The gist of this Sunday’s scripture readings is evident: the responsibility to show authentic hospitality to visitors is highlighted through two famous incidents, and a further lesson about the responsibility to exercise a sort of “spiritual hospitality” is drawn from these accounts.
First we encounter Abraham and Sarah dwelling by the “terebinth of Mamre,” which was likely near Hebron, south of Jerusalem. Today, as in ancient times, the region of Hebron is not absolutely parched as much of the Judean desert is, but it is not nearly as fertile as certain nearby lands are, and so travelers passing through Hebron would be in great need of the hospitality of the local residents.
Three mysterious guests appear before elderly Abraham as he rests at the entrance to his tent at Mamre. One of the guests appears to be a man but turns out to be the Lord himself (Gen 18:1-2) and the two others also appear to be men but are actually angels (Gen 19:1). Later Christian tradition has at times seen the three figures as representing the Holy Trinity, as has been famously depicted in Christian art.
After proceeding through the elaborate rituals of near eastern hospitality—rituals which underline the important nature of offering welcome to all—one of the travelers predicted that Abraham and Sarah, both of whom were elderly, would have a child within a year’s time. The prediction came true with the birth of Isaac, who carried on his father’s line and was the bearer of the promises the Lord had made to Abraham (Gen 21:1-3).
It is interesting that Abraham and Sarah’s actions of hospitality toward their visitors is followed by his intercession for Sodom and Gomorrah, recounted in detail in Genesis (Gen 18:16-33). Here Abraham, perhaps moved by the exercise of the virtue of welcoming the stranger, engages in a further virtuous action on behalf of others by praying that the residents of Sodom be spared from the Lord’s judgment.
In the next chapter of Genesis, in a passage which is never read in Church, we hear how the citizens of Sodom grossly mistreated the same two travelers (angels) who had been welcomed by Abraham and Sarah earlier. By so violently disregarding their obligation to receive travelers hospitably they brought condemnation upon themselves, despite Abraham’s intercession for them.
In the Gospel we find another example of hospitality being offered, this time by Martha and her sister Mary, and we note that this account of properly welcoming a guest—in this case, Jesus himself—is followed by a discourse from the Lord on prayer, much as the Genesis narrative on hospitality was followed by Abraham’s prayerful intercession for Sodom.
The connection between welcoming others in a Christian manner and a prayerful disposition—we might call it “spiritual hospitality”—is a natural one; extending hospitality means opening oneself and giving of oneself generously, just as we open up to the Lord and give of ourselves through prayer, especially through prayerful intercession for others. Whether we take our lesson from Abraham and Sarah, who welcomed the Lord himself to their humble abode, or from busy Martha, who was trying as we often do to tend to every detail without losing sight of the point of her efforts, we should remember that there is an innate connection between hospitality and prayer.
Moved by today’s scriptural lesson, let us resolve to show authentic hospitality both literally and spiritually through our intercession for others, that we too might be said to have “chosen the better part, and it will not be taken from us” (see Luke 10:42).
Father Edward Mazich, O.S.B.