When first glimpsed over the flat, scrub-covered land, it appeared quite small. Gradually though this was revealed as an optical illusion created by its isolation in the vast expanse before us. As the truck driven by our host Father Gabriel moved closer and closer, its immense height and expanse became clear. Its proportions seemed to be as those of legend and folklore. Its spreading boughs created a shelter from the lightly falling rain. We had arrived at one of the nearly two-dozen out stations in Father’s cure, at a gathering place of Christians for worship and fellowship in rural Zimbabwe. As pilgrims, guests and strangers, we had come to the great tree—to a place of meeting and hospitality with God…
In today’s scriptures we encounter Abraham and Sarah who have set up housekeeping in the shade of the great oak at Mamre. Such trees (called terebinths in the Hebrew Bible) held an important function in the religions of the ancient Near East, for they were seen as sacred places of meeting with divine beings. Even in the heat of the day, Abraham waits and watches at the tent entrance for visitors, strangers. And he is not disappointed. Nor does he seem surprised or confused by the three visitors who speak as one and singly. He addresses them in the singular. Abraham, with Sarah’s assistance, serves the visitors’ needs with self-deprecating humor and extravagant provision. “Let a little water…a little bread be brought that you may refresh yourselves and pass on,” he says—then proceeds to provide cakes of choice flour, tender and good veal, even curds and, milk! Abraham and Sarah seem to engaging in a sort of hospitality “bake-off” contest, seeking to impress God, even trump the Lord. Of course the Lord wins—by promising the gift of a son to be born to Abraham of Sarah’s body in their old age.
It’s likely that Abraham and Sarah’s bravado and amusement are attempts to hide the holy fear they experience in the encounter. Though Abraham was previously promised an heir and infinite descendants, he and Sarah have attempted to force the Lord’s hand by producing an heir through the slave girl Hagar. Their nervous laughter—for Abraham has already laughed in an earlier episode of hearing God’s voice make this promise—comes from their inability to hide the guilt and shame they feel.
But something healing and redemptive is taking place here: a bit of the unbroken communion and intimacy of Eden is being restored. Being unable to hide themselves here at the desert’s edge, Abraham and Sarah do not elicit the Lord’s plaintive “Where are you?” as Adam and Eve did. Instead there is mutual hospitality offered by Creator and creature. Each in their appropriate manner warmly and generously shares company, faith and purpose. Each offers welcome and friendly receptivity. They cooperate in mutual hospitality so that God’s self-offering—God’s gift of fullness of life and being—may progress toward its fulfillment and overcome estrangement.
Jesus’ sojourn in the home of Martha also takes place in the shade of a tree—at least to the eyes of faith—for the shadow of the cross stretches across Jesus’ steadfast path to Jerusalem. He sets an example for all disciples those whom he has enjoined to take up their cross daily and follow him. In a similar fashion Jesus will later teach a Pharisee who has invited him to dine that God’s hospitality of self-offering does not work like the mutual exchange of invitations in the social go-round. Jesus as the guest of Martha and Mary takes on himself the plight of the poor and crippled and lame and blind—all who are marginalized, who cannot repay such favors in kind. It is these folk with whom the Lord identifies himself who are to be invited to our banquets. The hospitality of God’s self-offering in love is to be their reward—the best and greatest reward.
And we should make no mistake: Martha’s desire to listen to Jesus, to sit at his feet—even in the shadow of the cross—Martha’s desire to share intimate communion with the Lord is just as strong as Mary’s. It is with the same gentle humor and invitation with which the Lord spoke to Sarah, that Jesus speaks to Martha. He honors her offering of hospitality. But as with God’s gift to Abraham and Sarah, his hospitality trumps hers. Jesus’ hospitality of self-offering is made not only to provide for human necessity—even before we know what we really need. Jesus’ hospitality is offered to impart to us his own worth, his worthiness. God, who sacrificially offers his very being in Jesus, invites us to the intimacy of mutual hospitality at the heavenly banquet—now in this life and in the unending joy of eternity.
The Rule of the Society of Saint John the Evangelist teaches the centrality of this experience for every Christian community: “The source of hospitality is the heart of God who yearns to unite every creature within one embrace. Only in the fullness of time will God gather all things in Christ, yet God’s boundless welcome is something we enjoy here and now in the Eucharist…We have the power to be a sacrament of God’s hospitality, a house of God, offering [God’s] nurture and protection to all who come under our roof.”
As we assemble, weekly and daily, to celebrate the Holy Eucharist, we come together seeking to share the faith of Martha and Mary, to “recognize the one who comes to us in the person of the guest, the stranger, and the pilgrim: It is the Lord who has identified himself with each of his sisters and brothers.” As we welcome the rich diversity of human experience in those whom God calls to Christ’s table, the One whose very nature is hospitality and love welcomes us too. As for Martha receiving Jesus, the welcoming of others—or of our selves—may not often be easy. But we need have no fear. For we practice such mutual hospitality that we may learn to love as God loves, to know ourselves and one another as God’s children, sisters and brothers of Christ, and empowered for service by the Spirit.
George Herbert in the poem “Love III,” beautifully and powerfully expresses this mystery of God’s boundless hospitality through self-offering:
Love bade me welcome; yet my soul drew back, guilty of dust
But quick-e’yd Love, observing me grow slack from my first
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning if I lacked anything.
“A guest,” I answered, “Worthy to be here”: Love said, “You
shall be he.”
“I the unkind, ungrateful? Ah, my dear, I cannot look on
Love took my hand, and smiling did reply, “Who made the
“Truth Lord, but I have marr’d them; Let my shame go where
it doth deserve.”
“And know you not,” says Love, “Who bore the blame?” “My
dear, then I will serve.”
“You must sit down,” says Love, “And taste my meat.” So I
did sit down and eat.
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