As in life, so in Scripture: Taking things out of context leads to misinterpretation. Through the centuries, for instance, many readers of the Bible have misunderstood Yahweh's words to Abraham in next week's reading from Genesis 18: "The outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah is so great, and their sin so grave, that I must go down and see whether or not their actions fully correspond to the cry against them that comes to me."

The context is this week's first reading (Gen 18: 1-10). Only when we understand this passage do we understand Sodom and Gomorrah's great sin.

Both the ancient Jews and early Christians believe on of the best ways to show their dedication to God was to be dedicated to hospitality. Since they regarded God to be totally "other" from themselves, they tried to relate generously to those in their communities who also were "other," especially strangers. Hospitality to strangers is one of the threads which consistently binds all why try to follow God.

Welcome

In this case, Abraham, the ancestor of all Jews, demonstrates hospitality to the "nth" degree. The three travelers don't even have to ask for it. "When Abraham saw them," the Genesis author writes, "he ran from the entrance of the tent to greet them; and bowing to the ground said, `Sir, please do not go on past your servant.'" With the help of Sarah his wife, Abraham then offers the strangers water, food, shade and rest.

The travelers not only accept; they offer Abraham and Sarah something in return: a child. Of course, we readers know the three strangers are actually Yahweh in human form. (Why three? Even notice how, in refrigerator art, children always show their parents' importance by drawing them three or four times taller than anyone else in the picture? Our sacred author does something similar. He employs three people to convey Yahweh's importance. That's all. This scene was never meant to be a prefiguring of the Trinity.)

Following Abraham and Sarah's experience, our biblical writers agree: One always receives more than one gives in hospitality.

This is especially true when Martha and Mary offer Jesus hospitality in the Gospel (Lk 10: 38-42). But the gift He leaves behind is quite different from the one Sarah and Abraham receive. By including this story in his Gospel, Luke is telling his readers that once they open the door of their lives to Jesus, they're gifted with a completely new way of looking at reality.

Through her protest, Martha learns that faith and ministry are never limited by gender or role expectation. "There's need of only one thing," Jesus reminds the busy, narrow-minded Martha. "Mary has chosen the better part, and it will not be taken from her." Discipleship shatters the restrictions that custom, culture and gender constantly attempt to impose on us.

Gift in return

Paul, having eventually welcomed the disruptive stranger he encountered on the Damascus road into his life, receives a parallel gift (Col 1: 24-28). He tells us that he not only has been invited to join the suffering ministry of the risen Jesus, but also been given the insight that he's actually suffering "on behalf of his body, which is the Church." Paul can honestly look even at Gentiles and state that he sees "Christ in you, the hope for glory."

Those who bravely open themselves to the "other" usually discover the gift they receive in return for their hospitality is a gift which will cost them something beyond the hospitality they offered.

It was a lot easier, for instance, for us "straight" folk to read the Sodom and Gomorrah story when we thought their sin was homosexuality. It's certainly more difficult to listen to it when we return it to its original context of hospitality. Perhaps we haven't received any gifts of God recently because we haven't opened ourselves up to any strangers recently.

(07-19-01)