew’s gospel: “‘Come, O blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ … ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me’” [Matt. 25: 34-36, 40].
In Luke’s gospel, Jesus says, similarly, “Whoever receives a little child in my name receives me, and whoever receives me receives him who sent me…” [Luke 9: 49]. In short, pay less attention to what you are providing and more to those who need your help and you will gaze on the very face of God. Just like Abraham and Sarah. And Mary. And the disciples on the road to Emmaus who invited that other Traveler in for a bite to eat.
We don’t recognize Christ in each other simply by meditating quietly on the meaning of scripture or attending
long sermons or witnessing elaborate liturgical extravaganzas in big
air-conditioned church auditoriums. What
Jesus says is that we find him in
attending to others, especially those the world tends to forget and overlook —
the powerless, the homeless, the outcast – the asylum-seekers. That’s
the great mystery of God’s love and presence, the foundation of all the
promises and their fulfillment. So may
we not fail to be generous to the poor,
the orphan, the widow, and the homeless refugee, for by such hospitality we may not only entertain
angels unawares, we will inherit
the Kingdom of God.
Sometimes the readings chosen for the Sunday liturgy at this time of year seem a little haphazard, although careful attention usually reveals important connections. And sometimes they contain surprising applications to our life these many centuries later.
Over the past few weeks, the sound of distant war drums seems to be beating louder. True, there are no great wars being fought, nor have there been since the last terrible World War. But little wars continue to plague humankind and the threat of an international conflagration often seems to be a lurking possibility. In the meantime, these little wars are responsible in much of the world for an appalling loss of life, health, prosperity and, of course, peace. The parade of the instruments of war during the American celebration of national independence this past week was a grim reminder that the freedom, joy, and security for which America’s War of Independence was fought remains an elusive attainment. It increasingly seems to be the case in the minds of many Americans that these fruits of peace, for which so many of the poor and oppressed long and are willing to risk their lives and meager wealth to reach, must be guarded jealously and shared at best stingily if at all.
If there is a link joining the readings in today’s liturgy, I think it would simply be peace, but a special kind of
peace. The prophetic description by the poet known as Third Isaiah of the happiness of the exiles after they return to Jerusalem swells with the promise of shalom, that rich and almost untranslatable term that is usually rendered by the single English word, but encompasses good health, prosperity, welfare, tranquility, friendship, and well-being in general. It encompasses both inner freedom from anxiety and distress, and harmony among men and women and between them and their God. The Arabic cognate salam means the same. Both have been and are still used as ordinary greetings, as it was when Jesus himself encountered his followers after his resurrection. In today’s gospel reading, Jesus enjoins it on his disciples as they set out on their first mission. St. Paul uses it as a blessing in the second reading. It is God’s gift but spreads by means of human good will.
Times change, and in many respects the world manages to beat to the same drums, at least politically, that have disturbed the peace for millennia, something I reflected on just before Independence Day eighteen years ago, just two months before the terrible events of that September:
‘It’s foolish to think that God loves one nation more than all others; the question we face is whether we love God — whether we have responded wholeheartedly to the graces and blessings God has bestowed on us as a nation. Are we a beacon of hope and freedom to the oppressed people of the earth? Or have we also fallen back into yoke of slavery to the sinful social structures of the world — expedience, self-service, exploitation, and even tyranny?’
Looking ahead, may the gift we bring to the world be rather what God has willed for all – true and lasting peace. Shalom!