Genesis 18-The Art of Hospitality

Genesis 18:1-15

The Lord appeared to Abraham near the great trees of Mamre while he was sitting at the entrance to his tent in the heat of the day. 2 Abraham looked up and saw three men standing nearby. When he saw them, he hurried from the entrance of his tent to meet them and bowed low to the ground.

3 He said, “If I have found favor in your eyes, my lord,[a] do not pass your servant by. 4 Let a little water be brought, and then you may all wash your feet and rest under this tree. 5 Let me get you something to eat, so you can be refreshed and then go on your way—now that you have come to your servant.” “Very well,” they answered, “do as you say.”

6 So Abraham hurried into the tent to Sarah. “Quick,” he said, “get three seahs[b] of the finest flour and knead it and bake some bread.” 7 Then he ran to the herd and selected a choice, tender calf and gave it to a servant, who hurried to prepare it. 8 He then brought some curds and milk and the calf that had been prepared, and set these before them. While they ate, he stood near them under a tree.

9 “Where is your wife Sarah?” they asked him. “There, in the tent,” he said. 10 Then one of them said, “I will surely return to you about this time next year, and Sarah your wife will have a son.”

Now Sarah was listening at the entrance to the tent, which was behind him. 11 Abraham and Sarah were already very old, and Sarah was past the age of childbearing. 12 So Sarah laughed to herself as she thought, “After I am worn out and my lord is old, will I now have this pleasure?”

13 Then the Lord said to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh and say, ‘Will I really have a child, now that I am old?’ 14 Is anything too hard for the Lord? I will return to you at the appointed time next year, and Sarah will have a son.”

15 Sarah was afraid, so she lied and said, “I did not laugh.”

But he said, “Yes, you did laugh.”

The Infinite Depth of the Stranger

This chapter of Genesis is quite famously coined the “Hospitality of Abraham”. It is a beautiful account of Abraham beholding the triune God, and it is also a sobering message to us all of the importance of entertaining guests.

Hospitality doesn’t seem to be all that relative of a word in our modern, Western context. When someone comes from abroad, we tend to struggle to connect with them. When there is someone new moving to our neighborhood, we tend to scope them out first before knocking on their door, introducing ourselves to them, and giving them a housewarming gift. 

This is reservation we have of receiving the stranger namely has to do with our sensitivity towards change and our fear of the unknown. Whether at school, at work, at church, or at a party, we tend to gravitate towards our own, stay within the comforts of the people we are acquainted with, even if they are unpleasant because at least there are no surprises from them. Approaching a stranger in any of these gatherings is the bold gesture of the brave ranger navigating into an uncharted forest. 

A new person is full of potentiality, and with that potentiality comes a great deal of imagined danger. We tend to not see someone new and think, “I definitely will find friendship in them!” We tend to wonder if they think our introduction is too forward, or if when we say our name they’ll answer, “yeah, I already met you.” Perhaps the stranger will speak about an uncomfortable topic such as politics or religion, or worse, we’ll struggle to find anything to talk to them about. Perhaps the opposite happens, and we find that the person is rather imposing, clingy, and hard to get to stop talking, placing us in the difficult position to be rude and say, “I have to go.”

Roadblocks For Connection

While it might be tempting to say, “hospitality is for extroverts, not introverts” I would argue that even extroverts find difficulty in this art of hospitality. Extroverts certainly find energy from speaking with others and meeting new people, though this doesn’t mean that every extrovert doesn’t see someone new and has possible prejudices and discerns whether or not that person seems worthwhile to engage with. More than this, an extrovert may start the conversation, but perhaps make the conversation about themselves, or takes only a survey of that person’s superficial interests and identity.

As an introvert, I can say I’m guilty of many of these plights of the extrovert. Sometimes a scowl or even the clothing a person wears pushes me away from risking to get to know a stranger, and sometimes I remain in the shallow end of conversation as I’m too afraid to get locked into a long story or dragged into a conversation in which I’ll end up disagreeing with the other person. But as an introvert, I realize too my energy does not come from meeting new people. That being said, when we introverts do push ourselves to meet others–or rather circumstances push us in this direction–we prefer to go deep with that person, to talk about woes and mysteries, stories and controversies. 

Hospitality takes risk, but it also takes curiosity. Going back to the uncharted forest analogy, the new person who is a wilderness could possess poisonous snakes and ravaging bears hidden within their personality. That being said, there might be buried gold in their heart, refreshing rivers of stories, and a tranquil place one can rest in and be vulnerable in. Curiosity of the other can help us overcome our fear and initial prejudices of that person, piercing through their RBF face and finding something in common or fascinating about their life or work. Of course, we risk something as we extend our hand to be shaken. We can be rejected or we can ever regret doing so. That being said, without that risk being taken we won’t know who/what we are missing.

The Tent and the offering

The two other pieces of hospitality we see from this story is the theme of sacrifice as well as the theme of invitation.

To be hospitable, we have to know it will come at a cost. We will spend money to entertain that person, to set forth a great meal. Making that great meal will take energy and planning and worrying on our end, and entertaining also means sacrificing our own time of rest and privacy, giving space for the other to occupy our attention. When we listen to someone who is lonely, they will spend our time for us…and yet sometimes all they need is someone to be in their presence listening to them.

The other piece in this is invitation, a drawing of the other into our own space. This is a risky move, and I can say I’ve fallen short of entertaining those I know I ought to bring into my own home. We are afraid, perhaps, of having someone else see our home, or that they will impose on a boundary we feel uncomfortable reinforcing. Perhaps they will steal from us. Perhaps they will remember where we live and come unannounced. Perhaps we will get into a fight with them and we won’t know how to ask them to leave. 

Another hesitation we sometimes have of inviting others into our home is our fear of being judged for the state of our home. Perhaps our home is uninviting with its clutter, or the contrary, we set the standard for immaculate cleanliness so high that it is better that NOBODY comes and scuffs up our neatness. Cultivating a mentality of hospitality does press a homeowner towards personal responsibility for their own space, of keeping things clean, and of also being able to manage personal neuroticisms of things we tend to be compulsively careful of. But what is wonderful about this spirit of hospitality in one’s own home is that the host is able to reveal themselves through their home, show a part of their own heart and soul to the other. The guest will see pictures and perhaps ask about fond memories. They will see trophies, heirlooms, items of interest that speak to the host’s soul that perhaps cannot be discerned from the surface. Perhaps there is an ability to witness in hospitality, showing one’s collection of Scripture and faith-based literature, a shrine of icons and holy items of significance that someone might inquire about.

Hospitality is an art we tend not to think of, and yet it’s a rather fun way of showing one’s heart to others. The guest needs only be invited, fed, taken care of, and made comfortable. The host actually possesses quite a bit of opportunity to start and control the conversation, asking the guest questions they’re curious about and show off their own interests and memories through a tour of the home. 

But what is even greater about hospitality is that this art extended to the stranger has a divine component to it. In many ancient cultures, hospitality (taking care of the foreigner) was considered a sacred duty for many reasons. Not only could the foreigner be royalty in disguise from a distant and powerful country, but even more frightening, the foreigner could be a god, an angel, a spirit with great power. Certainly, in Abraham’s case, we see how there is an opportunity for us to serve God through serving the stranger, to extending care and curiosity to the person we know so little about. St. Paul echoes this, advising us that when we give hospitality to strangers we at times entertain angels without knowing it (Hebrews 13:2).

It certainly is a risky thing to show hospitality, whether it is making a new person at school, the workplace, or at our place of worship welcome, or inviting a stranger into our home. I confess, bringing someone who I know is homeless into my home requires a big leap of faith.

That being said, as Abraham shows us, profound truth and abundant blessings occur in this act of hospitality. Abraham shows us that through hospitality we get to experience in an intimate manner the person of God, and at the end of the encounter, we will be blessed in return in the future.

Today, consider the following:

  • When you meet someone new, what is your initial reaction? What could be a positive reaction we make to someone we don’t recognize?
  • Consider you are sharing a row on an airplane, sitting next to someone on the bus or train, or even sharing an uber: what might stop you from starting a conversation with that person? What risks do you take in so doing? How might you start a conversation in the first place to foster curiosity of the other?
  • In your place of socializing (work, school, church, a party) who is on the fringes? 
  • What is your home like? Is it hospitalibe? Do you have many people over? If not, what gets in the way? What does your house say about you?

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