Genesis 18:1-22: 1 The LORD appeared to Abraham by the oak trees belonging to Mamre as he was sitting at the entrance of his tent during the hottest part of the day. 2 Abraham looked up, and suddenly he saw three men standing near him. When he saw them, he ran to meet them, and he bowed with his face touching the ground. 3 “Please, sir,” Abraham said, “stop by to visit me for a while. 4 Why don’t we let someone bring a little water? After you wash your feet, you can stretch out and rest under the tree. 5 Let me bring some bread so that you can regain your strength. After that you can leave, since this is why you stopped by to visit me.” They answered, “That’s fine. Do as you say.” 6 So Abraham hurried into the tent to find Sarah. “Quick,” he said, “get three measures of flour, knead it, and make bread.” 7 Then Abraham ran to the herd and took one of his best calves. He gave it to his servant, who prepared it quickly. 8 Abraham took cheese and milk, as well as the meat, and set these in front of them. Then he stood by them under the tree as they ate.
Hospitality… Huh! What is it good for?
In the Ancient Near eastern world of the Bible it was everything. The stability of the society was founded on hospitality. Nobody had credit cards. If you travelled to visit friends or family or if you had to move, you were forced to depend on the kindness of strangers. Numerous stories in the Hebrew Bible depict what happens when this stabilizing force breaks down. Sodom and Gomorrah is actually about hospitality and oppression of the poor, not homosexuality.
When Abraham sees visitors approaching, he immediately jumps up and runs to greet them. This is the hottest part of the day. If you’ve served recently in the Iraq War you might know that this means upwards of 120F. So, he runs to them and begs them to stop by and visit. If you visit MIddle Eastern countries today, you will probably experience similar treatment at some point. You stop by a stranger’s house to use their toilet and next thing you know you’re sitting down to tea.
This is worlds apart from what we are used to in Western culture (though it wasn’t always that way). If you stop by to use someone’s toilet, particularly a stranger, it is an uncomfortable and awkward situation. Both parties try to get it over with as soon as possible. We don’t want to know who you are and what your story is. We want the encounter over as quickly as possible so we can return to our comfortable isolated life. More often than not we don’t know our neighbors. Our society is not built on the stabilizing force of hospitality. What is the stabilizing force for our culture? Consumption, perhaps.
The practice of hospitality is not a special gift either. Yes, some people are more natural at it than others, but it is something we should all practice.
Hospitality inevitably involves food. Food is central to this practice. Why? Food puts people at ease and gives you something to gather around (instead of video games). In some cultures it is customary to take a vacation home and eat only foods from that area for a year. Food is a part of the people you are sharing time with. We are, in so many ways, what we eat. When we share that with other people, we offer a piece of ourselves to them.
Notice also that Abraham gives his best calves and food to the visitors. He also stands by as a good host/servant while they eat. Hospitality forces us to become other-centered as we put the comfort and needs of our guests ahead of ourselves. This continues to be the kind of glue that tenuously holds society together. This is what creates and builds community.