This week, we will welcome thousands of guests at St. Thomas Aquinas who join us to celebrate Christmas. What a wonderful opportunity for all of us to welcome them with open arms. In light of our current and future efforts to welcome home inactive or non-practicing Catholics, we look at how Abraham practiced hospitality in this story from Genesis.
“The LORD appeared to Abraham by the oak of Mamre, as he sat in the entrance of his tent, while the day was growing hot. Looking up, he saw three men standing near him. When he saw them, he ran from the entrance of the tent to greet them; and bowing to the ground, he said: “Sir, if it please you, do not go on past your servant. Let some water be brought, that you may bathe your feet, and then rest under the tree. Now that you have come to your servant, let me bring you a little food, that you may refresh yourselves; and afterward you may go on your way.” “Very well,” they replied, “do as you have said.” Abraham hurried into the tent to Sarah and said, “Quick, three measures of bran flour! Knead it and make bread.” He ran to the herd, picked out a tender, choice calf, and gave it to a servant, who quickly prepared it. Then he got some curds and milk, as well as the calf that had been prepared, and set these before them, waiting on them under the tree while they ate. “Where is your wife Sarah?” they asked him. “There in the tent,” he replied. One of them said, “I will return to you about this time next year, and Sarah will then have a son.” Sarah was listening at the entrance of the tent, just behind him.” (Genesis 18:1-10, NAB)
If we allow it, this passage can teach us a lot about the role of hospitality in evangelization. Rather than remain inside, Abraham sits outside the entrance to his tent where he could more easily meet sojourners passing by. He knows that visitors will arrive though he does not know when so he waits and watches in anticipation, eager to welcome them whenever they appear.
The three men who appeared at Abraham’s residence were unknown travelers, foreigners who might otherwise be viewed as a threat or treated with contempt, but Abraham is honored by their presence. He clothes his greeting with a ritual of respect and bows down before them. In doing so Abraham demonstrates that hospitality and reverence go hand in hand. The text above suggests that hospitality is never passive or fixed but dynamic and active. The Genesis story depicts a flurry of movement. Abraham runs, he bows to the ground, he hastens and he hurries even though he is advanced in age. Abraham allows the new visitors to energize him, to invigorate him, and to excite him.
Abraham not only gives the wayfarers food, he serves up the finest fare, a tender, choice, calf, but he does not do this alone. His wife, Sarah, makes the bread, and the servant prepares the meat. There were likely others not mentioned who may have watched over the herd, milked the cows, ground the wheat, and so forth. It took a village to offer such hospitality then, and it takes a village to offer this kind of hospitality now.
In showing kindness to his visitors, Abraham may have thought he was doing them a favor. But at the end of the story, we discover that the visitors are the ones who perform the greater good. They are God’s angels who have come to deliver the news that Sarah, who is thought to be too old to bear children will have a son.
This beloved text reflects another in the New Testament in the Letter to the Hebrews on the significance of hospitality: “Do not neglect hospitality, for through it some have unknowingly entertained angels.” (Heb 13:2).
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