Encountering the Stranger, Encountering the Divine

Encountering the Stranger, Encountering the Divine

In the ancient Middle East, when people travelled they found no hotels or restaurants where they could obtain food and shelter. In the words of Tennessee Williams, travellers relied on the “kindness of strangers”. In our first story, Abraham springs to his feet when three travellers appear before him. He washes their feet and he has a meal prepared for them. Though the story might suggest to us that this behaviour is premised on his recognition that these men are special messengers from God, the truth is that Abraham was fulfilling the cultural expectation of the time that everyone should show hospitality to strangers. After all, one day any one of us may be on the road and in need of rest and refreshment.

Abraham refers to these three men as “Lord”, using the singular. His choice of address might indicate that he recognizes the presence of God in these three men, acknowledgement that God is present in every stranger who comes to our door. Abraham’s response models for us the way that every stranger should be treated even today: they should be treated as representatives of the divine.

There are interesting details in the story that we might not pick up with our 21st century ears. Three times we are told that Abraham ‘ran’ as he carried out his obligations as host: he ran from his tent to greet these men; he ran back into the tent to ask Sarah to get some bread baking, and; he ran to the place where his flock was kept to order that a calf might be slaughtered to provide a meal. We may hear these descriptions and think, ‘my, isn’t he enthusiastic to be in such a hurry’, but to ancient ears this activity would be shocking.

Adult males in the ancient world did not run. To do so would be perceived as highly undignified. Children ran while they were at play. But unlike us today, who may occasionally run to answer the phone or take a morning jog, or run after the dog, adult males would never consider running; it just wasn’t done.

But Abraham ran! He felt the presence of the God who had called him out from his homeland, who had made a covenant with him promising to make of his offspring a great nation. In the preceding chapter we are told of these things, of Abraham’s direct encounter with God, then here we are told that Abraham recognizes that the God who makes seemingly strange requests of us, who offers unexpected promises, may also appear unexpectedly in the guise of strangers. Abraham seems to be so excited that he runs around like a chicken with its head cut off in order to demonstrate both his gratitude that God has come in the form of these strangers and his sense of obligation to use the gifts God has given him for the benefit of others, for the benefit of strangers.

We, likewise, have obligations, in gratitude to God, to be kind toward strangers and to take up our tasks of hospitality with a willing heart. Whether the sojourner comes to our door, or is present in our land and encountered on the street or in the shops, God surely does call us to be kind and welcoming.

The idea that God calls us to the role of host needs to be carefully considered, though, lest we allow it to become a burden. Today’s gospel story, the tale of Jesus’ visit to the home of Mary and Martha, illustrates what can happen if we hear the call to hospitality as something we are required to do, rather than experiencing it with joy and enthusiasm as Abraham did.

When Jesus arrives, Mary sits at his feet and listens to what he has to say. She participates in the experience of Jesus as teacher and proclaimer of the Good News that the reign of God is at hand. Just as it is unusual that Abraham should run to look after his guests, it is unusual that Jesus should sit with a woman and that she should be part of his ministry. In Jesus’ day, men did not talk to women who were not part of their family. It would shock those present that Mary was not in the kitchen as Martha was, and as Sarah had been.

Martha embodies the cultural tradition of hospitality, certainly, but there is an added layer of  significance here, the cultural imperative of woman acting as servant. Jesus’ admonition of Martha seems to suggest that she was ‘worried and distracted’ when she need not be, suggesting that the offering of hospitality had become a burden for her rather than a joy. Jesus was a man of his time, after all, and would have been acutely aware of how strong the cultural expectations were that led women to focus on caring for others.

While it was a significant breach of cultural norms for Mary to sit at Jesus’ feet, and just as significant a breach that Jesus accepted her presence, he recognizes that Martha is responding to those cultural norms. Jesus recognizes that for whatever reason she is not able to put aside those norms as easily as Mary does. It is not joy, or even free choice, but cultural conditioning that keeps her in the kitchen.  Traditionally, we have translated Jesus’ words as saying that Mary had chosen the “better” part, thus demeaning Martha’s work. The Greek, however, makes no comparison; Jesus simply affirms both by asserting that Mary’s part is also “beneficial”.

Abraham was a man of power and status and if he chose to break the cultural norms that saw running as unseemly then he was in a position to do so.  He was able to respond to the joy of the presence of the Divine as he saw fit. Martha, bound by the expectation that she would provide for Jesus and his entourage in the expected way, was robbed of the joy that might have been hers had she felt free to choose. When we welcome the stranger, feed the hungry and give water to the thirsty, God invites us to do so with joy – as a privilege and not a burden. If we are simply acting in response to the expectations of society it can be much harder to break out of traditional expectations to experience and give expression in any number of ways to the joy that comes from encountering God in the other.

Even in the church, responding to the expectations with which we have been enculturated can engender a sense of joyless, dutiful obligation. Perhaps you have had that experience. Sometimes it is participating in one more fundraising project, or taking on one more building repair.  Sometimes, it is attending one more committee meeting. Sometimes it is coming to worship with a sense of an obligation rather than coming to the experience with gratitude, celebration and joy.

Jesus’ words to Martha are a reminder to us that what God desires for us is that we experience the joy of God’s presence in all that we do. Whether it is the refugee who lands on our shores or a transient looking for a meal or a job, God can be encountered if we respond in hospitality and with joy.

What God calls us to is the place where we recognize that in all that we do for others we are serving God, coming to know God more deeply. In that awareness, whether we are in the kitchen baking bread with Sarah, in the study hall with Mary, butchering cattle with Abraham or serving the food with Martha, there is the possibility of joy.

Fredrick Buechner, an American Presbyterian minister, author and mystic summed it up best for me when he wrote, “We are called to that place where our deep joy meets the world’s deep hunger.” May it be so for each of us.

Rev. Dr. John Burton reserves all rights © 2019.
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