Genesis 18.1-10a; Psalm 15; Colossians 1.15-28; Luke 10.38-end
Almighty Lord and everlasting God, we beseech you to direct, sanctify and govern both our hearts and bodies in the ways of your laws and the works of your commandments; that through your most mighty protection, both here and ever, we may be preserved in body and soul; through our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.
MANY a novelist would have been pleased to have written an opening sentence like Genesis 18.1. Rehearsing the content of chapter 17 in a different style, it is a model of matter-of-fact understatement, effortlessly transforming a time of rest on a hot day in Palestine into the scene for events that will determine history.
”The Lord appeared to Abraham by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat at the entrance of his tent in the heat of the day.”
There is something very engaging, at a distance of thousands of years, in the idea of the Lord’s dropping in, like any desert traveller hoping to find a friendly reception in a small settlement. The reality of standing in the very presence of God is rather different, though, and the story shows the tactful self-restriction of divinity in human encounter.
No matter how conditioned we have become by the angelic wings in Rublev’s icon The Hospitality of Abraham, Abraham himself takes his visitors to be men, and entertains them with the very best offerings at his disposal. Commentators note that the modest proposal of “a little bread” (Genesis 18.4) rapidly expands into a feast.
Only when the guests have finished eating is their mission explained, since Abraham has observed the convention of not asking personal questions. He must take in the news that, late in life, he and Sarah are to have a son.
This should be a joyous announcement, but the narrator allows a moment of suspense to halt the story fleetingly: at the close of the first scene, Sarah overhears the conversation from inside the tent (Genesis 18.10a). In the end, it will be good news, but not before Sarah has been rebuked for laughing at the promises of God.
Luke uses hospitality as the setting for a very different kind of teaching purpose. G. B. Caird observes that “few stories in the Gospels have been as constantly mishandled as this one” (Saint Luke, Penguin, 1963). It is frequently taken to be a privileging of the contemplative life over a life full of activity and distraction — I recall a vivid recreation of domestic life in Bethany from the pulpit, which had Martha “passing a floured hand across her perspiring brow”, while Mary sat serenely at the feet of Jesus.
Caird insists that it is not a story about Mary, but a story about Martha. Jesus is not disparaging her concern for the good order of the household in which she seems to take the leading part (John 11.20-21, 12.1-2), any more than he is specially commending Mary for being a quiet and attentive disciple.
What he has to teach Martha is that her tasks will become a source of worry and anxiety, if she allows herself to be always suspicious that others are not doing their share of the work. Martha is obviously good at hospitality — so good, that it is in her house that Jesus seems to feel safest and most at home, even when he knows that he is being pursued by his enemies (John 11.55-12.2). Mary has found that she is good at listening to Jesus, and she is not to be criticised for this.
There are uncomfortable resonances here for anyone who has ever felt put-upon, in a situation where there are many practical tasks to be accomplished, and some members of a team appear to be shirking. The shirking may be real, but resenting it will not help those getting on with the business in hand to find any satisfaction.
The glorious hymn of Colossians 1.15-20 tries to convey Christ to people who have only heard of him through Epaphras and Paul (Colossians 1.7). The absence of a physical picture is perhaps a liberation that allows the writer to use what many call “cosmic” language. And yet it is, in many ways, a portrait of the unrepresentable, describing a being too enormous for the human imagination to contain.
In one essential, however, it is tangible. Christ makes “peace through the blood of the cross”, and, by undergoing death in a “fleshly body” (Colossians 1.20-21), he has made those who believe his gospel fit to appear in his presence.
Paul does not imply that there was anything lacking in this reconciling death when he speaks of “completing what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions” (Colossians 1.24). His suffering on behalf of the Church — which is Christ’s body — honours and emulates the event that makes a “mystery” that was never revealed, even to people who walked faithfully with God, available at last to the Gentiles believers who are being brought near to God in Christ (Colossians 1.27).