In the Name…
The story is told of when Henry Ford visited Ireland in the 1920’s and made a $1,000 donation to a new hospital. That was a generous sum, back then, but the newspaper printed that his donation was $10,000. To the relief of the embarrassed officials, Ford agreed to make up the difference but on condition that in the entrance hall there be inscribed a verse of Scripture; Matthew 25.43, "I was a stranger, and ye took me in."
The theme of hospitality looms large in our Scriptures this morning. First, we heard the admonition of God to the people of Israel that they were not to wrong or oppress the strangers in their land. Then we heard St. Paul expressing his deep appreciation to the Thessalonians for the way they received him after his bad experiences in another place. And finally, we heard Jesus reminding the Pharisees that to love one's neighbour as oneself is one of the two pillars of the Law of God.
Hospitality has long been regarded as one of the principal human virtues, especially in nomadic societies. The traveller, the person outside his home territory, was regarded as deserving special care. When hospitality was offered and accepted, the guest was given the full protection of the host. It created a special bond - a new relationship.
But when hospitality is not extended, when the stranger is regarded with suspicion, it is usually because of one reason. It is fear. John Ford, the great movie director, once said that the best way to start a Western was to have a stranger ride into a town. The implication is that the quiet life of the town is about to be disrupted. The stranger is immediately made to feel unwelcome. And in the course of the action he confronts the hidden fears of townspeople, be it from an evil boss or some dark secret the people share. By the time he leaves, the town is changed and the better for his visit.
For most of history people have written about their fears. One could never know when an enemy would attack or a disease strike or a fire start or crops fail. People said their prayers every day and thanked God for every meal because who knew they would have another chance? Modern critics have said that the clergy scared people into church back then, but in reality, life itself was sufficiently terrifying to do the job.
In August of 1348, a woman named Elspeth died at her home near Bristol, England. In January of 2020, a woman named Patricia Dowd died at hospital in Santa Clara, CA. What these deaths have in common is that both were caused by diseases which had been previously unknown and, as a result, a wave of fear swept through the community as the diseases spread. In Elspeth's time people reacted by burning witches. In our time, politicians imposed a travel ban on certain countries.
In the 14th Century, people carried magic charms for protection. By the 21st Century, science and technology had provided burglar alarms, penicillin, anti-missile missiles and striped fluoride toothpaste to preserve us from all ills. There has been, in fact, a pervasive belief for quite a long time that enough technology and government should be able to keep us safe. But many of the problems we find we face were once thought to be solutions to our problems.
For example, it used to be an article of faith in democratic societies that the fall of Communism would be a good thing both for the world and for the peoples living under those regimes. When it eventually happened, however, it resulted in unexpected social chaos and vicious civil wars. And, in some countries, the loss of a state-imposed secular ideology has allowed religious extremism to flourish.
Years ago, in our own country, there was considerable deprivation in quite ordinary parts of it. It was said that desperate people living in desperate conditions turn to crime and if conditions were improved, crime would diminish. And so it became imperative to raise the standards of living - affordable housing, better shopping facilities, an abundance of leisure activities - this was the magic charm that would put right all the ills of society.
But we all know, it hasn't worked out quite like that. Deprivation is still the root cause of much evil, but it's no longer the deprivation caused by lack of money. It's the deprivation caused by lack of love, because our society has substituted material good for love. Indeed, it says something about our society that modern people worry more about losing their money than about losing their lives.
On another occasion when Jesus was asked about the commandments he replied with the parable of the Good Samaritan; a story whose power comes from the breaking of the barriers between two racial and religious groups; barriers which prevented them from showing hospitality to each other; barriers which were rooted in fear and distrust - rooted in a lack of love.
There's a 17th Century greeting which runs:
Hail guest, we ask not what thou art;
If friend, we greet thee hand and heart;
If stranger, such no longer be;
If foe, our love shall conquer thee.
In the Gospel, Jesus speaks of this conquering power when he tells us, his followers, to love your neighbour as yourself.
The offer of hospitality to the stranger is the test of this power because hospitality has a price. It means the possibility of change - both in ourselves and in others. When we read the parable there is a tendency to focus on the Samaritan and what he did, but what about the wounded Jew, knowing who had saved him? Could he ever look at Samaritans again with blanket fear and distrust? Or did something change in his life that day at a very deep level? How could he explain his rescue to his friends?
Jesus said all the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments – to love God and neighbour. But actually, it's more than just the law and the prophets; it's the whole of life. If only we properly understood this and were able to put it into action, then perhaps we really could experience the kingdom of heaven on earth.
In the Name...