Unexpected Hospitality

Proclaim Sermons
Homily: Ordinary Time 22
August 28, 2022
Reproduced with Permission
Proclaim Sermons

Summary: In the ancient world, hospitality was a mutual exchange of favors. But in the teachings of Jesus, the practice became non-reciprocal. He challenges us to care specifically for those who cannot repay us: the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind.

When people sit down at a table for a meal, there is a lot more going on than eating and drinking. Jockeying for status can take place, with guests trying to sit in a place of honor. Favors can be returned, as when a host invites a particular guest in order to pay back a social obligation. Hosts can elevate certain guests while snubbing others. Acts of gracious hospitality can be on display, but so can stinginess. Bad manners and rudeness tend to make everyone uncomfortable, while good manners and kindness put people at ease. It makes sense that "when Jesus was going to the house of a leader of the Pharisees to eat a meal on the Sabbath, they were watching him closely."

Yes, people were watching Jesus closely. They wanted to know what kind of a guest Jesus would be. Would he try to sit down in a place of honor? Be ungrateful to his host? Insult the people around him? Chew with his mouth open? Or would he be humble, grateful, kind and well-mannered? The behavior of guests and hosts was very important in the time of Jesus. In fact, hospitality could be a matter of life or death.

Today, we see hospitality "as something extra or optional," writes professor Kathryn Bartholomew, "like the flowers and candles we use to decorate our houses when we entertain guests." People who practice good hospitality set a beautiful table and provide delicious food and drink. But in the ancient world, hospitality was a sacred obligation between travelers and the people who took them in. Travelers needed to know that "they could ask for and receive shelter, nourishment and protection," says Bartholomew; their hosts "needed to know that their household would be in no danger."1

A reciprocal obligation

At the heart of the ancient practice of hospitality was reciprocity - a mutual interchange of favors. The host offered shelter and food to the traveler coming from another region. The guest offered the gift of stories, insights and new perspectives. Then, when the host became a traveler, the roles were reversed. The host became the guest, and the guest became the host. It was a reciprocal obligation.

Hospitality was seen as a sacred obligation as well, in both the Old and the New Testaments. In Genesis 18, Abraham and Sarah were camping by the oaks of Mamre, and Abraham was sitting at the entrance of his tent in the heat of the day. He looked up, saw three men standing near him, and immediately jumped up and ran from the tent to meet them. Bowing down, he offered them water for washing, bread to eat and a place to rest.

The men accepted Abraham's offer of hospitality, and he worked with Sarah and his servant to prepare a full meal for them. In the course of the meal, one of the men predicted that Sarah would have a son, which caused Sarah to laugh to herself, since both she and Abraham were advanced in age. But Sarah and Abraham quickly learned to take these words seriously, since it was none other than the Lord who was appearing to them in the form of these three strangers.

Sarah conceived and bore a son named Isaac, just as God had promised. Years later, the writer of the New Testament letter to the Hebrews used this story as the basis for the recommendation, "Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it."2 This passage reminds us that hospitality is not only a reciprocal obligation - a mutual exchange of favors - with Abraham welcoming strangers and then being given the gift of a son. Hospitality is also sacred, since the three strangers turned out to be the Lord. "The stranger at our door can be both gift and challenge," concludes Catholic sister Ana Maria Pineda, "human and divine."3

Non-reciprocal hospitality

Jesus inherited this tradition of hospitality as a reciprocal and sacred obligation. He understood the book of Deuteronomy, which spoke of the Lord as a God who "loves the strangers, providing them food and clothing."4 He knew that the Israelites were commanded to provide for the needy among them by not keeping all their produce for themselves. And Jesus grasped that generous giving is essential to a healthy and functioning community. "Give, and it will be given to you," he says in the Gospel of Luke, "for the measure you give will be the measure you get back."5

But Jesus went beyond reciprocity in his Sabbath meal at the house of a leader of the Pharisees. In fact, he challenged his host to practice non-reciprocal hospitality. Jesus said to him, "When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous."

That is some unexpected hospitality! Social obligations are thrown completely out the window as Jesus tells the Pharisee to refrain from inviting anyone to a meal who would be in a position to repay his generosity - friends, siblings, relatives, rich neighbors. Instead, says Jesus, when the man gives a banquet, he should invite only those who cannot repay him - the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind. This turns the ancient practice of reciprocal hospitality completely upside down, making it an act of pure service.

Repaid at the resurrection

So, why did Jesus offer this unexpected recommendation? He did so because he believed that such a hospitable person would eventually be repaid: "You will be blessed," he promised the leader of the Pharisees, "repaid at the resurrection." In a sense, Jesus continued to believe in the reciprocity of hospitality, but he understood that payback would not come in this life. Instead, God would settle accounts in the kingdom of heaven, where everything is restored to perfect balance and harmony. "Blessed is anyone," said one of the guests sitting near Jesus, "who will eat bread in the kingdom of God!"6

Jesus challenges each of us to practice hospitality with our eyes on heaven, not earth. This means that when we serve our neighbors, we should focus more on people in need than on our friends and family. Yes, it is certainly enjoyable to throw a dinner party for your nearest neighbors. But such a meal does not have the eternal significance of a dinner served in a homeless shelter, especially if you can sit down and listen to the struggles of a person living on the streets.

In all our social encounters, Jesus wants us to practice the humility that he perfected over the course of his earthly ministry. Remember, says the apostle Paul, Jesus "did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, [but] he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death ...."7 Jesus gave of himself in a lifetime of service, and after losing his life on the cross he was exalted as Lord over heaven and earth. God settled his account in the kingdom of heaven.

Begin with humility

Now, it is likely that none of us will lose our life as Jesus did, in an act of perfect sacrifice. But this does not mean that we cannot practice humility in ways that show Christ's self-giving love. At his Sabbath dinner with the Pharisee, Jesus noticed that the guests at the meal chose the places of honor, which is an understandable human desire. But Jesus instructed them in a new kind of hospitality, one that is grounded in seeing others as better than yourself.

"When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honor," Jesus advised. "But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, 'Friend, move up higher'; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at the table with you. For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted." Jesus predicted that in this life - as well as in everlasting life - the humble will be lifted up and praised.

If we want to practice unexpected hospitality, we need to begin with humility. This means that our sharing of food and drink is not intended to raise our status - instead, it is designed to meet the needs of others. For some of the poor and hungry around us, it can truly be a matter of life and death, since our generous giving may be what offers them the nourishment they need to survive. But acts of welcoming and feeding are also designed to draw us closer to Christ, the one who emptied himself before he was exalted by God. If our hospitality toward others helps us to feel the presence and power of Jesus, then we have received all the payback that we will ever need.


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