Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Hospitality as Resistance, Part I

So Happy Together
Originally uploaded by paynehollow.

In ancient times, and in many cultures today, everyone, everyone, whether rich or poor, depended upon the hospitality of strangers when away from home. They didn’t have Taco Bell or Cracker Barrel or Ramada Inn.

And so we see Abram and Sarai providing curds and milk and a calf for three strangers who appear from nowhere. We see Lot, as he welcomes strangers into his own home, on the one hand, and the inhospitality of the people of the town, on the other, as they seek to do violence to the strangers. This is one of the stories, by the way, that most clearly shows the depth of Israel’s commitment toward hospitality and the intensity of feeling of the Hebrew people, who believed that God destroyed the whole city of Sodom because of their inhospitality toward strangers.

Hospitality was seen as a sacred duty in many eastern cultures, and but for the people of Israel, it was also part of their identity: “You shall not oppress a stranger; you know the heart of a stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Ex. 23:9). Because they’d been mistreated in a foreign land, they were to live differently, to provide hospitality to the alien. And we saw some of how that actually played out as we studied the Book of Ruth.

So when we look at the stories of Jesus and the early church, we see that hospitality wasn’t a new thing. It was an extension of the best of Israel’s tradition. However, in Jesus’ day and culture, much of that tradition had been lost. So, for example, when Levi the tax collector invites Jesus and a whole slew of others into his home, the Pharisees are incensed. They don’t remember God’s reminder in Exodus that they should know the heart of a stranger, but rather ask, “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?”

Jesus was about some serious business here. He was, by his actions, by his hospitality habits, resisting cultural and religious expectations and traditions. The Pharisees, as you may remember, were concerned with purity above all else. Do you remember when I preached about the Book of Ruth a few weeks ago, and talked about how after the exile, some of the Jews were worried about losing their identity?

One of their solutions to this problem was to “put away” their foreign wives and children. Well, the Pharisees were worried about the same thing. They were living in an occupied nation, and were concerned about being assimilated into Roman culture. So what they focused on more than anything else was purity, being separate. What Jesus focused on was not purity, but compassion, and we see that in this morning’s scripture reading. Jesus, in his actions, is painting a picture of what Israel is supposed to look like, with a heart for the outcast and stranger.
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