Msgr. Joseph A. Pellegrino
Thirteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time: Hospitality–Welcoming the Lord
Our readings this week begin with a wonderful little story about the prophet Elisha from the Second Book of Kings. If you remember, Elisha was Elijah’s protégé. On one of Elisha journeys he came to the city of Shuman where he was warmly received by a generous lady of the city. She knew that he carried the presence of God’s prophetic Spirit, so she invited him to stay with her and her husband anytime he was passing through the area. Elisha wanted to do something for her in return. He found out that she and her husband did not have any sons and that child bearing time was over. This was a serious situation because it was up to sons to care for their parents in their declining years. Elisha prophesied that God would reward her by giving her a son. And the prophecy was fulfilled.
This is a beautiful story of generosity and the love of God. You might remember a similar event in the Book of Genesis. Three men on a journey came upon Abraham’s tent. Abraham treated them with complete respect, welcoming them and providing for their needs. In response, they promised him that his wife, Sara, would have a baby within a year. She was inside the tent and heard this. Knowing that she was beyond childbearing years, she started laughing. But the travelers were actually angels. And in a year, Abraham and Sarah had a baby they named Isaac, which means Child of Laughter.
Hospitality was one of the great virtues of the Bible. The ancients believed that each person should be welcomed as though one were welcoming God himself. Jesus moves this virtue into Christian times in today’s Gospel, “Whoever receives you receives me, and whoever receives me receives the one who sent me. Whoever receives a prophet because he is a prophet will receive a prophet's reward, and whoever receives a righteous man because he is a righteous man will receive a righteous man's reward. And whoever gives only a cup of cold water to one of these little ones to drink because the little one is a disciple--amen, I say to you, he will surely not lose his reward.”
The virtue of hospitality is far more than being a good host at a dinner party. Hospitality means encountering the presence of God in others, usually in those whom we least expect.
Sometimes I, and we, get so self absorbed in our own expressions of spirituality, that we miss the presence of the Lord as he stands right before us in our family or as he knocks on the door of our homes and our lives through other people. For example, we can make the mistake of thinking that our particular expressions of spirituality be they within the Catholic faith or within the general context of Christianity are exclusive. If another person doesn’t pray as we pray, express the presence of the Almighty as we express His presence, we might miss the Lord as He is standing right before us in a person that we least expect to meet Him.
This is what the people of Jesus’ time did. The scribes and Pharisees were so self-absorbed with their ways of practicing the faith that they missed God speaking through John the Baptist, saying that he was a fanatic, and they missed God’s presence in Jesus, saying that He was just common every day man, eating and drinking like all others. There is a wonderful parable about this in Luke. Jesus says, “These people are like children in the marketplace.” Their Moms dragged them there and normally the kids would play, but instead they argued saying, “we played the flute and you wouldn’t dance, we sang a dirge and you wouldn’t weep.” The girls were playing the flute and boys would do the wedding dance of the groomsmen. They would play wedding. Or the boys would sing a sad song, and the girls were supposed to wail like professional mourners. They would play funeral. Only the children in the parable wasted time arguing.
The people of Jesus’ day wasted their opportunity to experience the presence of God because they decided what this presence should be like. So also, we often miss the presence of God in others because we decide what this presence should be like. We need to let God be God and let God express himself in others, even if this expression is new or even foreign to us.
One of the joys of Catholicism is contained in the very word “catholic”. That word means “universal.” The expression of God is universal throughout the church even if this expression is quite different in cultures and in individuals. Here in our Diocese, the Catholic African American parishes such as St. Joseph’s in St. Petersburg and St. Peter Claver in Tampa express their Catholicism in Masses that take over two hours every Sunday. Similarly the Vietnamese Community, the Polish Community, the Korean Community, just to mention a few, express their Catholicism in ways not experienced at St. Ignatius. We respect these expressions of their faith even though they might differ greatly from how you and I express our faith.
We don’t have to go to the extremes of different cultures to experience the wonderful various ways that God is present to us. Within our families, children express their faith in a different way than adults. Teenagers in a different way that either children or adults. Men in a different way than women. Each person in a different way than every other person in that family. A strong family is based on mutual respect. This must be extended to the ways that each member communicates with God.
Instead of trying to mold others to experience God exactly as we experience Him, we need to be open to other’s expression of His presence. This is really what the virtue of hospitality is all about. If we welcome someone’s expression of spirituality which might be different from ours, then we will enrich our faith family.
The interesting paradox to all this is that when we are respectful of other’s spirituality, then those who do not share our faith are drawn by our hospitality to be open to the truths of Catholicism. The fact is that most of the people who come into the faith through the RCIA do so because they have been welcomed and treated with respect.
The virtue of hospitality is the virtue of recognizing the presence of God in others and nourishing this presence. When we practice this virtue, then the stranger among us is no longer a stranger, but a member of the family, welcome, like Elisha, to enjoy a room in our house, our Church.
Today we pray for an openness to God’s presence in ways we least expect. We pray for the virtue of hospitality.