Traveling in the desert is dangerous. One may faint from heat or be blinded by light. Caves offer safe shadows. One cannot survive alone. In the desert culture of Abraham and today, when meeting someone you share provisions. Generosity may save a stranger’s life. In our first lesson, God visited Abraham and Sarah in the person of three strangers. Abraham hurried from the tent, invited them to stop and rest in the shade of the tree and then hurried off to prepare a meal and serve them. Hospitality, tonight’s radical practice, is essential in a desert and everywhere. We all need welcome and sharing.
We assume self-sufficiency though most of us experience much need and forget our past. Remember the children of Abraham spent 400 years as resident alien slaves in Egypt. After being rescued and later receiving land, God instructed: “The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt”[i] Being a stranger shapes behavior. We know what it feels like. God said: “You shall not oppress a resident alien; you know the heart of an alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.”[ii] Later our ancestors were aliens in exile under Babylonian rule. We know what it is like to be traveling and to be outsiders. Having been strangers, we welcome strangers.
Ancient Israel was an agrarian society where land was essential and usually inherited. Those who did not own land—foreigners, strangers, aliens, or tenant farmers—were powerless and vulnerable. After our ancestors received land, God said: “The land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is mine; with me you are but aliens and tenants.”[iii] Despite what I’m giving you, God said, you’re not in control. You always need me. We are all travelers, sojourners, God’s guests. Psalm 39 says: “I am your guest—a traveler passing through, as my ancestors were before me.[iv] We are strangers in need of God’s welcome, sharing sustenance, sanctuary, and companionship.
Even with land, even in our own home, we are God’s guests. We Brothers welcome guests to spend the night in both our houses for retreat five nights a week most weeks of the years. While I spend a lot of time preparing to and welcoming guests, I have to keep returning to the truth that I, too, am God’s guest here. That prompts acknowledging my needs and paying attention to how God keeps welcoming me.
We serve because Christ served us. Having had our feet washed, we wash others’ feet. Our hospitality depends on us continually receiving God’s welcome, being God’s guest in our own home. Sheltering practices include our personal and corporate prayer and centrally at the Holy Eucharist where Jesus as host offers his body and blood. Retreat offers renewed awareness of how God is present to, providing for, and sheltering us.
As it was for Jesus, personal prayer grounds and empowers us. You might pray with the Genesis story, imagining your life and its challenges as traveling in a hot, bright desert. Go to the distant tent. Hear an invitation to stop and rest in the shade. Eat and drink. Breathe in the sanctuary, stillness, and sustenance. What does your host ask? Share your story. Remain a while. Say thank you and continue your journey. This may be an image for and of our daily prayer.
Sharing meals is basic to community. Companion means one with whom we break bread. Eating separately creates distinctions, others. Gospel stories, particularly in Luke, show Jesus at meals. Jesus ate with everyone, particularly those on the margins. Jesus tells parables about great banquets: about invitation and acceptance, about preferential treatment versus humility
In today’s gospel lesson, Jesus is traveling through Jericho. Zacchaeus, a chief tax collector, wants to see Jesus. He goes on ahead to a sycamore tree. Kenneth Bailey points out sycamores would be outside the city, and they have big leaves and low branches in which to hide. Jesus did not accept invitations of hospitality to stay in Jericho. Zacchaeus may expect Jesus to be alone by the time he gets to the tree, but a crowd is still with him. Jesus sees the one who is hiding and calls him about by name. [v]
How does Jesus know his name? Bailey suggests those in the crowd see Zacchaeus first and call him out by name, probably with other names too like traitor or thief. They would expect Jesus to also denounce Zacchaeus and perhaps tell him to repent and be just. Jesus, instead, shocks everyone saying: “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.” The crowd grumbles both because Jesus refused their offer of hospitality and received it from their impure enemy. Guests do not select their host. Jesus crosses all boundaries, all the limits we set.[vi]
Hospitality, the welcoming of strangers, is not about entertaining. It is about saving lives, for our journeys are challenging and we need each other. The word hospitality has the same root as hospital, hospice, and hotel, places of safe lodging and healing. Before there were such, monasteries were some of the first shelters along dangerous roads where anyone would be welcomed for safe, healing lodging.
Hotels and restaurants often seek more to entertain and impress with luxury not simply sustain. We, too, may invite people into our homes trying more to impress and show off our stuff than to really care for guests. Hospitality is being present to others as they are. True hosts are often those with whom we can be honest. Shelter can be the safety to share our stories honestly. It may be with food that the best gift is listening well.
Hospitality is not restricted to place, person, or provision. Each of us can offer welcome. We can do it on the street, in the coffee shop, in a studio apartment, or in a house. We do it with whatever we have. Hospitality is about inviting people into our hearts.
God is both host and guest. On life’s challenging journey, we need companions and generosity. God is in the strangers on the road. Who is with us on the road? Will we exclude or welcome? Self-sufficiency and isolation are deceptive. We may not wish to be with our brother who squandered his inheritance[vii] or Zacchaeus who colluded with Rome. Yet God invites them and us to a banquet where there is a place for everyone at the table. God has welcomed us, and we in turn welcome fellow strangers to the table.
[i] Leviticus 19:33-34 New Revised Standard Version
[ii] Exodus 23:9 NRSV
[iii] Leviticus 25:23 NRSV
[iv] Psalm 39:12 New Living Translation
[v] Kenneth E. Bailey (2008) Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes: Cultural Studies in the Gospels. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, p177
[vi] Bailey, p179-180
[vii] Luke 15