When Abraham saw them, he ran from the tent door to meet them, and bowed himself to the earth, and said, “My lord, if I have found favor in your sight, do not pass by your servant.”
Our lesson from the Old Testament is the classic description of hospitality in the ancient world. On a hot summer afternoon, Abraham sees three travelers walking along the road and he leaves his tent, and runs to catch them and stops them so he can beg for the privilege of serving them and entertaining them. You might get the impression that Abraham was doing this because he knew who it was…at the beginning of the lesson it says that “the Lord appeared to Abraham.” But there is nothing in the story that follows to indicate that he knew that until he was surprised by the promise at the end of the story. In fact, the Epistle to the Hebrews refers to this story by saying, ‘Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that, some have entertained angels without knowing it.”
What Abraham did on that hot afternoon was the right and normal way to show hospitality to strangers coming along that lonely road in the arid countryside. The quick preparations for the meal are perhaps lavish and difficult, but normal for a feast in those days and true hospitality did call for a feast. The point of the story is the gift this hospitable couple received: the promise of a child and a legacy of a great and numerous nation. Abraham’s hospitality was exemplary, but it was an example of what everyone back then expected.
Our Gospel lesson is another instance of hospitality—the sisters Martha and Mary extend hospitality to Jesus—Martha was taking care of all the preparation, very much like Abraham and Sarah—and Mary was attending to Jesus, listening to his Word. I have heard so many discussions of this that focus on the conflict, and often come down to a competition between Martha taking care of things and Mary being a contemplative. But we don’t need to read it this way. The preparations, the hard work, the gifts, the whole structure of welcoming guests are essential to hospitality. Often it gets to be a bit much for the hostess, as it did with Martha. I don’t read Jesus’ response to Martha as a rebuke. What was it that Mary had been doing? She had been sitting at Jesus’ feet—the position of a servant or a pupil, and the Greek text says she was hearing his Word—the word of the Prophet who spoke for God. The emphasis is that the one thing that is good is to hear that Word and to attend to that speaker and that person who is the guest—both Martha and Mary were extending hospitality—Jesus is highlighting that the point is to care for and attend to the person, or people who are the guest.
In the Gospel of Luke, today’s lesson follows immediately after the Gospel from last week: Jesus’ challenging story about who is my neighbor. The two episodes are two perspectives on a single theme. Hospitality is not solely for people on your “A” list: remember, Abraham’s hospitality was to three strangers on the road. Hospitality and being a neighbor specifically are about overcoming our own preoccupation with what we feel and what we want and to welcome and help those who might make us uncomfortable.
On Friday, President Obama spoke about events over the last week or so that have resulted in much concern in our country. I was struck by how the things he had to say relate to real problems over how to be neighbors, and how hospitality has broken down—particularly when people aren’t even aware of what they are doing:
Here are a couple of passages from his remarks at Friday’s press conference:
“There are very few African American men who haven’t had the experience of walking across the street and hearing the locks click on the doors of cars. That happens to me — at least before I was a senator…And I don’t want to exaggerate this, but those sets of experiences inform how the African American community interprets what happened one night in Florida. And it’s inescapable for people to bring those experiences to bear.”
Because the president was being so careful to be measured and balanced, and not to attack or blame anyone, it struck me how really pervasive these things are. So pervasive that it can’t be just the bigots or racists who lock their doors or follow young men around in stores. It is often people of good will who aren’t really aware of their own behavior. Thus the challenge to be a neighbor, to extend hospitality the way that God wants us to, is very difficult and usually not achieved.
But hospitality is basic to our faith. The great Russian icon of the Trinity portrays Abraham extending hospitality to the three strangers at table. Of course, we would prefer to first feel good about people and trust them and then extend hospitality. But that’s not our call. Be like Martha and put together those structures of hospitality, no matter how it feels. Be like Mary and attend to the person you meet and listen. Be like Abraham who ran out and asked the strangers for a favor, the favor of his being able to give them something to eat and a place to rest. Hospitality is not about how good it makes us feel, or about all distrust and bad feelings disappearing. Our blessing comes from the love of God, and it comes as a surprise, like the angels promising the aged Sarah a child–and, in the very next verse after the close of today’s lesson–she laughed.