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Recognizing the Stranger

by Michael Healy

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The Lord appeared to Abraham by the terebinths of Mamre. As Abraham was sitting at the opening of his tent in the heat of the day, he looked up and saw three men standing in front of him. When he saw them, he ran from the opening of his tent to meet them and bowed low to the ground. “Sirs,” he said, “if I have deserved your favor, do not pass by my humble self without a visit. Let me send for some water so that you may wash your feet and rest under a tree; and let me fetch a little food so that you may refresh yourselves. Afterwards you may continue the journey which has brought you my way.” They said, “Do by all means as you say.” (Genesis 18:1-5)

When Abraham looked up to see three strangers standing in the heat of the day outside his tent, he didn’t recognize God.

Still, in the tradition of the East, he ran to greet them and offer full generosity. He accepted them into his home the way we might greet a favorite relative not seen for many years – not unlike the father welcoming home the prodigal son of the parable.

Abraham slaughtered a calf to feed them, fetched water to wash the dust from their feet, roused Sarah to bake fresh bread, and made them welcome in the refreshing shade of a tree. Though he had servants, he waited on these guests himself.

Abraham is strikingly humble in this encounter. “Let me,” he says, asking permission to be kind, generous, hospitable. He bows low to the ground before these visitors who are total strangers. He was an old man of 99 years, childless, living in a tent for his home.

But his hospitality reveals his character’s nobility and wealth beyond the size of his household and flocks. Abraham recognizes that he is blessed by their arrival, and his words and actions express that most clearly.

His guests revealed to this humble, childless man that he and Sarah would have a son to confirm God’s covenant with him. He was destined to be patriarch to the three great monotheistic faiths: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

His response to the three heavenly visitors is the model for hospitality expressed at the heart of these faiths. It is recognizing God in a stranger.

Recognition underlies all hospitality. It is the affirmation of personhood – and of the Creator of all persons. Martin Buber pointed out that each person’s “unacknowledged secret is his desire to be affirmed in his essence and in his existence by his fellow men.” Each of us wants, and needs, this recognition and affirmation.

At the same time, we want an opportunity to affirm other people. Buber wrote that through this “mutual sympathy … each would let the other know that he endorses his presense. It is this endorsement that constitutes the indispensable minimum of man’s humanity.” Hospitality is the responsibility that goes with recognition.

You don’t need to know chapter and verse of Scripture to understand that recognition and hospitality are central to the story of Revelation. Scripture is about recognizing the Messiah. It also reveals the nature of God’s relationship with humanity.

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