Updated: Aug 16, 2020
God appeared to Abraham at the Oaks of Mamre while he was sitting at the entrance of his tent. It was the hottest part of the day. Abraham lifted his eyes and saw three men nearby. He ran from his tent to greet them and bowed before them. He said, “Master, if it please you, stop for a while with your servant. I’ll get some water so you can wash your feet. Rest under this tree. I’ll get some food to refresh you on your way, since your travels have brought you across my path.” They said, “Certainly. Go ahead.” Abraham hurried into the tent to Sarah. He said, “Hurry. Get three cups of our best flour; knead it and make bread." Then Abraham ran to the cattle pen and picked out a nice plump calf and gave it to the servant who lost no time getting it ready. Then he got curds and milk, brought them with the calf that had been roasted, set the meal before the men, and stood there under the tree while they ate. The men said to him, “Where is Sarah your wife?” He said, “In the tent.” One of them said, “I’m coming back about this time next year. When I arrive, your wife Sarah will have a son.” Sarah was listening at the tent opening, just behind the man. Abraham and Sarah were old by this time, very old. Sarah was far past the age for having babies. Sarah laughed within herself, “An old woman like me? Get pregnant? With this old man of a husband?” God said to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh saying, ‘Me? Have a baby? An old woman like me?’ Is anything too hard for God? I’ll be back about this time next year, and Sarah will have a baby.” Sarah denied, saying, "I did not laugh," because she was afraid. But he said, "Yes, you did; you laughed." When the men got up to leave, they set off for Sodom. Abraham walked with them to say good-bye. GENESIS 18:1-16
It’s worth noting that this is the first story after Abraham and Sarah accept and engage a covenant with God. In that covenant—that relationship promise—God tells Abraham and Sarah they will have descendants as numerous as the stars, that through them “all the families of the earth will be blessed.”
Now, their first action is to step into that covenant by caring for strangers.
As Rabbi Nahum Ward Lev writes, “Hospitality for the stranger” is at “the heart of the covenant to which Abraham and his descendants are called: to pursue the well-being of people who are not within one’s family or clan.” Herein lies another lens of this theophany: It’s not just what Abraham and Sarah do; it’s also what they do not do.
Abraham and Sarah do not qualify the strangers.
There is no categorization, no judgment as to worthiness.
There are no questionnaires or minimum requirements for hospitality.
The strangers are not examined as to their need or even their ability to provide for themselves.
They are not measured by their tribe nor their allegiances.
No one asks them of their faith or ideology.
No one even asks the travelers where they came from.
They are seen, valued, and treasured simply as being among “all the families of the earth”—those to whom Abraham and Sarah are to be a blessing.
Abraham and Sarah do not conduct a transaction with the strangers.
Their hospitality is not offered in exchange for something.
There is no apparent expectation of anything in return.
What is given is given freely and received in complete freedom.
Abraham and Sarah do not proselytize the strangers.
There is no attempt to convert or indoctrinate the strangers.
Abraham and Sarah do not even talk about their new covenant with God—who, according to the story, is with them in the camp!
Friends, I must confess that the differences between how Abraham and Sarah care for strangers and how I care for strangers are troubling.
I need a theophany.
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