Reading, Genesis 24: 1-5, 10-27
Image, Ellis Burman, Rebecca at the Well, 1936
First off, for anyone confused, we did indeed cover the death of Abraham last week, so this is not his ghost appearing, we’ve simply jumped back a chapter. But it is helpful to have Abraham’s death in mind, because with it the question is raised, will the next generation be found ready to carry on the commission he received?
Abraham was revered most for his hospitality. It is this, we might presume, that is most important gift to be carried on. What is fascinating in the way today’s story unfolds is that the one who will ensure that this trait continues is not Isaac, but Rebekah.
Rebekah meets a stranger, in the way that Abraham met three travellers passing his home, and offers him drink, water for his camels, and a room in which he might rest. Generous hospitality for the weary stranger bursts forth from Rebekah as it did Abraham – and it is by this that she is distinguished from her kin, and grafted into the narrative of salvation.
At this point you might be thinking, ok, another sermon about the importance and necessity of hospitality for those who follow God. And, yeah, it kind of is, and the frequency of such is not surprising. Reams of scripture display a deep concern the how and why of hospitality, and the way it interweaves with worship and discipleship. Indeed, Rebekah’s story is another example where in offering hospitality we might be surprised by who we serve. This story of Rebekah brings to mind, not only Abraham and travellers who turn out to be angels, but Jesus’ teaching in Matthew about what you did for the least of these you did to me, and the reminder in Hebrews that in entertaining strangers some had entertained angels without knowing. When we offer welcome, we do not always know how near we have drawn to God.
Of course, one cannot hack the system, it is the anonymity that is the key. Rebekah knows not the connection between these camels and a man named Abraham, just as those who serve Christ did not recognise him. We do not offer hospitality because the stranger might turn out to be Christ in his lowliness, we offer hospitality because the stranger is worthy of the same treatment we would offer the Lord in his glory. It is not a bet, but a response to the truth that Christ has already (time and again) met and served us at his table.
And so, at one level, we read this text and hear the command we have heard many times in our churched lives: our faithfulness to Christ is defined by the welcome and care we offer the least. And we hear this command and pray that by the power and prompting of the Spirit we would be faithful more often than not. And Hallelujah, Amen, go with God.
But… there is something else going on in this story. Another (now predictable) layer of complexity. The story begins with an indication that perhaps there is a limit to Abraham’s hospitality; or perhaps better put, that there are aspects of Abraham’s life that have not been transformed through his hospitality. This entire story – the very reason Rebekah graces the pages of scripture – comes because Abraham did not want Isaac to marry one of the daughters of the Canaanites among whom Abraham lived, instead he sends his servant to procure a wife from Abraham’s own country and kindred.
By this point in the story Abraham has lived a long time out of his country. He has resided (and prospered) as a refugee, made pacts with neighbouring tribes, bargained with God over strange cities, and taken wives and concubines from all over… and yet, when it comes to his son, no daughter of these lands and their families will be suitable, he must send for one back where he came from.
It would be anachronistic to call such an attitude racist, it more likely befits the charge of xenophobia or at least parochialism. Though, more immediately for our purposes, it reflects the way in which Abraham’s hospitality, while lauded, has not had the sanctifying effect we would expect. A gap remains which permits Abraham to see the stranger as befitting of welcome into his house, but not his household. Befitting his care, but not the responsibility of his covenant. Those around him might be neighbours, but they could not be in-laws. If this is the case with Abraham, we would have to also admit, he is hardly the last person to have such an attitude. Not the last to see those whom he lives amongst as perfectly good people, but… you know… not really a good fit for our family.
The possibility of such a gap between hospitality and relationship reminds us that hospitality, service, and welcome are not only meant to bless others, but to transform us. These acts should draw us into beyond ourselves and into relationships that are sites of formation and sanctification. Indeed, we must be on guard against the ways hospitality and service can even have a negative impact; creating a system of a benevolent us versus a needy them. Such an attitude reduces those we seek to serve to objects, rather than fully formed people. Hospitality, becomes a problem if we are only host, and never a guest. If we serve without being served. If our generosity and welcome is performed in a way that denies that we too depend on others, that we too need to be saved. What good is it to pray each week, give us today our daily bread, if we do not let anyone else place bread before us?
Consider the instructions of Jesus when he sends out his disciples. They are sent without enough to provide for themselves, a posture which requires them to enter the homes of others and build relationships of trust, and be thus transformed. It is as guests that disciples minister to the needs of others and herald the coming kingdom of God. To love the poor, to love the stranger, to love our neighbour are commands that cannot be obeyed solely through charity and service, they also require relationships, friendships, community.
And so once again in this journey through Genesis we learn through example and negation. We commend the hospitality of Rebekah, interrogate the limits of Abraham’s, and give thanks that God works through both to bring restoration. Because this is how the chapter ends:
Isaac went out in the evening to walk in the field; and looking up, he saw camels coming. And Rebekah looked up… and said to the servant, ‘Who is the man over there, walking in the field to meet us?’ The servant said, ‘It is my master.’ So she took her veil and covered herself. And the servant told Isaac all the things that he had done. Then Isaac brought her into his mother Sarah’s tent. He took Rebekah, and she became his wife; and he loved her. So Isaac was comforted after his mother’s death.
In leading the servant to Rebekah, God works within and beyond human virtue and folly to draw into the story one who takes up the mantle of Abraham’s best virtue in order to heal the one wounded by Abraham’s worst. For God has not forgotten Isaac. And the importance of hospitality in Scripture is based at least in part on God’s knowledge that through relationships we are transformed, woven into a new community receiving healing, comfort, and blessing. This is good news, because as daunting as genuine hospitality is and how easily we will fall short of it, we are bold enough to try. We are bold enough to try because we trust that even in our misguided attempts, God is present, working within and beyond us to weave people together and bring forth something beautiful and true.
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