Wednesday, February 29, 2012

The Hospitality of Abraham

Abbey of Saint-Pierre de Moissac
Chrysostom concludes his second sermon on Lazarus and the Rich Man by asking why it should be Abraham and not any other patriarch that the Rich Man sees with Lazarus. In short, "Abraham was hospitable" (50). He was the absolute model of the charity that the Rich Man denied Lazarus. Not only does it seem fitting that Lazarus now be comforted with the blessings of hospitality from this master, but this tableau also serves to reenforce the Rich Man's punishment. Let there be no mistake as to why the Rich Man endures these torments. He is there because he scorned countless opportunities in his earthly life to do even once what Abraham now does for all eternity.

Well, let's not let that happen to us! How do we practice the hospitality of Abraham? Chrysostom equips us for the task by detailing three characteristics of the charity practiced by Abraham:
  1. Abraham didn't simply welcome those who came to him. He didn't just give a meal to those who found his house, knocked on the door and asked for help. He went in search of folks. Chrysostom compares Abraham to a fisherman trying to snag guests with whom to share fellowship: "For that patriarch hunted out those who were going past and brought them into his own; but this rich man overlooked the one who was lying inside his gate. ... The patriarch was not a man like this, but quite the opposite: sitting before his door he angled for all those who were going by" (51). Hospitality for Abraham was no passive thing in the sense of simply being prepared to receive guests. Abraham actively sought strangers to invite into his home.
  2. Abraham entertained angels not because they were angels but only because they were travelers in need of hospitality. There is nothing particularly virtuous about welcoming those who would seem to honor us with their presence. As Chrysostom notes, "You also, when you receive someone famous and illustrious, if you show great eagerness, have done nothing remarkable, for the virtue of the guest often forces even the inhospitable person to show great good will. It is great and remarkable, however, when we receive anyone who happens by, even outcasts and worthless people, with great good will" (51).
  3. And now here is the part where Chrysostom throws another barb at us. It's not just, "Go out into the world and invite anyone you see over for dinner." He wants to make sure that we don't ever, at any time, do absolutely anything that even pretends to evaluate one's worthiness to receive charity beyond the mere existence of a presenting need that we can fulfill. So called "good hungry people" are in no way more deserving of bread than "bad hungry people." The only qualifier we should note is "hungry." Chrysostom admonishes us to be like Abraham who "did not inquire of those who were going by who they were and where they came from, as we do now; he simply welcomed all who were passing be. For if you wish to show kindness, you must not require an accounting of a person's life, but merely correct his poverty and fill his need" (52). 
What? We aren't supposed to check i.d.'s or administer drug tests or investigate possible criminal histories before feeding people? Chrysostom, it sounds like you don't want us to ask people anything at all that provides them an opportunity to demonstrate their credibility. How will we know if we can trust them to live right, to act right, to treat us right? And goodness, we don't even know anything at all about what they might believe! Wouldn't this be a good time to ask if they've accepted Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior? No? Just feed hungry people because they are hungry? As Chrysostom answers, "Need alone is the poor man's worthiness" (53).

The bad news is that we, both in our ministries and in our societies, do an awful lot of work trying to determine who is most deserving of our charity. The good news is that forsaking the role of judge for almsgiver frees us from the burden of navigating those cumbersome paths we've designed. Just think of all of the time, all of the energy and all of the paperwork that too many of our agencies expend trying to determine if someone has a valid reason to be hungry. Now think of all of those resources regained through the simple act of handing someone a cup of water, a sandwich and a napkin. Isn't that refreshing? Chrysostom invites us to leave our courtrooms to enter the banquet halls. That sounds good to me.

          Chrysostom, John. St. John Chrysostom on Wealth and Poverty. Trans. Catharine P. Roth. Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1984.

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