The writer of the letter to the Hebrews has warned, “Do not neglect hospitality, for through it some have unknowingly entertained angels”. Today, this is the theme of our readings, particularly as it comes to welcoming God, and creating a suitable space for the divine presence within our hearts. But first, if I were to ask you, who is the most important NT character after Jesus, and perhaps Paul, whom would you pick?
Some theologians would actually name Abraham, who indeed appears frequently in NT texts, with various purposes. In the synoptic gospels, he legitimizes Jesus’s identity as the Messiah in his genealogies, and shows up in Jesus’ parables. In the epistles and John, he is at the hinge of several controversial theological arguments that variously interpret the fact that clearly he wasn’t yet Jewish when God approached him (Judaism not yet being a thing). For Paul, this meant that his gentile converts didn’t need circumcision (Romans, Galatians); for John - that Jesus superseded the Old Covenants; and for the author of James - that Abraham was justified by both faith and works, not by faith alone. Finally, in Hebrews, he is a reminder for those who have such faith to persevere in the face of life’s hardships because God promises something greater than what they already know, still to come out of the relationship with him.
Today, we met Abraham in the OT reading that recounted him entertaining the three visitors. Abraham was a chieftain of a semi-nomadic tribe. As such, he possessed considerable wealth bound in his herds of animals, which he had to move twice a year between Hebron and Negev, and he lived in a tent. So when the three guests stood by his tent, it was like when someone rings your doorbell. They brought Abraham and Sarah the amazing news about the impending conception and birth of a child, despite their advanced age and prior inability to have children. In interacting with them, Abraham alternates between speaking to them as one or as three persons, causing Christians of later centuries to interpret the story as a manifestation of the Holy Trinity. The patterning of number 3 is woven in other elements of the story, such as the three “seah” measures of flour (while even one, being 8 liters, would be more than plenty to feed this number of people!). The story is also parallel to the announcement that Gabriel made to Mary about the birth of Jesus many centuries later. Taken together, the two stories signify that the Trinity is active in every work of God from creation to redemption, while Abraham’s hospitality continues to serve as the symbol of our response.
As such, Abraham was that person who dwells in the presence of God, as described in today’s Psalm 15. Notice that while the visitors came unbidden and unexpected, they waited for an invitation, which Abraham was free to initiate. This he did, and made the amount of food that greatly exceeded that which was necessary. In the NT texts, God will again appear among the people in the human form to eat and drink with them. At times, it would be him who provides overabundant wine and bread, but more often, he relied on human hospitality, such as described in today’s gospel. And as it turns out, human hospitality, important as it is based on Abraham’s story, also comes in two types.
In today's gospel reading, Jesus is entertained as a dinner guest by Martha and Mary of Bethany, the sisters of Lazarus whom Jesus later resurrects from the dead. At a subsequent dinner, Mary was also said to have anointed Jesus in anticipation of burial, to the consternation of other guests and defended by Jesus. Here, too, he defends her against the growing resentment of her sister. Thereby, the reading contrasts the hospitality to the neighbor with that we might offer to God. It’s not that the latter is unequivocally more important, but the former always flows from it.
On the surface, the passage seems to say that a woman's place isn't always "in the kitchen" and she is able to learn from and hear God. That’s encouraging; on the other hand, the overall trajectory of Luke-Acts emphasizes the notion of apostolic succession, in which only male disciples take on the continuation of the work of Christ. The kind of “serving” that Martha was doing has been suggested to refer to the work that male deacons might do in a house church environment, where only learning and listening was expected of women. This might have been partly why the author of Luke included this episode, absent in other gospels. Notably, it stands in contrast to Paul’s writings, who wrote before Luke, was in many ways at odds with the disciples, listed female church leaders in his letters, and talked about their church leadership and worship. It’s not easy for us to evaluate the circumstances and intent behind these ancient writings.
Nonetheless, male or female, lay or ordained, today each of us is called to aspire to both kinds of service and hospitality – contemplative and physical. Both are needed, and one is the extension of the other. Faith is credited to us as righteousness, as it was to Abraham, but faith without love is also a hollow gong; it’s not alive. Reflecting on these passages, we might ask ourselves, do we tend to lean towards being contemplative or active? Listening or doing? Finding our hope for grace and salvation in faith, or in obeying the commandments? How can we better recognize our value to God in spite – indeed because! - of these differences? How can we balance our strengths and weaknesses, as we participate in advancing God’s kingdom? Maybe, there are some ways in which we might need to step out of our comfort zone: a busy powerhouse of a warden or server might find it important to learn silent meditation techniques. A highly educated intellectual might find herself at a loss for words, yet simply by her presence alleviate someone’s grief. And someone who prays regularly for causes and concerns might do well to find practical ways to contribute to some of them. How may we best recognize, affirm, and complement each other’s gifts? In pondering these questions, may we continue, like Abraham, to look forward to the unique ways in which God’s promises will be fulfilled in our lives based on our individuality. Amen.