Dr. Peter Marty: Host and Guest (Genesis 18)

Both delight in the significance and profound humanity of each other

Read Genesis 18:1-15.

Imagine, if you will, a party at my house tonight. Fine wine will be poured. Locally grown vegetables will accent the main dish. The dessert? Well, that's always a surprise at our house. Just assume it will be out-of-this world, given my wife's affection for confection. The guest list is small. You happen to be on it.

You arrive at the appointed time and ring the doorbell. Nobody answers, so you warily let yourself in. When no one responds to your "Hello?" you open a few hallway doors looking for the coat closet. After finding a spare hanger on the closet floor with which to hang your jacket, you go further into the house.

In the kitchen, my wife and I are sitting back enjoying an appetizer. It quickly becomes apparent through our benign neglect that you are on your own for figuring out the evening. After more than an hour of standing around with no one bothering to offer you a cracker, drink or even a chair, you open the fridge to help yourself. Others guests arrive and find themselves navigating the same awkwardness. 

If my wife and I behaved like this, you'd never return to our house, no matter how good the "oozing chocolate lava cake." Why? It's because we never got off our duffs. Hospitality begins when a host moves toward the space and needs of a guest. In the case of our party, it would have started with us greeting you eagerly at the door. 

A quick check of your congregation will reveal whether the ushers are functioning like true hosts or more like bulletin dispensing machines that happen to be warm-blooded. If your assigned greeters ask you where they're supposed to stand, that's a pretty good indication they are expecting guests to come to them.

What would life be like absent of all hospitality? Harsh. Difficult. Inhospitable. No wonder the Bible has such a developed theology of hospitality.

God wants to give shape to lives that not only welcome the neighbor but, much more challengingly, welcome the stranger. It's the latter that receives priority attention in the Hebrew Bible.

More than pleasantness, more than friendliness, biblical hospitality elevates the needs and hopes of the guest (or stranger) over the preferences and comforts of the host. Breathing space is created for guests to flourish. They are set free from having to conform to the image of the host. They have room to be themselves.

God's commitment to instilling a spirit of hospitality in the Hebrew people takes center stage under some oak trees one day. Abraham and Sarah are inside a tent when three strangers show up beneath the shade of the oaks. This couple welcomes, refreshes and feeds their unknown guests. They do so by moving toward the three - the directional requirement of all gracious hosting. Abraham actually runs to greet them. He and Sarah don't wait for the three to come and find them. Instead they initiate the encounter, eventually feeding these strangers everything from bread and curds to their own precious calf. 

Biblical hospitality is never lopsided. Both host and guest delight in the significance and profound humanity of each other. Each has a gift to bring to the other party. 

It's not as if the guest or stranger is only positioned to receive and the host is only equipped to dispense or deliver. Sure, a host may be ready to offer up a piece of chocolate cake, a worship bulletin, a tour of the church or a precious calf. But no guest ever shows up completely empty-handed. They come bearing gifts too. It only takes the openness of others to notice. Rich with experiences, questions and deep meanings of their own, guests always have something extraordinary to offer.

The surprise in our story unfolding outside Abraham's tent canopy is that the three strangers come to give their host a gift. They don't show up merely as takers, waiting to gulp down milk and curds. They come bearing the promise of a child - a gift that later will be wrapped in ribbons and bows with the name Isaac written all over it.

[Taken with permission from The Lutheran Magazine, March 2012.TheLutheran.org]