Hospitality and God: Good Hosts / Good Guests
Encounters with God are necessarily transformative
Loving God leads to loving Neighbor
Considering that this week’s 1st reading from Genesis comes immediately after the account of Abraham encountering God, who offers him a covenant that would immediately result in his name being changed to Abraham and a promise of becoming the Father of Nations through which salvation would come, “Salvation is from the Jews” John 4:22; we should take a moment to consider Abraham, his transformative encounter with the Lord and the nation formed as promised.
The original name for the people we now call Jews was Hebrews. The word "Hebrew" (in Hebrew, "Ivri") is first used in the Torah to describe Abraham Gen. 14:13. The word is apparently derived from the name Eber, one of Abraham's ancestors. Another tradition teaches that the word comes from the word "eyver," which means "the other side," referring to the fact that Abraham came from the other side of the Euphrates or referring to the fact Abraham was separated from the other nations morally and spiritually.
Another name used for the people is Children of Israel or Israelites, which refers to the fact that the people are descendants of Jacob, who was also called Israel.
The word "Jew" (in Hebrew, "Yehudi") is derived from the name Judah, which was the name of one of Jacob's twelve sons. Judah was the ancestor of one of the tribes of Israel, which was named after him. Likewise, the word Judaism literally means "Judah-ism," that is, the religion of the Yehudim. Other sources, however, say that the word "Yehudim" means "People of God," because the first three Hebrew letters of "Yehudah" are the same as the first three letters of God's four-letter name.
But Abraham is not just a physical seed, the great progenitor of a great nation of and under God. The Psalms succinctly characterize Abraham in three words: “the LORD’s servant.” He is a model of one “whose faith and actions were working together”James 2:22. Jewish and Christian theologians agree, Abraham is the Father of the faith, the first Jew. Abraham is the one who breaks with the pagan deities of his age and embraces monotheism; he becomes the first great missionary God.
In the First Reading from the Book of Genesis, 3 men, strangers, visit Abraham, the friend of God. Abraham addresses the leader of the group, whom he does not yet recognize as the Lord; in the next two verses he speaks to all three men. The other two are later Gn 19:1 identified as angels. The shifting numbers and identification of the visitors are a narrative way of expressing the mysterious presence of God. This is, at its heart, a story about faith in action, about hospitality. It is about Abraham faithfully loving others as God loves him.
Today’s 1st reading also comes immediately before the story of Sodom. There we meet the same three men who have taken shelter in the house of Lot, a relative of Abraham. Sodom and Gomorrah became types of sinful cities in biblical literature. Is 1:9–10; 3:9 sees their sin as lack of social justice, Ez 16:46–51, as disregard for the poor, and Jer 23:14, as general immorality. This is, at its heart, a contrasting story. It is a story of the abuse of hospitality. Faith has been forsaken. Selfish and self-serving desires have replaced love of God and neighbor. What we read about in this story, is how sin and opposition to God makes us incapable of real hospitality, of even recognizing Holy encounters, let alone being able to be transformed by them.
Hospitality is a very important element of life in the Middle East and two of today’s readings deal with aspects of hospitality. The second reading deals with being willing to sacrifice, an integral part of what it means to love God and Neighbor, and which is often a necessary component of hospitality.
The purpose of God’s covenant is not merely to bless Abraham’s family in a hostile world. Instead, he intends to bless the whole world through these people. This task is beyond the abilities of Abraham’s family, who fall again and again into pride, self-centeredness, foolhardiness, anger, and every other malady to which fallen people are apt. We recognize ourselves in them in this aspect too. Yet by God’s grace, they retain a core of faithfulness to the covenant, and God works through the work of these people, beset with faults, to bring unimaginable blessings to the world. Like theirs, our work also brings blessings to those around us because in our work we participate in God’s work in the world.
In Romans 4, Paul emphasizes that Abraham is father of all who believe—both Jews and Gentiles. As father of believers, Abraham sets a pattern for all believers to come. He is a paradigm of faith. He walked by faith. But faith, to Abraham, was more than an attitude of trusting God; faith was also an action. Paul in effect says to the Romans, “You’ve got to do things Abraham’s way, or you have done it the wrong way.” Paul then cites Genesis 15:6 in support of his argument: “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.” In Paul’s view, a right relation with God comes by faith, by trusting Him as Abraham did. His was a pilgrim attitude of relying on God and His word.
In the Gospel reading Jesus visits the house of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus. It’s our understanding that he is no stranger to the house. It seems to have been a place where Jesus could go to when things got too difficult for him in nearby Jerusalem. It also speaks of hospitality but from a very different perspective. It addresses our hospitality toward God, being in God’s presence in our in our hearts spiritually, but also in our ‘faith filled’ homes and at Church, in God’s house. It speaks of reverence before all else in the presence of God. But it also speaks of the way in which human persons ought to receive each other, with reverence for each unique human person who images the God of all creation, in whom the likeness of God is to be found.
In our very action-oriented society we may tend to sympathize with Martha slaving away in the kitchen while Mary seems to just sit looking dreamily into Jesus’ eyes. The situation may look less than ideal but we must remember that the purpose of the story is to help us get our priorities right. It is significant that this story immediately follows the story of the Good Samaritan. The former story began with the abstract concept of “loving one’s neighbor as oneself”. The story reveals that a real neighbor is one who shows compassion in deed for a brother/sister in need.
These stories brought together; the good Samaritan, Mary and Martha, Abraham’s feast and the utter wretchedness of Sodom and Gommorah – help us to understand more deeply how our faith reveals to us the full beauty of creation and creator, which is transformative and moves us to actions of appropriate love. These stories also speak of or infer how sacrifice and suffering can be an integral part of hospitality, loving God and Neighbor. But this sacrifice and suffering, reflective of the nature of God’s love for us, isn’t demanded. We are invited to follow God’s lead, to live and love and worship as we ought. We are invited to choose to love, to choose to sacrifice, to choose to suffer – if and when it serves the good, the true and the beautiful.
We can view our suffering as a contribution to the completion of Christ’s work in the world, insofar as we are members of the mystical body of Christ the Church. When we suffer for the sake of others, in service of the things that God has called us to do, then we are participating in Christ’s redemptive suffering—mysteriously completing the work that Christ began on the cross. Not that all our suffering should be viewed in this way, since as Peter reminds us, “If you endure when you are beaten for doing wrong, what credit is that? But if you endure when you do right and suffer for it, you have God’s approval. For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his steps” 1 Peter 2:20-21.
Choose to let God transform you through your encounter with God at Mass. God’s great feast to which you have been invited.
Fr. Blair Gaynes has been in the Diocese since 2008.