Semi-nomadic life in the country would often bring people from different families into contact with one another, and the character of Canaan as a natural land bridge between Asia and Africa made it a popular trade route. In the absence of a formal industry of hospitality, people living in cities and encampments had a social obligation to welcome strangers. From Old Testament descriptions and other accounts of the time and place, we can discern a basic code of conduct that explains Abraham's actions in this story. Around their camp, Abraham and his family had a duty to show hospitality. He must offer the hospitality first, and if accepted, the guest would be under his protection and care for the duration of the offer. He must do the best he can to provide for their needs, even if it means giving up his best things. The host is not allowed to demand anything of the guest, but the guest ought to share some news of the surrounding area or give a blessing (for the present or future), as well as show appreciation for all the hospitality (food, rest, etc.) that is offered. Thus, we can see the reason why Abraham runs to these guests to offer hospitality, desiring to create peaceful relationships with neighbors and assure that he and his entire camp are prosperous. The food shared is the most powerful sign of unity between peoples. By doing so, groups make themselves vulnerable to each other, and their trust is gained by proving it. Thus, Abraham does what is right but also receives an abundant blessing for it: "one year from now, I will return and Sarah will have a son." This becomes Isaac, and thus through his hospitality Abraham finally receives God's promise.
We also find hospitality in the New Testament. Jesus clearly relied on the hospitality of many, including Martha and Mary (Lazarus' sisters), Zacchaeus, a leading pharisee, St. Peter, and a group of women who journeyed with Our Lord. We see the same for the early church in the Acts of the Apostles. These episodes provide the background for the New Testament command, “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it” (Heb. 13:2).
Hospitality and generosity are often underappreciated in Christian circles nowadays. Yet the Bible pictures the kingdom of heaven as a generous, even extravagant, banquet (Isa. 25:6-9; Matt. 22:2-4). Hospitality fosters good relationships, and the bible accounts remind us that relationships and sharing a meal go hand in hand. We gain a deeper understanding of each other by sharing a meal and an extended encounter. When people break bread together, or enjoy recreation or entertainment, they often grow to understand and appreciate each other better. Better working relationships and more effective communication are often fruits of hospitality.
In ancient times, hospitality was almost always offered in the host’s home. For us as parishioners, this Church is our home. Let us be very intent on showing hospitality well. To this end we are organizing a hospitality team for our parish at Christmas, and hope to offer this more consistently in the future. However, this takes effort from all of us to refrain from the consumerist mentality in regards to our Sunday worship and do our best to offer a smile, a kind word, and a helping hand to those around us who might be in need. Remember, in serving the least of those around you, you are serving Jesus. In being good hosts, we may unknowingly be hosting angels.
Pray for our "guests" next week and ask for the grace to be bearers of God's love to them.
Saint Thérèse, the little flower, pray for us!