Ireland is almost 800 miles closer to Kiev than New York is to Los Angeles – -about half that distance. Not exactly neighbors, but closer than one might think. Since 1991, Ireland has welcomed thousands of Ukrainian children, the victims of radiation poisoning in Chernobyl, to spend their Christmas holidays or a month of rest time in the summer. During the past terrible year, Ireland also received into the country over 41,000 Ukrainian refugees fleeing a terrible and unjust war. That may not seem like a large number, but for a country of just over five million, it has taxed resources to the limit. And still they come. Ireland remains welcoming.
In an ancient series of Irish proverbs beginning with the word “eochair” (‘key’), we are told that the key to miracles is generosity:
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.
God’s message to us today is about hospitality.
Traveling through the deserts of the great American southwest and Iraq, I have witnessed how important hospitality is in hot, barren, and unforgiving lands. In times past, to refuse hospitality to a wanderer was equivalent to murder. And so desert people treated each other, both friends and strangers, extraordinarily well when traveling.
This leads us to the story of Abraham in this section of Genesis, the prelude to the account of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah we will hear next week, those cities whose sin was the ultimate act of inhospitality to wanderers in the ancient desert. But in today’s other readings, Jesus and Paul have something to say to us about hospitality as well.
The Genesis story takes place near what the Bible calls the Terebinths of Mamre — a site near Hebron which became the burial place of the patriarchs — Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. It lies in the hill country of Judah, about 20 miles south of Jerusalem and has long been a center revered by Jews and Muslims — the people of the Book. Desert people. Famous for its oak trees as well as its grove of terebinths — “Turpentine Trees” — Mamre 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 form of three strangers.
How Abraham and Sarah tend to the apparent needs of these strangers determines the future of the Hebrew people as a whole 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. Looking back to this incident, the Epistle to the Hebrews instructs us, “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 the second reading, St. Paul’s letter to the Christians at Colossae, we learn far more than they seem to tell us about our lives as followers of Jesus. In the end, it’s also about justice, as the responsory to Psalm 15 we have just sung 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. He calls it “the mystery of Christ in you, your hope of glory.” That presence of Christ, himself the visible presence of God among us in human form, forms the basis of a whole new ethic, but one grounded in the story of Abraham and Sarah. In the gospel reading it finds its echo in what Jesus says to Martha in this little parable about true hospitality.
She has been dashing around preparing a feast for their Visitor and also complaining that her sister Mary is not helping. Martha is simply carrying out the most fundamental requirement of traditional hospitality, providing generously for her guest, just as Abraham and Sarah did. What Jesus tells her is that she is overlooking what Mary has not forgotten — attending to 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 some scholars seem to think. 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; for he who is least among you all is the one who is great” [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.
We find him especially in those the world tends to forget and overlook — the powerless, the homeless, the outcast. That’s the great mystery of God’s love and presence, “the mystery hidden for ages and generations past,” the foundation of all the promises and their fulfillment. So do not fail to be generous to the poor, the orphan, the widow, and not least the resident stranger in the land, for by such hospitality you will not only entertain angels unawares, you will inherit eternal life.