July 17, 2022
16th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Psalm 15:2-3, 2-4, 5 (1a)
“Behold I stand at the door and knock, says the Lord. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door to me, I will enter his house and dine with him, and he with me.” (Revelation 3:20)
When we walk into the Abrahamic narratives, we walk into the great mystery of faith — faith in a God who seems to ask the impossible. Abraham’s faith, coupled with obedience to God, motivates this man and his family toward an unfathomable future where his progeny will be as countless as the stars in the sky and sand of the sea.
Yet, I often wonder what made Abraham so tenaciously faithful. What was it that took Abraham’s life on the nomadic road urging him to leave his land to go toward Canaan at age 75? Was it something of the idolatrous world from which he came that awakened in him a divine reality beyond the idols made by human hands?
Legend speaks about a young Abram whose father hid him in a cave as a baby in the land of Ur of the Chaldeans. After years in hiding from the murderous Nimrod, Abram emerged from the cave. When Abram saw the sun rising in the east, he knelt and worshipped it. But the sun disappeared at the end of the day. Then Abram saw the moon and the stars in the sky, and he bowed down to worship them as well, but the moon waned and the stars disappeared at the dawn. What Abram realized was that behind the rising sun and the waning moon there was a greater God that moved these celestial beings. That was the God Abram would worship. Legend or not, the seed bed of faith was planted deep within the soul of Abraham, who did indeed become the father of many nations. The created world order welcomed Abram as its guest and Abram encountered the Lord there. Hospitality gives enduring gifts.
With the weariness of age promising to prohibit any possibility for Sarah and Abraham to conceive a child, one day Abraham rested at the entrance of his tent under the terebinth of Mamre. There, the Lord appeared to Abraham when three strangers came by. Somehow there must have been a quickening in the soul of Abraham to offer such hospitality to these enigmatic travelers. This would be a divine encounter; Abraham felt it in his aged bones. The day was growing hot. There is a kind of monastic quiet in the scene with Sarah in the tent and Abraham at its entrance. When he sees the three strangers, he moves into action, preparing for them a great meal. In fact, there is almost a frenetic graciousness that overflows from both Abraham and Sarah.
Abraham tells Sarah to bake some rolls. Abraham runs to look for a tender, choice steer which he orders his servant to prepare. There is also foot washing while milky curds are prepared. The whole day is spent in breathless hospitality. And instead of thanking Abraham and Sarah for their graciousness, one of the strangers offers the assurance that he will return in a year and Sarah will have a son.
In the Mediterranean biblical world, hospitality is a strong theme. The wayfarer traveling in the desert depended upon the graciousness of villagers and tent dwellers for their food and rest. Fr. Michael Casey says real hospitality involves reciprocity: both parties give, and both receive.
Having given birth to our four children, I treasure the sacredness of life, life within the womb. When a woman discovers she is pregnant, she becomes the dwelling place for a complete little stranger. Because life grows within her, her diet changes. If she smokes, she stops. If she has even one glass of wine a day, she stops. The life within her looks to her for food and sustenance. She no longer belongs to herself alone. She walks in faith to a great degree.
Faith lies fallow unless it is allowed to open to the very love that animates it — that is Jesus Christ.
For nine months, the woman’s body changes, the nursery is furnished, the child who is not even born dictates the complete future of both mother and father. Host and guest. A reciprocal event where mother sacrifices everything for her child and child returns the gift.
Sarah would know the reality of pregnancy through the year of God’s fulfilled promise within her. She laughed when she heard the visitor speak to her future. But it was no laughing matter; it was the kiss of God upon her life and Abraham’s life.
The readings today illustrate how faith and hospitality are linked. In the embrace of hospitality, guest and host can reveal their gifts offering life to one another. When the widow of Zarephath offered food and shelter to Elijah, he revealed himself as a man of God, giving her food and sustenance through the famine and drought. When two travelers to Emmaus invited the stranger who had joined them on the road to stay with them, Jesus made himself known in the breaking of the bread. When Martha and Mary welcomed Jesus into their home, they grew in faith because their encounter with Jesus both challenged them and invited them.
Faith urged Abraham to stay the course, awaiting the fulfillment of God’s promises. But it was in the context of desert hospitality that the good news broke.