Reading, Genesis 18:1-8, 16-33
Image, Richard McBee, Abraham & 3 Strangers. 1982 84" x 84"
We have two scenes in our reading. In both Abraham takes a somewhat strange posture toward God, which paradoxically leads to him growing in the knowledge of the ways of God.
The reading begins with God appearing to Abraham, but before that scene gets going, Abraham spots three travellers making their way past his camp. Abraham immediately takes his leave of God to offer welcome to these weary strangers. He implores them to stay, presents himself as their servant, and offers them some water and a morsel of bread, while in reality he actually prepares them an abundant feast. He then stands near, ready to meet any need they might have.
We spoke two weeks back on how Abraham is often received as a paragon of faith, today we see why, within the Jewish tradition, Abraham is held up as the paradigm of hospitality – of welcoming guests into one’s own home. Not even a visit from God distracts him from the human visitors, he presses pause on the first to ensure his full attention to the latter.
And yet, as we might suspect, there is little distinction or opposition in this choice. Indeed, just as the commands to love God and love neighbour are eternally linked, so too is the treatment of the divine and the treatment of the stranger, the act of devotion and the act of hospitality. As Jesus will later teach his disciples, as you did for the least of these you did unto me, or as the writer of Hebrews will remind their congregation, Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it. What we learn from these scriptures, which is confirmed in this story of Abraham, is that in turning toward the one in need of hospitality, we turn toward God.
In moving away, Abraham moves toward, and thus what appeared a strange posture is, paradoxically, one in which Abraham grows in his knowledge of God’s ways.
Before coming to the second scene we need to attend something of importance which occurred in the chapters between last week’s story about Hagar and this week’s visitation. God made a covenant with Abraham (indeed it was with the covenant that Abram became Abraham and Sarai, Sarah). With the covenant, Abraham is charged to instruct his children in their promise and calling, preparing the generations to come to be the blessing to others God desires them to be. As God says in the reading when considering whether hide from Abraham what God about to do… No, for I have chosen him, that he may charge his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing righteousness and justice. As always, the promise and the commission are intertwined. Abraham has displayed his commitment to a household of welcome and hospitality, might now he show his commitment to righteousness and justice?
And it is with this in mind, that we approach the second strange posture of this reading: Abraham haggles with God.
The outcry over the sin of Sodom has reached God’s ears, and now God must go see what is going on… now, in a delightful irony, the sin of Sodom is inhospitality. Where the travellers receive welcome and hospitality from Abraham (and later Lot) they receive violence and violation from the citizens of Sodom. Where the strangers received dignity and care from Abraham, they are threatened with exploitation, indignity, and sexual violence by the citizens of Sodom. As the prophet Ezekiel wrote, This was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy.
So with that ironic pendulum of virtue and sin in mind, we might assume that Abraham – paradigm of hospitality – would readily accept God’s decision to wipe the inhospitable city off the map. And yet, Abraham came near and said, ‘Will you indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked? At the beginning of this story Abraham moved away from God in order to greet three strangers, now he draws near to God in order to intercede for a city of strangers.
Some have argued that, in a way, Abraham acts as a teacher to God here, as one who shifts God’s plans, softens God’s wrath (not unlike the role Moses plays at the incident of the Golden Calf). And while I think that reading is open to us, the fact that God chooses, rather deliberately, to bring Abraham into this conversation – doing so with explicit reference to Abraham needing to teach his children and his household to keep the way of the Lord by doing righteousness and justice - that God is providing Abraham a chance to learn how to stand up for justice.
Because, so far in our story, this has been Abraham’s weak point. He allowed Sarah to be taken as Pharaoh’s wife and washed his hands of the cruel treatment of Hagar. While he could be commended for his willingness to walk humbly with God, he has not yet done a great job of embracing the call to do justice and love mercy. Here, however, given the opportunity, Abraham comes through. He does not stay silent, he does not think only of his own survival, he draws near to God and issues the challenge: surely, O God, you might find a way for the city to be spared, surely it should not be judged too harshly after the behaviour of its worst elements. Abraham pleads with God to look for just a spark of righteousness, simply an ember, and allow that to protect the rest. In arguing with God, in not accepting what God has supposedly decreed, Abraham learns what it might mean to keep the way of the Lord by doing justice and righteousness, and is better situated to live out his calling and live up to the covenant.
Thus, once again, what appeared a strange posture is, paradoxically, one in which Abraham grows in his knowledge of God’s ways.*
So, what might this mean for us, and our postures before God? How might this shape how we seek to grow in our knowledge of God’s ways? For as those who live in a covenantal relationship with God, we too have received both promise and calling, both grace and responsibility.
First, we confess we are called to be hospitable. We are asked to welcome the stranger with the same attention and generosity we would show the presence of God. One way this might look, considering our life together as a church community, is that we must ensure that we do not persistently privilege our own preferences for how we draw near to the presence of God should that prove unwelcoming and unhelpful to our neighbours. For such a turning to our neighbour is not ingratitude to God, nor neglect of our worship, but is its own joyful turning to God, its own, rewarding way of drawing near to the presence of God.
Second, we confess that out of a great love of justice and righteousness, and in great hope for restoration, we are called to intercede for others. Even if those others are our enemies, even if they have behaved in such ways that we cannot abide or excuse. We advocate for our enemies, not that they might be allowed to persist, but they might be given a chance to be confronted with their wrongdoing and take strides to repent and repair. And, importantly, as those who live in a covenantal relationship, as those who by the grace of Christ have received a spirit of adoption, we are not only allowed, but called upon to confront, wrestle, and argue with God. Invited to cry out as the prophets did, “how long O Lord” to cry out as the psalmist did, “Why, O Lord, do you stand far off? Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?”, to cry out as Abraham did, “surely you will not sweep away the righteous with the wicked.” For such a posture is not a betrayal of God, but is its own, sublime, drawing near to God, its own, powerful turning to God, its own way of growing in the knowledge of God’s ways so that we may witness to one another and teach those coming after us, what it means to keep the way of the Lord by doing righteousness and justice
*I think it is of interest (though not surprising) that such a postures commend in Abraham, are visible in Christ. Throughout his life we might point to the various postures of humility, welcome, service, and intersession he takes, but for now it is enough to point to the exemplary moment, when on the cross Jesus offered welcome to the thief on the cross, today you will be with me in paradise, interceded for those who mocked and violated him, Father forgive them, they know not what they do. We can also see Christ wrestling honestly with God in the lead up, let this cup pass from me.
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