Homily for 16th Sunday in Ordinary Time cycle C July 21, 2013 Peter Barbernitz
In our readings today the church lifts up for our consideration the theme of hospitality.
In Genesis we heard Abraham leapt up from his rest to welcome strangers coming down the road. The story strikes us modern, city-dwelling, Westerners as almost comical for the deference shown to the visitors in a desire to please them. Abraham provides not just some shade and some water and some food to eat but has his wife and servants set out a full banquet.
In our gospel story Jesus is on his fateful journey to Jerusalem. Mary and Martha welcome Jesus and his followers into their home, feed them, presumably arrange to put them up for the night, and sit at the feet of the great teacher.
Now, in both stories, it turns out that the visitor is God. The Genesis story shifts from talking about three visitors to one visitor. Some Christian commentaries interpret this as a visit from the Trinity! At the very least they are messengers from God. And of course, Jesus is the featured visitor in the gospel, though he is not yet fully revealed as the second person of the Trinity. One way of thinking about the message of our readings then, is that we should be nice to strangers because they could be God. A little simplistic perhaps, but sometimes a simple message is good.
The importance of hospitality is revealed by the context of the Abraham story. The very next story, and the next place the visitors will go – is Sodom. Pronounced SoDOM in Hebrew and by Jews. Abraham is held up in Jewish tradition as the prime example of good hospitality, SoDOM is held up as the exact opposite. The sin of Sodom (SoDOM) in Jewish tradition is NOT homosexuality but inhospitality.
You don’t really believe me, so let’s explore that Jewish tradition a bit. And we stay true to our readings today because we can explore the theme of hospitality through the positive example of Abraham or the negative example of SoDOM.
The prophet Ezekiel says in chapter 16: “This was the sin of SoDOM, she was arrogant, overfed, and unconcerned; she did not help the poor and needy.”
In the Talmud – a huge compendium of Jewish wisdom and laws and stories from teachers from just before Jesus through to the 400‘s – there are scattered about numerous stories of SoDOM. They say that the people of SoDOM would go out, especially at night, and move the landmarks and signs that travelers relied on. (Today that might be done in order to get people to COME to a dying city to buy overpriced gas and food; but SoDOM did it, in the tradition, in order that people would stay away.)
The stories say that they stole from those few travelers that managed to come to the city anyway. And in one story that would certainly keep ME far away it is said that if the guest was too long for the bed he was provided they would cut off his feet! If he was too short they would put him on the rack to stretch him out. That one might be a little exaggeration.
WHY, WHY, WHY?????
Because God had given them a lush and beautiful and bountiful land and they wanted to keep it for themselves. They made laws that forbade visitors and travelers because they might want to stay there. They also said “if we let outsiders in they will line up at our doors for charity”
At first it was simple greed – I like what I have and I want to keep it, I don’t want to share. But that leads a person onto the famous “slippery slope” and the greediness became more and more extreme over time. Jewish traditions give examples of the laws of SoDOM – all of which protected the rich and powerful to the detriment of the poor, the powerless, and the alien.
While it was a lush and beautiful place physically, socially SoDOM was one very inhospitable, selfish, place. A kind of hell on earth. Experiencing first the kindness and care of Abraham, the visitors went on to SoDOM. Their visit did not go well. The visitors are treated horribly but according to the laws of SoDOM – the travelers and their hosts are threatened with rape, a crime of violence. And so, the city is destroyed. Tradition says that the city of SoDOM was in the region of the Dead Sea. As desolate and inhospitable a place today as can be found on earth.
Whenever we are tempted to greed and selfishness the words of scripture are there to remind us that God did not give us a beautiful and abundant and fruitful creation as a gift for us to hoard. The prophets echo often the words from Job chapter 22:
“You have withheld water from the thirsty and from the hungry you withhold bread; as if the land belongs to people of wealth and only the rich may dwell in it. You send away widows empty-handed and the resources of orphans you have destroyed.”
Coupled with those denunciations of the negative examples the scriptures overflow also with positive examples like Abraham of how we need to be with one another and with all of God’s people. Share the land, share its goods, share with those who are poor. Redistribute wealth. It is not optional. It is not conditional. It is not limited to times when you have such an overwhelming surplus that you don’t mind giving others what is left over. Jews are reminded through all of the Torah (as we are as well): Remember that you too were once poor, were once slaves in Egypt and mistreated. Therefore – be kind to aliens and visitors and the poor, treat them as you wanted to be treated yourselves back then.
This clearly applies to us today. It is not such a subtle message that you are puzzling over how it could be applied in our troubled times and our troubled land today.
Whether you have been here a week, a century, or four centuries – it is likely that you or your ancestors were driven by desperation as much as ambition, that you or they were forced to use their last resources to make the journey, and that you or they were willing to work hard to make it if given an opportunity. Not then, and not now, do people arrive here expecting to be given handouts for nothing – that is a horrible and ugly slander against them.
Some of the ancestors of us gathered here this morning were brought here by force, torn out of their homeland in Africa and brought here to be slaves. Their descendants were eventually freed from that bondage but never truly welcomed or truly integrated. They are still not able to put down the burdens imposed by slavery and discrimination.
Once again immigration reform is in the news. Our bishops do not tell us how the law must look, but they do provide some guidance on the deeper issues and values involved. The values they lift up include the dignity of every human being on this planet, the right of every human being on this planet to eat and to work, and the right of those who are desperate to migrate in order to feed themselves and their families. And they remind us of the example of Abraham, a model, not of some exceptional love or kindness, but a model of the way God intends us ALL to ordinarily be.
The bishops DO also acknowledge the right of nations to establish borders and to make laws regarding immigration. They DO acknowledge the importance of public safety and order. There is some balancing and some compromising that has to take place.
It comes down to this: Are we the children of Abraham and Mary and Martha? Do we welcome the visitor and share our God given abundance freely? Or do we choose to be the children of SoDOM?