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Sixteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time, July 18, 2010 (16C)
By Fr. Alex McAllister SDS
I am sure by now you are all aware that in the scheme of readings presented to us in the Lectionary the first reading and the Gospel are usually connected or linked in their content. This is nowhere clearer than today where the common theme is that of hospitality.
God visits Abraham at the Oaks of Mamre in the form of three angels. Abraham makes them very welcome and he and Sarah prepare a generous meal, making a large quantity of loaves and killing a calf.
God responds to this generosity by predicting that within a year Sarah would have a son. The lesson is clear that welcoming the stranger always brings a blessing. This stress on hospitality is an important theme in the Bible and indeed in the Christian life.
Actually it is a pity that the editors of the Lectionary have omitted the following few sentences because in them we are told how God asks Abraham why Sarah laughed at this prophecy—why she laughed at the suggestion that she who was so old would bear a son. This gives God the opportunity to stress that nothing is impossible to him.
Sarah denies that she laughed. Abraham answers, ‘No, but you did laugh.’ This is a wonderful little interchange; a human touch which, in my view, gives the incident what we can only call the ring of truth.
This image of the three angels at the Oaks of Mamre was taken by the early Church as a prefiguring of the doctrine of the Holy Trinity and is the subject of one of the most famous icons ever painted, Rublev’s Trinity.
Besides being an important moment in our salvation history this marvellous account of the appearance of God at the Oaks of Mamre helps us to understand that God often comes to us in disguise. He often comes as a stranger, as a traveller, as someone who needs something from us.
The question we have to ask is whether we are the sort of person who makes the stranger welcome. Of course, this is a challenge we are presented with each day of our lives. Each stranger could be Christ himself.
But it is also a challenge we are faced with as a parish, most obviously in the case of visitors and new people who come to live among us. Do we make them welcome or do we just brush past them as we leave the Church and leave them to fend for themselves?
Last week we heard about the work of our Apostleship of the Sea parish group and how they visit the small docks at Sharpness on a regular basis. Their ministry is one of welcome. They go there to reach out a friendly hand to the seafarers who are so overworked and underpaid.
They don’t overtly preach the Gospel but simply befriend the sailors and ask them if there is anything they can do to help them. This is, of course, a much more effective way of spreading the Gospel than any sermon—even this one!
And then we move on to Martha and Mary. If you were to ask people who were their favourite characters in the Gospel I suppose Martha and Mary would come pretty high on the list.
We can identify with them both for there is both a Martha and a Mary in each of us. But, on the whole, I suppose it is Martha that we most resonate with. So often we busy ourselves with the details and miss the main point. So often we feel self-righteous because we have worked hard and think that this ought to have gained us merit.
But as Jesus indicates, it is not so much the quality of the food or all the trimmings it is the attitude of the heart that is the most important thing. The quality of the welcome is not measured by the amount on the table but on the level of attention paid to the guest.
And every guest is Christ. And every guest has something to say to us about Christ, if we would but pay enough attention.
There is also a lesson here about the preoccupations of the world and about detachment from these material things. We are so often concerned about our income, the value of our property, the status of our job, the level of our pension and the success of our children, that we utterly forget that in the ultimate scheme of things these are of little importance.
What is important is how we are: whether we are kind and loving, whether we have a relationship with God, whether we care for the poor, whether we act justly and so on. If we attend to these things God will take care of the rest.
I remember my father telling me once that he was in Church and the collection came round. He had no change in his trouser pockets but on looking into the top pocket of his jacket he discovered a ten-shilling note (it was a very long time ago and ten shillings was a lot of money). At that time there were six children in the family and things were already very tight—they were to get even tighter when the last two children arrived, but he didn’t know that then!
So it was with a very heavy heart that he put the precious ten-shilling note in the collection. However, he told me that by the end of the day that ten shillings had come back to him.
He said it was a lesson he never forgot. Now, of course, this lesson doesn’t apply exclusively or even mainly to the Church collection! No, it applies to any act of generosity towards others. I’m sure each one of you has a similar story in your family, a story of how generosity was repaid many times over.
When we place our trust in Divine Providence God repays us over and over again. When we act generously, especially towards the stranger, we are acting generously towards God in person.
There aren’t many immigrants or asylum seekers living in our area but perhaps one measure of our society at large is how it welcomes such people. If we are preoccupied with our rights and treat immigrants as interlopers then one wonders what will happen when we knock on the door of the kingdom and seek admittance.
Can we risk St Peter telling us to go back to our own country?