This past Sunday’s readings take us deep into the theology of hospitality.
It’s hard not to write a whole book on Abraham’s encounter with the three angels. It is a classic example of how Scripture deeper and wider the farther you wade into it.
The Bible’s own main commentary on this passage is in Hebrews: “Let brotherly love continue. Forget not hospitality, for by this some have entertained angels in a hidden way” (Heb 13:1-2). But the New Testament writer expects you to read deeper, to know the depth of the waters to which he is pointing. Three points:
First: Abraham “sat in the entrance of his tent, while the day was growing hot.” He was not at work, but he was not asleep. He was on the lookout. When the visitors came, “He ran from the entrance of the tent to greet them.” Then he “hastened into the tent and told Sarah,” and “he ran to the herd.” He made a big, elaborate meal – he “picked out a tender, choice steer” and “quickly dressed it”: a big project – and then, well, our translation says “he waited on them,” but the Hebrew says the same in a more vivid way: “he stood by them.”
Abraham was not lazy. Like Mary after the Annunciation – “she went into the hill country with haste” – he wastes no time leaping up to serve.
Second: there are a lot of rich details here. I won’t try to explain, I’ll just offer them for your pondering.
The story begins, “The LORD appeared to Abraham.” “The LORD” is how Catholics and Jews avoid pronouncing the divine name, YHWH. Abraham addresses him “Sir” – in Hebrew it’s Adonai, the word they substitute for YHWH.
The number of visitors is strange, jumping between one and three. “Abraham saw three men,” but he says, “Sir [singular] please do not go on [singular] past your [singular] servant. [You, singular] let some water be brought so that you [plural] may wash your [plural] feet.” Etc. Abraham sees the one in the three, the divine visitor in the midst of the three guests.
And though our translation simplifies and says he killed a “steer,” most translations point out that it was a “young” steer – and the Hebrew calls it a steer’s “son.” This is “ben,” maybe the most important word in the Abraham stories. Sons, animals, rams, cattle – all the elements of Old Testament sacrifice, which Abraham offers up to the Lord through these guests.
Third: this story is seamlessly tied to the Sodom narrative. Next week we’ll get the story of Abraham interceding for divine mercy on Sodom. And that ties into the theme of divine intimacy: the Lord comes very close to Abraham.
But the Sunday Lectionary won’t show us all the hospitality connections. The end of our story this week says, “And the men rose up from there, and looked toward Sodom. And Abraham was going with them to bring them on the way. And the LORD said, Shall I hide from Abraham the thing which I do?”
Then comes the mercy narrative. Then it ends, “the Lord went His way as soon as He had left off talking with Abraham. And Abraham returned to his place. And there came two angels to Sodom at evening.” These stories – Abraham’s hospitality and the destruction of Sodom – are not just nearby. They’re two halves of the same story.
The story is horrific, worth reading and being shaken by. In short, Lot takes in the strangers, just like Abraham did. But the people of Sodom demand to rape them, the antithesis of hospitality.
The Catechism tells us, “The catechetical tradition also recalls that there are ‘sins that cry to heaven’: the blood of Abel (Gen 4:10), The sin of the Sodomites (Gen 18:20; 19:13), The cry of the people oppressed in Egypt (Ex 3:7-10), The cry of the foreigner, the widow, and the orphan (Ex 20:20-22), injustice to the wage earner (Deut 24:14-15; Jas 5:4).” In each case, the Bible says that the sin “cries out to heaven.”
Now, the Bible is clear about the sinfulness of homosexuality. But my friends, I think it’s hard to read this passage of Genesis, or its context among the other sins that cry out to heaven, and not see that “the sin of the Sodomites” is the antithesis of Abraham’s hospitality. Sodom is not destroyed for being gay. Sodom is destroyed for its horrific hostility to the foreigners. Hospitality is not a minor issue.
Genesis frames the New Testament readings.
Colossians, so rich, speaks of the unity of Christ in his people. Our acts of charity, says Augustine, are “Christ loving Christ”: it is Christ whom we love in others, it is Christ who loves through us.
So just read the main words of our Epistle with Abraham’s hospitality in mind: “In my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ on behalf of his body, which is the church.” “It is Christ in you, the hope for glory.” “That we may present everyone perfect in Christ.”
The Gospel was Mary and Martha. Martha welcomed Christ, the guest. And this story follows immediately on the Good Samaritan, who did the same. But this Gospel urges us to see Christ in the guest.
The Greek is pretty amazing. “You are anxious,” Christ tells Martha. In Greek, she is “divided into parts.” When he says Mary has chosen “the better part,” it’s the same word. And when Martha is “worried,” the Greek word-image is that she is a “clamoring crowd.”
When we welcome Christ, when we are good Samaritans, let our heart not be divided.
How do you struggle to welcome Christ the guest – in your children, or colleagues, or strangers?