July 17, 2016
Sixteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time
First Reading: Genesis 18:1-10a
The Letter to the Hebrews warns us, “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares” (Heb 13:2 RSV). The idea of secret angel guests might conjure up some B-movie plots in our minds: hosting visitors from outer space for dinner or having a sleepover with the archangel Gabriel. But in fact, Hebrews is alluding to some Old Testament stories, and in particular, to the story of Abraham hosting visitors. This story, in Sunday’s first reading, points to the forgotten virtue of hospitality, the revelation of the Trinitarian nature of God and the direction salvation history will take in Abraham’s life.
Hospitality, the Forgotten Virtue
Before motels, it was hard to find a place to stay when traveling. Sure, in a big city, you could stay at a fancy and expensive hotel like Denver’s Brown Palace, est. 1892. But most people couldn’t afford such accommodations and most people didn’t travel very much. It wasn’t until the invention of the automobile that people started traveling around for fun. In fact, early motoring was joined at the hip with picnicking and camping. The beauty of having a car was that you could get out of the city and enjoy the great outdoors. (My how times have changed!) In fact, it was the automobile that brought about the existence of far-flung “mo-tels,” with “mo” standing for “motor.”
So where would you spend the night in the pre-motel world? With friends, of course! If you were going to visit another place, you would write a letter in advance and secure a place to stay with friends or relatives. If you had no friends or relatives in a certain place, you might be able to secure a room at a stranger’s house for the night at no cost. In fact, this tradition was exemplified by George and Martha Washington at their Mount Vernon estate, where they hosted guests on three of every five nights. All of this hosting of friends, relatives and friends-of-friends, was linked to deep and ancient cultural values. In most eras of human history, people moved infrequently, often never going further than a few miles from home in their whole lives. That meant that people who did move around were on the margins, “sojourners” in the Bible. These people were often poor, cut off from social support structures, outsiders in need of food and shelter.
Our era has plenty of accommodations, so it is easy to find a place to stay with Expedia or Kayak.com, but without a keen sense of hospitality we might be missing out on something. The act of inviting someone into your home, feeding them a meal, giving them a bed for the night is charity in action. When you host someone, you put your money where your mouth is. We can talk big about our devotion, our virtue, about being “a good Catholic,” but hosting a person actually forces you to do things like clean the bathroom, change the sheets, buy some extra food. It involves money and “where your treasure is, there will your heart be also” (Matt 6:21). Pope Francis has given us valuable lessons in hospitality, for example, by hosting a fine dining experience for 200 homeless people in the Vatican. In our era, we might not need to be hosting people 4-5 nights a week like the Washingtons, but we can find creative ways to extend the helping hand of a host to visiting missionaries, youth groups or friends of friends. We can also go out of our way to participate in providing meals for the homeless, visiting people in prison, and seeking out the company of shut-ins and other lonely people (at nursing homes, for example).
The reading tells us that “the Lord appeared” to Abraham, but then says, “He lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, three men stood in front of him” (Gen 18:2 RSV). The Lord takes the amazing step of appearing to Abraham as three men. The Tradition has consistently seen this moment as a revelation of the Trinity. God, in a veiled manner, reveals his Trinitarian nature by representing himself as three men in this theophany to Abraham. A Russian painter from the 1400’s, Andrei Rublev, famously depicted this scene in his icon of the Trinity. We learn in Genesis 19 that two of the men are actually angels (Gen 19:1), but the symbolic importance of showing up as three men sticks.
Abraham’s Fast Food
Abraham shows himself to be a model of hospitality when his unexpected guests arrive. Aged patriarch that he is, he runs to prepare a meal for them. He tells his wife, Sarah, to bake rolls “Quick!” while he chooses a calf for slaughter. The meal consists in bread, beef and cottage cheese (see 18:8). Rather than join in the meal himself, Abraham hangs back and waits on them like a servant, showing his great deference for his guests. Eventually, the guests speak and tell Abraham that his elderly wife will have a baby son by this time next year. Sarah overhears this prediction from inside her tent and laughs aloud (a biblical LOL!). The guests ask her about her laughter, but in her embarrassment she denies that she laughed, but eventually ends up naming her son after the occasion (Gen 21:6). “Isaac” means “he laughs.”
The Law of Hospitality
Abraham shows us what it means to be hospitable, to invite in the other, to reach out in practical ways. His story also shows us the benefits which accrue to those who “practice hospitality” (Rom 12:13). St. Thomas Aquinas, in a homily, reflects on this Pauline principle and explains the “law of hospitality” taught by the natural law, the old law and the new law. He tells us that by practicing hospitality we gain grace, we might entertain saints and angels, and we will be received into heaven. If those aren’t reasons enough to open our homes to serve others, I don’t know what is!