Our sacred authors, both Hebrew and Christian, promote only one lifestyle: the giving of oneself to others. They believe we accept this responsibility when we become God's followers.

Sunday's first reading, for example (Gen 18: 1-10), is one of a series of passages in which the Genesis writer depicts Abraham and Sarah - the first Israelites - in situations in which they embody characteristics every Jew should have. This particular narrative highlights their hospitality.

At no point in the story do the three travelers make any demands. Abraham "ran from the entrance of the tent to greet them; and bowing to the ground, he said: 'Sir, if I may ask this favor, please do not go past your servant. Let some water be brought, that you may bathe your feet, then rest yourselves under the tree....Let me bring you a little food, that you may refresh yourselves; and, afterward, you may go on your way.'"

The three strangers need do only one thing: accept the couple's hospitality. "Very well," they replied, "do as you have said."

Thank-you gift

This passage is significant not only because the three strangers turn out to be Yahweh in human form, but also because the trio repays Abraham and Sarah's generosity with something the husband and wife need. "I will surely return to you about this time next year," one of them promises, "and Sarah will then have a son."

As good Jews, the earliest Christians also believed showing hospitality was one of the best ways to imitate Jesus in their daily lives. Yet, as Luke tells us, they were expected to offer it with a special twist (Lk 10: 38-42). No longer were those who gave or those who received such generosity locked into specific roles.

In the Gospel, for instance, Martha welcomes Jesus as women in her culture were expected to welcome guests, "burdened with much service." Mary, on the other hand. going against type, welcomes Him by sitting "at His feet, listening to Him speak."

Martha tries to solicit Jesus' help in getting her sister back into the kitchen, but He gently refuses to take her side. "Martha, Martha," He responds, "you are anxious and worried about many things. There is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, and it will not be taken from her." In other words, "I came into your home to teach, Martha, not to eat. Mary's the better host because she's doing what all my followers should do: listening to my word."

Diverse needs

Jesus' disciples realized that not every guest has the same needs; one should be fed, another listened to. Such diversity is a key element in Paul's attempt to "fill up what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ on behalf of His body, which is the Church" (Col 1: 24-28).

Paul sees himself relating to others - Gentiles in this case - in a way the historical Jesus never did. As a reformer of Judaism, Jesus simply responded to the needs of specific Gentiles and used them as examples of faith for His fellow Jews, but He never tried to convert them to His way to life.

After His death and resurrection, the situation changed. Some of Jesus' followers thought it no longer necessary to convert Gentiles to Judaism before converting them to Christianity. Not only was this drastic shift unforeseen, it caused great pain for many who had followed the Jewish Jesus from the beginning.

No wonder Paul compares his work in this field to Jesus' suffering and death. In order to show hospitality to Gentiles, Jewish Christians were being asked to sacrifice a significant part of this traditional selves. Discovering the risen Jesus in Gentiles, as Gentiles, wasn't easy.

Perhaps some of us modern Christians have put hospitality on a back burner because, unlike Paul, we think the historical Jesus' sufferings took care of everything and everyone. We refuse to join our sufferings to His.

(7/15/04)