A Sabbath of inhospitality. Inhospitality to the unfortunate man with the swollen joints. Inhospitality among the guests. Inhospitality in the host. Preparing and sitting down at a meal is the most common and most congenial practice for engaging in openness, generosity, and receptivity. How does it happen that it so frequently becomes the opposite – like this dinner at the Pharisee’s house?
It is important, I think, to keep our attention centered on the fact that the setting for this story is a Sabbath meal. Sabbath is the time set aside to do nothing so that we can receive everything, to set aside our anxious attempts to make ourselves useful, to set aside our tense restlessness, to set aside our media-satiated boredom. Sabbath is the time to receive silence and let it deepen into gratitude, to receive quiet into which forgotten faces and voices unobtrusively make themselves present, to receive the days of the just completed week and absorb the wonder and miracle still reverberating from each one, to receive our Lord’s amazing grace.
But these strict Sabbath-keepers had their eyes first on Jesus to see what he was going to do, then on one another to see how they could take advantage of one another. They were betraying the Sabbath in the very act of “protecting” it.
Sabbath is one of the great gifts that God has given us. Every day of creation is “good” -good for receiving all that God has created, good for participating in the work of God, good for working in God’s garden, good for naming and caring for what God has given, good for being a “helpmate” with and for another. But Sabbath is distinguished from the first six days of each week by being holy, a day set aside to be present to God, to assimilate and celebrate all the gifts of creation and salvation.
Sabbath is an actual day of the week. But it is also a sacrament of time extended into all settings of hospitality – most commonly breakfast, lunch, and dinner – times and places that are given to us to receive and assimilate and digest what we need to stay alive. We have received so much. We have so much to give. What are we going to do with it, with this largesse, with this bounty? “I will lift up the cup… !” (Ps. 116:13). Jesus’ table talk at the dinner of Pharisees establishes a continuity between what we are freely given and receive in worship and what we freely give and receive at meals. His story brings us up short: worship is never just worship; meals are never just meals. Holiness permeates hospitality.
Jesus’ parable keeps us alert to the lurking desecrations in Sabbath-hospitality, but also attentive to the possibilities, listening always for echoes of Jesus’ table talk – the story he might make of our words and acts. We never know who is going to show up across the table from us, a host like Sahil or a guest like the traveler with the camel.
Benedict, the fourth-century founder of the monastic community at Monte Cassino in Italy, insisted that his monks always receive each guest as they would receive Christ. Benedictine hospitality has infiltrated communities of faith ever since.
Kathleen Norris tells a story said to originate in a Russian Orthodox monastery. An older monk tells a younger one: “I have finally learned to accept people as they are. Whatever they are in the world, a prostitute, a prime minister, it is all the same to me. But sometimes I see a stranger coming up the road and I say, ‘Oh, Jesus Christ, is it you again?'”
How would your hospitality change if you were to receive every guest as you would receive Christ?
Jesus was inhospitably treated in this Scripture passage. If he were treated like your average guest, how would you treat him in your home? In your church?