All of us need mentors, people we look up to, whose lifestyle and principles we try to imitate. In the section of Genesis in which today's first reading is situated, the sacred author presents Abraham and Sarah as mentors. The couple's words and actions embody the characteristics all good Jews are expected to incorporate into their own lives.
In this particular pericope, the imitable attribute is hospitality.
It's next to impossible for someone in our middle class American culture to appreciate the "iffiness" of travel in 18th century B.C.E. Canaan. No interstate highway system, no fast food outlets or secure hotels, no safe transportation options, not even a reliable police force. Travelers had to depend on the hospitality of strangers. Without being able to fall back on such generosity, travel was almost impossible.
That's why both ancient Judaism and early Christianity often zeroed in on hospitality as one important way God's followers could imitate God's love for all people.
In our Genesis passage, the three strangers don't even have to ask this original Jewish couple for hospitality. Abraham, in the middle of his siesta, "ran from the entrance of his tent to great them," practically begging the trio to let him and Sarah take care of their needs. And they offer them much more than leftovers. The two treat the travelers like VIPs.
The sacred author's message is to the point: since you never can be certain who the person is to whom you show hospitality, you'd best treat him or her as would the most important person you could ever imagine entering your life. In this case, the three turn out to be Yahweh in human form. (They're three, not because of the later doctrine of the Trinity, but because no one person or image can totally convey Yahweh's "otherness.")
The reward for the couple's generosity is a son. In this period, before the faithful understood they could look forward to an eternal afterlife, the only way people could be confident they'd live on after this life was to have children, who would keep their parents' memory alive.
Martha and Mary's hospitality to Jesus on his Lucan journey to Jerusalem parallels Abraham and Sarah's welcoming of the three strangers. But the reward in this situation isn't a child; it's the life Jesus shares with those who are open to him. This reward comes not just because someone (like Martha) offers a place to stay and food to eat, but also because (like Mary) we sit at Jesus' feet and listen to his message. In the long run, just as Abraham and Sarah's son Isaac guarantees his parents will live on, so by listening to Jesus' words and carrying them out, we receive eternal life, beginning right here and now.
As frequently happens, Paul's insights in our second reading help us tie together the theologies of the other two readings.
The Apostle reminds the community in Colossae that Christians never reach a point in their faith when they can sit back and take it easy. "I am filling," he writes, "what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ on behalf of his body, the church . . . ."
The mystery which Paul surfaces is the "mystery hidden from ages and generations past . . . Christ in you, the hope for glory." Paul's constant task is to remind people to recognize the presence of the risen Jesus in everyone in the community.
Just as Abraham and Sarah discovered they were serving Yahweh, and as Martha and Mary discovered they were entertaining someone who offered them life, so Paul believes our ongoing life's quest should revolve around surfacing the Jesus embedded in each of us.
Inspired by that faith, we'd be foolish to refuse anyone hospitality.