In Luke’s Gospel it seems as if Jesus is always either headed toward a meal, eating a meal, or just finishing a meal . . . which makes him a man after my own heart!
All these meals Jesus dines on remind us that hospitality is a critical component of ancient Middle Eastern, Semitic cultures. Providing food and shelter was a way of providing not only conviviality and social discourse, but sustenance and protection from the elements. Equally as important, hospitality was required so to provide safety to travelers from wild animals and marauding thieves. Not offering hospitality to both friend and stranger was seen as a significant breech of the social contract.
In last week’s Gospel when the Samaritans of a certain village refused hospitality to Jesus and his disciples as they passed by, it was considered such an affront to the social contract that James and John asked Jesus, "Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?" (Luke 9:54b)
Jesus rebukes them for asking such a question. Just because the Samaritans behave badly, doesn’t mean he’s going to allow his disciples to smite them. Rather Jesus ignores these particular Samaritans and moves on to the next village, where presumably the inhabitants will have better social graces and provide them with food and shelter.
In today’s text Jesus sends out the seventy disciples to proclaim the good news of the Gospel, “to every town and place where he himself intended to go.” (Luke 10:1b) The disciples are not only to spread the Gospel, but they also are to do reconnaissance, discerning what kind of welcome and hospitality Jesus would receive. He tells the seventy, “Whenever you enter a town and its people welcome you, eat what is set before you; cure the sick who are there, and say to them, `The kingdom of God has come near to you.' But whenever you enter a town and they do not welcome you, go out into its streets and say, `Even the dust of your town that clings to our feet, we wipe off in protest against you.” (Luke 10:8-11)
Regretfully the compilers of the Lectionary have left out a few choice verses from the middle of our text today. Verse 12 in particular distills the punishment for a town’s inhospitality in a very dramatic way: Jesus says, “I tell you, on that day it will be more tolerable for Sodom than for that town.”
This is a direct reference to the Genesis Sodom and Gomorrah story, which is about the sin of inhospitality.
You’ll recall two angels come to Sodom where Lot is sitting at the city gate. Seeing that they are travelers, Lot invites them to his home: “Please, my lords, turn aside to your servant’s house and spend the night and wash your feet; then you can rise early and go on your way.” (Genesis 19:2a) Lot then, “made them a feast and baked unleavened bread, and they ate.” (Gen. 19:3b) Lot is offering the requirements of Middle Eastern hospitality of food and shelter to two strangers.
When the men of the city get wind there are two travelers sheltered in Lot’s home, they come banging on the door, demanding Lot turn them over to them so they might know them, which is Bible talk for sexually assault them. Lot refuses. He adheres to his obligation to offer the required hospitality to those he has given shelter to. Barring the door, Lot protects his guests, decrying the men outside as being wicked. Their wickedness is embodied in their inhospitality.
In this story Lot personifies perfect hospitality. The men at his door are the antithesis of it.
We all know how this ends. Such is God’s anger toward Sodom’s wickedness that God reigns down sulfur and fire on it, utterly destroying it. Jesus references this event when he tells the disciples that it will be even a worse punishment for the towns that deny them hospitality than it was for Sodom.
That would be an inexplicably harsh retribution!
There are at least three take-aways from these Bible stories in Luke’s Gospel and Genesis: First; God will not tolerate inhospitality in any form. Two; when we experience inhospitality, we are to not let it deter us from providing hospitality or proclaiming the Good News of God’s Reign. Rather we are to stand fast, undaunted, and even more determined to achieve the task we have been given. And, finally, just because Jesus will not let his disciples rain down fire and brimstone on inhospitable villages, doesn’t mean it won’t happen. . . in God’s time.
I can’t help but hang the plumb line of the Biblical understanding about hospitality in the midst of the recent SCOTUS decision to overturn Roe v. Wade. There’s a lot of inhospitality in that ruling.
The inhospitality of the Court in taking away a woman’s right to control her own body when it comes to reproductive rights.
The inhospitality of the Court as it compels a woman who was raped and becomes pregnant, or a child who is the victim of incest which results in pregnancy, to endure that pregnancy in the context of their sexual assaults, and to bring a child into the world.
The inhospitality of the Court mandating that even when medical testing determines a fetus has the genetic markers for disease and illness which will result in a child with severe physical or mental abnormalities – denying it any real quality of life - that regardless of those realities, a woman must bring that fetus to term, and then deal with its care for a lifetime.
These are all acts of inhospitality because they do not respect human dignity. They place people in jeopardy. These are acts of inhospitality which rob people of their self-worth as human beings and make their lives precarious.
Respecting human dignity, honoring people’s self-worth, and providing for their well-being are things we Episcopalians are required to do as part of our Baptismal Covenant.
The official position of the Episcopal Church on abortion is that “we emphatically oppose abortion as a means of birth control, family planning, sex selection, or any reason of mere convenience.”
We also believe when it comes to a women’s right to determine issues concerning her own body, “that equitable access to women’s health care, including women’s reproductive health care, is an integral part of a woman’s struggle to assert her dignity and worth as a human being.” And we maintain our, “unequivocal opposition to any legislation on the part of the national or state governments which would abridge or deny the right of individuals to reach informed decisions [about the termination of pregnancy] and to act upon them.”
This opposition to government legislation denying this right must be applied to court decisions as well.
These statements by our Church on this challenging topic are the ways of hospitality. They are the ways of upholding human dignity and providing for the well-being of all people.
The plump line of Biblical hospitality must be hung in the middle of all the pressing issues that challenge us today. Our offering hospitality to the most vulnerable and the frightened, those who are being imperiled by these court decisions – which is all of us - on issues like reproductive rights, the environment, separation of church and state, voting rights, and I fear very soon, on the right to same-sex marriage, will be paramount for us. Just as there was urgency for the disciples who Jesus sent out, there is an urgency to our task as well.
Because God will not tolerate inhospitality, we must, like Lot in the face of a wild mob at his door stand fast in offering God’s required hospitality to all people in all circumstances.
Like the disciples, when we encounter inhospitality we must not let it deter or discourage us. Yes, it can feel as if we are lambs in the midst of wolves, but remember the lambs have been empowered to tread on snakes and scorpions; all those inhospitable people – the marauders at the door, the hostile Samaritans - that we encounter.
In a few minutes we will pray, “let us not grow weary in doing what is right. Let us appeal to God, who is our Strength.” If we do that and persevere, if we rely on God’s strength God’s purposes will prevail because God will not tolerate inhospitality in any form. And take hope and strength in Jesus’ words about those who subject us to inhospitality: “it will be more tolerable for Sodom than it will be for them.” I assure you, there is good news in that.
The Reverend Peter Faass
The Reverend Peter Faass was born in Delft, Netherlands. He is a graduate of the General Theological Seminary in New York City and has been at Christ Church since 2006.