To appreciate Sunday's first and third readings, we must recognize the importance of hospitality in the ancient Jewish world. McDonald's, Denny's and Holiday Inn didn't exist during the time of Abraham or Jesus. Traveling was at best dangerous, at worst deadly.

Those daring to stray from home had to depend on the generosity, understanding and graciousness of strangers. That's why both early Judaism and early Christianity valued hospitality as a virtue which concretely demonstrated one's proper relationship with God.

If someone was hospitable to a stranger passing through his or her town or village, it was a sign that, given the proper circumstance, that person also would be hospitable to Yahweh or Jesus. As the author of I John expressed it: "Whoever does not love a brother or sister who can be seen cannot love God who is not seen."

Surrender

A key to understanding the religious dimension of hospitality can be found in the biblical authors' belief that all true relationships are rooted in the resolve to relinquish power over one another. Few people were more in another's control than travelers. By extending hospitality, God's followers were surrendering the power they naturally had over those who were in a strange place among a strange people.

We see a determination to renounce such power classically displayed in the first reading (Gen 18:1-10). The instant Abraham spots the three strangers, he runs to them, invites them into his encampment, and, with the help of Sarah, his wife, cares for their physical needs.

Eventually, the strangers not only reveal themselves to be Yahweh's messengers, but also promise the couple that on their return next year, "Sarah will have a son." The child Isaac, the linchpin of Yahweh's three promises to Abraham and Sarah, comes to this old man and post-menopausal woman only because of their hospitality to three strangers. By welcoming the three into their Bedouin home, the two are guaranteed a perpetual home for their descendants.

We see Jesus in a similar spot in the Gospel (Lk 10:38-42). Because Luke frames his Gospel around Jesus' journey to Jerusalem, we shouldn't be surprised to find his Jesus needing hospitality. He's given it here in the person of Martha -- but with a unique twist.

Mary, Martha's sister, seems oblivious to the work such an act of kindness involves. Seated at the feet of Jesus listening to His words, Mary hears a frustrated Martha cut into His discourse: "Lord, are you not concerned that my sister has left me all alone to do the household tasks? Tell her to help me." Normally, we'd expect Jesus to do just that, but He doesn't. Instead of chiding Mary, Jesus scolds Martha.

Giving up power

"Martha, Martha," He responds, "you're anxious and upset about many things; one thing only is required. Mary has chosen the better portion, and she shall not be deprived of it." In an amazing turnabout, Jesus teaches Martha a lesson about relinquishing power. If she'd just listen, she'd understand that His person and message are liberating her from the power which other people's expectations exercise over her.

The freedom which comes to us from hearing and carrying out Jesus' word is more important than even the freedom which Martha's hospitality offers. Somehow, Mary, the freer of the two sisters, has figured this out.

Paul knows one way in which such freedom comes about (Col 1:24-28). He, like Jesus, preaches God's word, a word which informs people of "that mystery hidden from ages and generations past but now revealed to God's holy ones,...the mystery of Christ in you, your hope of glory." God's word removes the strangle-hold which ignorance wields over us. It informs of God's eternal plan of equality for all people.

Paul's ministry of liberation inspires him to proclaim: "In my own flesh, I fill up what is lacking in the suffering of Christ, for the sake of His body, the Church." The Apostle is reminding his Colossians community that the only way we can completely renounce the power we hold over others is to suffer with and for those others -- suffer by offering hospitality, by proclaiming God's word, by removing ignorance, by simply permitting others to be themselves, essential parts of Christ's body.

(07-16-98)