Hospitality Regained

Posted on December 9, 2011


Bartolomé Esteban Murillo (1617 -1682 )

In the heat of the day, Abraham sat in the doorway of his tent, and according to the midrashic Jewish tradition, he had all the flaps rolled up. This was that he might be able to see with perfect clarity any wayfarers who might pass by, that he could then, as he did, run to their aid and invite them to rest and refresh themselves from the heat of the desert sun.

The visit of the “angels” is discussed widely in scholarly circles across all the religions who share an appreciation for Abraham. Arvind Sharma notes that they are called angels when they go on to Sodom and Gomorrah but men when they visit with Abraham. He quotes a Hasidic master, who says that “Abraham did not need to be told they were angels, because Abraham saw the angel in every human being.” While my personal belief is that they were holy men sent as messengers after they had lived their own lives, I find great truth in the idea of looking for angels.

We live in a world that is wise and careful. We do not give strangers a ride somewhere because they might bash us on the head and steal our car, or worse. We do not invite people we don’t know into our homes because they might come back later and rob us blind, or worse. The worst examples of what could happen hover menacingly at the periphery of our consciousness and we retreat into the insurance of our solitude, the carefully structured safety of the places we can control. We live in lonely fear.

There were bandits in Abraham’s time. People traveled in caravans and lived in communities for their safety. But since the settling of Eber and probably long before, a standard of the people of God has been openness: hospitality. How was this either safe or wise? It could be argued that their life was much more safe and predictable than is our own transient world, but how much so? And why?

I believe we have sacrificed hospitality for independence. We wish to travel alone and to live in dwellings with few people, separated from others. The transparency and connection of groups are not appealing to moderns, and we have lost the protections they provided. To purchase the freedom from being adversely affected by others, we sacrifice the solidarity of community.

To substitute, we buy insurance so that faceless companies representing the tax we pay to be unfettered by communal obligation will reimburse us in case we suffer loss. Once, the community rallied to raise a burnt barn, and the grateful owners knew beyond doubt’s shadow that they were a part, that they would be protected, buoyed up through trouble by their neighbors and friends. Now we wait for the adjuster to make his analysis and to authorize the check, as if somehow the barn were the crucial thing. There is no angel for us to see in one another. We’ve built structures between each other, structures intended to keep us safe, but that impede our view.

There is another way to live. The way of hospitality is not a path of naivete, but of order. It was hospitality – the willingness to ease the way of another – that made possible Sarah’s conception of Isaac, the salvation of Lot’s family, the betrothal of Rebekah, the preservation of the widow of Sarepta by Elijah, the conception of the Shunamite woman in her old age and her son’s healing from death as well.

Our warmth toward one another, our willingness to extend levels of trust in assisting one another before we are assured that it is warranted, brings blessings to each other and to ourselves. The world is changed when the people within it are kinder to one another, not the other way around. We have created a violent, distrustful place with our independent, alienating ways. We are not looking for angels. We could, if we chose to roll up the flaps on our tents so that we could better see.

It is said that Abraham rushed personally to welcome the men who came to him, to wash the dust from their feet and to prepare food for them with Sarah. Is this the key? To run to help one another? To be looking for the wayfarer? Do we not see angels because we don’t expect to?

Paul reminds us in Hebrews, “Be not forgetful to entertain strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.” Joseph Smith taught that we receive as much as we are willing to receive, as quickly as we become accustomed to acting upon it. These are mind-opening, veil-parting thoughts.

It is good to look for angels.

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