Tonight we are marking the Feast of St. Benedict, the figure for whom our church is named. We’ve just heard read two scriptural passages that offer some strong words about a principle that is central in Benedictine spirituality and practice, namely hospitality. In his Rule for community life, Benedict wrote, “Let all guests that come to the monastery be received as Christ. For, one day, he will say: ‘I was a stranger and you welcomed me.’” Make sure, in other words, that there is always a place at the monastery table for the visitor, the traveler, the stranger. For a church that bears the name of Benedict, the challenge is no less real. Make sure that room is made for the outsider, the guest, the curious visitor. As a gathered church, certainly, but in our individual lives too. Do we dare to risk seeing Christ in the face of the stranger?
To listen to the sermon press play:
“Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers,” writes the unknown author of the Epistle to the Hebrews, “for by doing that some have entertained angels unawares.” By welcoming the stranger, “some have entertained angels” without even realizing it. It is an image that alludes to the story from Genesis (18:1-19), in which Abraham and Sarah extend hospitality to three strangers, who turn out to be messengers—the literal meaning of the word “angel”—from God, bringing news that the aging Sarah would yet bear a child.
The idea of entertaining angels is evocative and enchanting, suggesting that though we see a world that seems ever so ordinary, around any corner there might be one of the angels of God, waiting to be invited to sit down and share a table with us.
“Think constantly of those in prison as if you were prisoners at their side,” the author continues. “Think too of all who suffer as if you shared their pain, since you also are in the body.” An awareness of, and solidarity with, those in prison and those who are suffering connects naturally with the call to extend hospitality to the stranger, as each of these challenge us to raise our heads and to attend to the “other.” What follows, though, might strike some of us as a not entirely logical next step:
Let marriage be held in honor among all, and let the marriage bed be undefiled, for God will surely judge those who traffic in the bodies of others or defile the relationship of marriage.
Why is the author making this move, into what seems like straight up moral teaching on marital and sexual fidelity? Is it a case of just listing off a set of issues with which he’s become concerned? Hospitality: check. Concern for prisoners and those who suffer: check. Sexual conduct: check. Read on another verse and you find one more: “Keep your lives free from the lust for money: be content with what you have.” Check.
I’d like to suggest while these might be particular concern the author of Hebrews, they actually are all connected, and connected in a manner that reflects the deep Jewish roots of our faith. The Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann maintains that the best way to view the ethical and moral codes of the torah is in terms of an overarching concern for what he calls “neighborliness.” In other words, the concern is not so much that individuals behave for the sake of their personal salvation, but that together the community can function in a way that is marked by respect, integrity and fairness. The “thou shalt nots” of the ten commandments are not about what any one individual needs to do to be deemed moral or upright, but rather the bare minimum for maintaining the integrity of the neighborhood.
As the writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews shifts into voicing his concerns about sexual fidelity, part of what is at work is his sense that one’s spouse is, among other things, one’s neighbour. To commit adultery is to wrong that very particular neighbour in a very specific way, but it is also to fail to treat the person with whom one is having an affair as a true neighbour. It is to take sexual desire and intimacy out of its covenant context, and to reduce it to a “traffic in the bodies of others.” Bodies, not persons… and certainly not neighbours.
“Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. ‘Teacher,’ he said, ‘what must I do to inherit eternal life?’” Probably aware that he was being tested, Jesus tossed the question back at the lawyer: “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” The lawyer’s answer was a traditional one, citing Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” Himself a son of the torah, Jesus gives full marks to the lawyer: “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.”
“But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbour?’” Did you catch that? “But wanting to justify himself,” which basically means wanting to be sure he had all of his own moral and religious ducks in row. He’s asking for clarity here, as to the limits of his responsibility. He’s assuming, too, that there are limits to this mandate to love one’s neighbour; that it has to be something “do-able” in practical terms.
Famously, Jesus replies by telling the parable of the Good Samaritan. That phrase “Good Samaritan” rolls off our tongues with ease, having come to mean the person who does acts of charitable goodness, often for the stranger. Franklin Graham has his “Samaritan’s Purse” organization, there are any number of Good Samaritan hospitals across the continent, and closer to home we had our “Good Samaritan transit driver” who stopped his bus to give his shoes to a homeless man. Yet in the context in which Jesus told the parable, to portray a Samaritan as falling within the category of neighbour—much less as being good—was scandalous; perhaps not entirely unlike standing in the Canadian military compound in Kandahar and telling a story about a good Taliban member. The scandal is intensified by the presence of the two other characters in the parable—a Levite and a priest—neither of whom respond with anything resembling Brueggemann’s image of torah-shaped “neighborliness.”
The parable concludes with an exchange between Jesus and the lawyer, with Jesus asking, “Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbour to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” to which the lawyer wisely responds, “The one who showed him mercy.” And then Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise,” which can sound a bit like “now that I’ve broadened your definition of neighbour to include even the despised Samaritan, get on with acting charitably to anyone and everyone.” There is something of that at work here, certainly; N.T. Wright comments that this parable marks “Jesus’ major re-evaluation of Israel’s boundary markers.” I’d just want to note, though, that it is a re-evaluation entirely in keeping with the instructions in the torah that room always be made for the sojourner and the foreigner.
Wright points to another equally important note sounded by Jesus here, namely that “The parable… doesn’t conclude that the man in need was the Samaritan’s neighbour, but that the Samaritan was his. The challenge is not just to copy the Samaritan, but to recognize him when he comes to our aid.”
Neighborliness and hospitality cut both ways you see; when we are the host or the helper, and when we are the one in need of the presence of the “other;” the hospitable one, the unexpected Samaritan, the person who comes to bear us up in the midst of some hurt or confusion. And in the midst of even the simplest of such exchanges, the presence of the living Christ is made known.