Hospitality: Abraham, Martha, Mary

Saint John’s Abbey, Sunday 16-C, July 18, 2010
Fr. William Skudlarek, OSB

Sometime in the early 1400s a Russian artist by the name of Andre Rublev created an icon of the Trinity. Three angelic figures are seated around a table. On the table is a chalice, the symbol of sacrifice and communion. Though the outer robes of the three heavenly figures are of different colors, they all wear blue tunics. Their positions at the table, their gestures, and the way they gaze at one another indicate that they are in complete and perfect communion.

This most famous of all Russians icons is a beautiful and compelling visual expression of an ancient Christian interpretation of the passage from the Book of Genesis that describes Abraham’s hospitality to three travelers. Very early on Christian exegetes noted that even though there were three travelers who showed up at Abraham’s tent, when he prostrated before them, he addressed them in the singular as Adonai, which can be translated as “Sir” or, when referring to God, as “Lord.” Some commentators interpreted Abraham’s greeting to mean that one of the visitors was God, and that he was accompanied by two angels. However, the interpretation that became classic was that Abraham’s three visitors were the three persons of the Blessed Trinity, whom he believed in as the One true God. This way of understanding the passage was captured in the concise Latin dictum Tres vidit, unum adoravit — He saw three, he adored one.

The medieval Jewish scholars who wrote and compiled spiritual commentaries—or Midrash—on biblical texts did not, of course, find any evidence of the Trinity in this passage. When they commented on the opening verses,

The LORD appeared to Abraham by the terebinth of Mamre,
as he sat in the entrance of his tent,
while the day was growing hot.
Looking up, Abraham saw three men standing nearby.

they came up with two possible interpretations. Either the Lord and the three men are synonymous, meaning that Abraham sees and responds to only one apparition, or there are two different apparitions, first that of the Lord, and then that of the three men.

Both interpretations emphasize the spiritual meaning of hospitality—namely, that it is the Lord who comes to us in the person of the guest—but the second interpretation does so in an especially powerful and even shocking way. The rabbis who believed that the text speaks of two apparitions said that in the first, the Lord appeared to Abraham, filling him with the overwhelming bliss that comes when one actually experiences the presence of God. However, when Abraham looked up and saw three men standing nearby, he immediately ran off to offer them hospitality. According to the rabbis, this was the right thing for Abraham to do. They based their argument on a passage in the Talmud, the collection of ancient rabbinic teaching on Jewish law and tradition, where it is written, “Hospitality to wayfarers is greater than the welcoming of the presence of the Shekhinah,” the Hebrew word for the visible manifestation of the presence of God.

These rabbis then drove home their teaching on the importance of hospitality with the shocking observation that Abraham believed he was welcoming idol worshippers. They based this observation on the fact that the Book of Genesis presents Abraham as the first monotheist, who therefore would naturally have regarded everyone else as a polytheist. Nonetheless, he turned away from the one true God, in whose presence he was experiencing unutterable joy, in order to offer hospitality to strangers who still worshiped idols.

The Gospel account of Jesus at the home of Martha and Mary can be heard as a further teaching on the meaning of hospitality. Jesus gently rebukes Martha for spending all her time in the kitchen putting together a fancy multi-course meal when one dish would have been sufficient. He then praises Mary for having chosen the better part when she decided to hang up her apron and sit at his feet. His point—one of them, at least—is that hospitality does not consist in impressing our guests with how much we are doing for them, but in our willingness simply to be present to them and to listen to what they have to say.

Both of these apparently simple but exceedingly profound biblical stories offer a guiding word to Christians who are learning new ways of relating to followers of other religious traditions. If Abraham can, as it were, put God on hold while he offers hospitality to travelers whom he thought were idolaters, we need not fear that we will jeopardize our Christian identity if we are receptive to people whose religious beliefs and practices are different from ours. We can be confident that the welcome we give them is a welcome given to God, who is always greater than we can conceive and is almost certainly different from what we imagine.

Furthermore, we can listen to people of other religions attentively and with respect, trusting that coming to know their beliefs and their way of relating to God may actually help us come to a deeper understanding and appreciation of our own faith, namely,

the mystery of Christ who died and was raised
to assure us that God wills to save all people,
the mystery of Christ who dwells in us
and is our hope of glory,
the mystery of Christ who now gives us his Body and Blood
as food for the journey.

Explanation of Rublev’s Icon of the Trinity.”
Sr. Sarah Schwartzberg, “Abraham’s Hospitality to Strangers (Genesis 18),” Monastic Interreligious Dialogue Bulletin, 79 (July 2007)

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