Commentaries on Genesis 18:1-10; Colossians 1:24-28; Luke 10:38-42
ONE THEME of today’s readings is hospitality. Hospitality is a very important element of life in the Middle East. This is not surprising, given the hostile terrain of large stretches of waterless desert and hot sun. Such hospitality for us has become a victim of modern urban living. We only open our doors to our own family or people we know well. Our houses are constantly locked, even when we are at home. There are peepholes, cameras, alarms. Strangers can no longer be trusted. One wonders if this is a step forward in our so-called civilised, cultured, developed and sophisticated society?
Hospitality in Scripture
The two main readings today deal with aspects of hospitality. In the First Reading from the Book of Genesis, we see Abraham. He is still a nomad, living in a tent, constantly on the move following the needs of his flocks of sheep and cattle. We are told that three men strangers come by. Although there are three, Abraham speaks in the singular to just one, whom he addresses as “Lord”. He also bows deeply before him.
Reading between the lines we see that this is God himself with two angels under the guise of passing travellers. It is the way God constantly enters unexpectedly into our lives and often remains unrecognised. We see this happening on a number of occasions in the post-Resurrection stories of the Gospel. How important, then, to treat every stranger we meet with deep respect!
Abraham insists that the visitors stay. He puts them sitting in the shade of a tree (probably he is encamped near an oasis) and orders water for them to wash their hot and dusty feet. He tells his wife to prepare special food for them and he entertains his visitors while they eat.
This act of kindness and respect to the stranger does not go unrewarded. The leading visitor says, “This time next year I will surely return… and your wife will have a son.” This promise is made in spite of the fact that Sarah is well past childbearing age. Although Abraham’s official wife, she had up to this borne him no son. When we welcome God into our lives, he will always come back but not in the same way and in ways which may surprise us.
Abuse of hospitality
It is worth noting that this story comes immediately before the story of Sodom. This story is the very opposite: a story of the abuse of hospitality. There we meet the same three men who take shelter in the house of Lot, a relative of Abraham. Sodom is a city utterly steeped in sinfulness of every kind.
An example of its sinfulness is how the people of the city ask Lot to allow them, in effect, to gang rape his three visitors. Homosexual acts were abhorrent to the Jews, though not necessarily for the same reasons as in our society. It was regarded as the utmost degradation for a man to allow himself to be penetrated like a woman. The Romans sometimes humiliated their prisoners of war by sodomising them.
The idea of doing this to recipients of a host’s hospitality was beyond conception. Only the most wicked could even think of such a thing. The degree of abhorrence is indicated by Lot offering the people his daughters instead. It was better to have his own daughters violated than allow his guests to be touched. (That horrifies us but we are dealing here with a very different culture.)
And when we realise who these three men really are, we understand how truly wicked the people of Sodom were. In sodomising the strangers, they would have been sodomising God, who is, of course, considered to be male.
Hospitality to Jesus
The Gospel also speaks of hospitality but from a very different perspective. This time the visitor is Jesus himself and apparently no stranger to the house. Jesus, we know, had no home of his own. “Foxes have their lairs, the birds of the air have their nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” It is part of Jesus’ message of total freedom and detachment.
At the same time, Jesus preached for his disciples a fellowship of true brothers and sisters, whose doors would always be open to each other. When the Christian, for Christ’s sake, leaves home, father, mother, brothers, sisters and property, he/she finds a hundredfold homes, mothers, brothers, sisters and all he/she needs. Jesus was totally at the service of others by being continually on the move, going from place to place. In return, people saw to his personal needs. There is no evidence that Jesus ever had to sleep in the open air or did not have enough to eat. The house of Martha, Mary and Lazarus seems to have been a place where Jesus could go to when things got too difficult for him in nearby Jerusalem.
Sympathies with Martha
In our very action-oriented society we may tend to sympathise 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. Both are found only in Luke and their being back to back is not a coincidence. They complement each other.
The former story began with the abstract concept of “loving one’s neighbour as oneself”. The story reveals that a real neighbour is one who shows compassion in deed for a brother/sister in need. The point is made dramatically by making the despised Samaritan the real neighbour while two apparently religious people, although aware of the problem, do absolutely nothing for one of their own. Jesus punctures the idea that a real neighbour is someone of one’s own race or religion.