Openhearted Hospitality

In the ancient world, hospitality was not merely a point of etiquette; it was a requirement for survival in a perilous world. There were no general stores, and travelers depended upon the goodwill of others for food, shelter and necessary supplies while they were on a journey. The custom assured strangers that they would not be exploited as long as they themselves posed no threat. Some people even believed that divine beings roamed the earth in search of examples of human graciousness: “Do not neglect hospitality, for through it some unknowingly entertained angels” (Heb 13:2).

Today’s readings include examples of ancient hospitality. They also mention the rewards that ensued upon the practice of it. The Shunemmite woman showed hospitality to the prophet Elisha, and she was promised a son. This promise was not merely a gesture of gratitude. The woman’s husband was “getting on in years,” so this son would eventually care for her in her need. She provided for the prophet; he, in turn, provided for her.

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We find this same theme in today’s Gospel. Jesus is instructing his followers on the need for hospitality, but it is hospitality from a particular point of view. The woman in the first reading opens her home to a prophet, a “holy man of God.” Jesus is talking about openhearted hospitality extended to the apostles as ministers of the Gospel. As representatives of Jesus, they are told that “Whoever receives you receives me.” The hospitality spoken of here is more than the ancient custom that was so necessary for survival in a perilous world.

The “little ones” of whom Jesus spoke are disciples, not children (cf. Mt 10:24). Jesus lived in a world in which one’s worth was determined by one’s social status. He did not want his disciples to be caught up in such concerns. His followers were to be unassuming, like unimportant children. It is of them that Jesus says, “Whoever receives you receives me, and whoever receives me receives the one who sent me.”

This practice of ministerial hospitality in no way suggests that the life of the followers of Jesus will be easy. They may be assured of the generosity of others (“The laborer deserves to be paid, (Lk 10:7; 1 Tm 5:18]), but they are also required to make great sacrifices. They must even be willing to sever intimate family ties, if called upon. And as if this were not sacrifice enough, they are promised the cross. Followers of Jesus are certainly promised a reward. Paul tells us that we are called to “live in newness of life.” But, this privilege is extended to us because “we were baptized into his death.”

Baptism has made us new people. We are now people whose value is not determined by social status. We are people who extend openhearted Christian hospitality to others, knowing that it is not merely angels whom we might be entertaining. Rather, it is Jesus himself, along with the one who sent him.

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