A Christian Perspective on Abraham’s Hospitality

Interfaith Panel on Abraham Hospitality

This paper was given at American River College in Sacramento, California, on November 29, 2017, for an interfaith panel discussion entitled “A Bigger Table: What Abraham Can Teach Us about Hospitality..” The panel featured leaders from local Jewish, Christian, and Islamic communities. It was hosted by the Muslim Students Association and moderated by ARC humanities and religious studies professor William Zangeneh-Lester.

For Christians, Abraham is the paragon of faith and friendship with God. Abraham’s faith in God’s promises (Gen 12:2-3) is credited to him as righteousness. By believing in God’s love as expressed through Christ, we can also spiritually receive the blessings and promises of Abraham and be fully justified before God (Romans 4). Through faith, we can also enjoy an Abraham-like friendship with God, which according to Thomas Aquinas (1225- 1274), is the goal and telos of each person: to be friends with God.[1] And Abraham is, in fact, the only character in the Bible referred to as God’s friend.[2] This friendship with God is expressed most clearly in service and hospitality to others, especially for the most vulnerable members of society. We generally interpret Abraham’s hospitality to the guests at Mamre in Gen 18:1-15 as the fruit and expression of Abraham’s faith in God; because an authentic experience of God’s love through faith compels one to extend love and hospitality to others.

The New Testament upholds Abraham as a model of faith as well as hospitality. In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus tells a parable of Abraham receiving a poor and hungry beggar into his bosom and into his banquet (Luke 16:19-31). In the Gospel of John, Jesus invites his interlocutors to emulate Abraham’s hospitality by being more open and hospitable to him and his teachings (John 8:39-40). Although the apostle Paul mostly emphasizes Abraham as a model of faith (Romans 4; Galatians 3), other New Testament authors emphasize Abraham’s actions and obedience. James, who is considered the brother of Jesus, writes in his Epistle that Abraham was justified before God not by faith alone, but by acting in faith, thus underscoring his main argument that faith without works is dead (James 2:18-26). Also, for James, religion is ultimately inadequate unless it involves extending hospitality and care to the vulnerable, especially orphans and widows (James 1:27). The author of the Epistle to the Hebrews says, “Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing so some people [i.e. Abraham] have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it” (Hebrews 13:2).

In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus says, “Whatever you do to the least of these you do unto me” (Matt 25:40), teaching that whenever we feed the hungry, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, care for the sick and visit the imprisoned, we are doing all of these acts of hospitality to Jesus himself, whom we believe to be the Son of God. This teaching is reinforced and amplified in one of the most famous in church history called The Hospitality of Abraham by the 15th century Russian Orthodox artist Andrei Rublev (c. 1370 – 1430). The icon is also known as The Holy Trinity since it illustrates the early Christian interpretation of Abraham’s three guests as not symbolizing God and two angels, but rather as symbolizing the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, the three persons of the Trinity, a view held by Christian theologians such as Origen, Ambrose, Augustine, Maximus the Confessor and more.[3] This idea that we are serving Christ and even the Triune God by serving those in need remains a central theme in Christianity.

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I personally have found this teaching, which is rooted in the hospitality of Abraham, to particularly compelling as it invites me to “be religious” not so much by ascribing to certain doctrines but rather by serving those who are in need. Other faith traditions offer similar teachings and so I personally have sought ways to collaborate and partner with other faith traditions by serving people in need. The most consistent way I have pursued this call is by working with the Interfaith Street Chaplaincy in Marin county, a program that offers food and spiritual care at weekly Wellness Gatherings to the hungry, homeless and those who are precariously housed. For about five years now, I have been bringing members of my youth group to these Wellness Gatherings on the second Tuesday of the month, where we help prepare and serve food. Over the years, the Street Chaplaincy has partnered with a Jewish Congregation Rodef Sholom in San Rafael as well as the Green Gulch Zen Center and several Christian communities, communities that do not necessarily agree when it comes to doctrines and beliefs but are eager to partner when it comes to emulating Abraham and extending hospitality to strangers.

Now my initial approach to serving those in need involved mostly giving out food and clothing and gift cards to others, which I still do. However, the story of Abraham in Genesis 18 invites me into a deeper level of hospitality. After serving his guests with the help of his wife Sarah and his servant, “Abraham,” according to the text, “took curds and milk and the calf that he had prepared and set it before [his guests]; and he stood beside them under the tree while they ate” (Genesis 18:8). Here I see Abraham waiting on his guests, from a comfortable distance, like a restaurant server or waiter. However, in the next verse, the guests engage Abraham in intimate conversation, thus inviting him into their circle and fellowship.[4] They are opening up the table to Abraham and Abraham deepens his own practice of hospitality not by remaining at a comfortable distance as a server but by joining them at the table. And that is when he starts to recognize their divinity.

So Abraham’s hospitality has inspired me to not simply serve food to strangers from a comfortable distance, but to enter into their circles and join them at their tables. This level of engagement helps prevent what one author calls “toxic charity” in which our service becomes more about boosting our own egos and our own sense of generosity.[5] Rather than reinforcing systems of hierarchy and superiority, this table fellowship challenges and subverts these structures. When we sit at the table with people whom we might normally avoid or ostracize, we are doing something much more revolutionary than charity. Because in this way, a group of strangers whom I had previously perhaps demonized or even romanticized become friends in whom I recognize not only a common humanity but in whom I also catch glimpses of divinity.[6]

Every Thanksgiving Eve, the Street Chaplaincy holds an Interfaith Service in which members share reflections on their experience with the Wellness Gatherings. This year, I asked one of my youth group members to share a reflection of his experience and I was honestly expecting him to say something about how good it feels to serve others, but instead he said this: “What has stuck me with me the most from the Wellness Gatherings is the moments of silence we share together in our opening circle. There is a certain understanding, an acceptance, a peace in those moments that washes away the chaos of our everyday lives. In those moments, I feel like I’ve become close friends with people I don’t even know and it’s in those moments that I’m most grateful.”[7]

The Wellness Gatherings often include Buddhists, Jews, Christians, Native Americans, Wiccans, atheists and more. And when we sit together, our differences do not disappear but, in the spirit of Abraham’s hospitality, we co-create a circle wide enough and set a table big enough to hold each other in our differences and to be nourished physically and spiritually. For this reason, the theme of the Marin Interfaith Street Chaplaincy this year has been the phrase: “Making More Room at the Table.” And Abraham serves as an effective role model for us not so much because he served food to hungry itinerants but because he joined them at the table so that they were no longer a group of strangers called “them” but an “us” in whom he experienced divine presence and blessing. So that’s one practical way that Abraham’s hospitality has become part of my own work and spiritual practice.

Another way that Abraham’s hospitality inspires me is through his audacious prayer. Soon after sitting at the table with Abraham, God chooses to share with him his plans of destruction for Sodom, where Abraham’s nephew Lot lives.[8] However, instead of submitting to this divine plan, Abraham surprisingly tries to talk God out of it, interceding on behalf of the people of Sodom. Abraham is the first person in the Bible to question a divine decision. And he basically haggles with God and talks God down to sparing the city if only fifty, then forty-five, then forty, thirty, twenty, and finally ten righteous people can be found. Although God does eventually destroy Sodom, He is willing to withhold his destruction if indeed ten righteous people are found.[9] There seems to be room in Abraham’s friendship with God for some honest disagreement.

I see this audacity in prayer as an expression of Abraham’s radical hospitality for the people of Sodom, for whom he is willing to stand in the breach before God and God’s judgment. This seems to be a key characteristic of prophets in the Hebrew Bible[10]: having courage to challenge and even argue with God.[11] This bold and audacious prayer is an inspiration for my own prayer life, especially when it comes to intercessory prayer. Abraham’s boldness on behalf of others inspires me to be more hospitable by praying more fearlessly for my friends who live on the streets and friends who suffer serious illness and injustice. As Christians, we believe that we can also participate in an Abraham-like friendship with God, through Christ, and thus we are encouraged to pray courageously and to “approach the throne of grace with boldness” (Hebrews 4:16), even if that means arguing with God. This audacious prayer tradition, that is willing to argue with God, persists in the writings of Christian authors such as Paul, Augustine (354 – 430), the Desert Fathers and Mothers (5th and 6th centuries), Julian of Norwich (1342 – 1416), George Herbert (1593 – 1633), C. S. Lewis (1898 – 1963) and more.[12] Martin Luther called faith a “living, daring [and audacious] confidence in God’s grace,”[13] that pushes one to take great risks, including risks in our prayers for others.

In conclusion, I offer and suggest this prayerful audacity as a possible contact point and commonality among the three Abrahamic faiths. I have studied some of the Jewish tradition of arguing with God, especially in the works of Elie Wiesel; and I have read a story about Muhammad engaging in a similar kind of bargaining prayer with God during his Night Journey, in which God initially tells the prophet that he expects his followers to pray 50 times a day, but then Muhammad (upon following the advice of Moses) talks God down to 5 times a day. I am personally drawn to this kind of prayer which sounds more like an honest, hospitable and sometimes playful conversation between friends at a table, in which there is some give-and-take and repartee and good rapport. So as children of Abraham, I feel an invitation for us all to join the table of friendship with God and pray boldly and audaciously, especially on behalf of those among us who are especially vulnerable to injustice and oppression, those brothers and sisters of ours whom Jesus Christ identifies with most clearly.

[1] See Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae II-II.23.1. Also, see Daniel Schwartz, Aquinas on Friendship (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2007). Friendship becomes a major theme in the Gospel of John (John 15:12-15) and for Christianity in general. See Liz Carmichael, Friendship: Interpreting Christian Love (London: T & T Clark, 2004).

[2] Although the Bible likens God’s relationship with Moses to a friendship (Exodus 33:11), Abraham is referred to directly as God’s friend twice: Isaiah 41:8; 2 Chronicles 20:7.

[3] For a survey of Christian interpretation of the three visitors in Genesis 18 as the three persons of the Trinity, see Bogdan G. Bucur, “The Early Christian Reception of Genesis 18: From Theophany to Trinitarian Symbolism” in Journal of Early Christian Studies 23:3, 245 – 272 (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2015).

[4] The guests’ invitation for Abraham to join their circle resonates with the Cappadocian Christian understanding of the Trinity as a “circle dance” (perichoresis) wherein divine love flows eternally between the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, inviting humanity to join in the dance. See Catherine Mowry LaCugna, God For Us: The Trinity and Christian Life (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1993), 53-80.

[5] Robert Lupton, Toxic Charity: How Churches and Charities Hurt Those They Help, And How to Reverse It (Harper Collins, 2012).

[6] Discovering divinity in itinerant strangers persists as a theme throughout Western literature. See Ovid, Metamorphoses VIII.611 – 724.

 

[7] Otis Hixon, Marin Interfaith Thanksgiving Eve Service at First Presbyterian Church San Rafael CA, Nov 22, 2017.

[8] Although Abraham generally does not enjoy the status of prophet in Judaism (as he does in Islam), Berlin and Brettler point out that “God treats Abraham as a prophet, disclosing his plans to him, and Abraham, like one of the prophets of Israel, eloquently demands justice for God and pleads for mercy.” The Jewish Study Bible, edited by Adele Berlin and Marc Zvi Brettler (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), 40.

[9] The God of Genesis is not teasing Abraham like a cruel older brother who lets his younger brother earn some hopeful points only to squash him. God apparently does not know how many righteous people might be found in Sodom as God Himself admits: “I will go down to see whether they have acted altogether according to the outcry that has reached Me; if not, I will take note” (Gen 18:21).

[10] A prophet, according to Yochanan Muffs, is not just someone who declares God’s harsh decrees, but “an independent advocate…who attempts to rescind the evil decree by means of the only instruments at his disposal, prayer and intercession.” Yochanan Muffs, Language and Religion in Ancient Israel (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 1992), 9.

[11] “Abraham doubts, questions, argues and even convinces God to back down from an extreme position.” Jon D. Levenson, Creation and the Persistence of Evil: The Jewish Drama of Divine Omnipotence (Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press, 1994), 152.

[12] See Gordon Mursell, Out of the Deep: Prayer as Protest (London: Darton Longman and Todd, 1989).

[13] Martin Luther, Commentary on Romans, trans. J Theodore Mueller (Grand Rapids MI: Kregel 2003), xvii.

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One thought on “A Christian Perspective on Abraham’s Hospitality

  1. We read this paper and your sermon and the lectionary readings during Bob’s blood infusion at cancer center. Both very good!

    Sent from Yahoo Mail for iPhone

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