Jesus lived in a time of great social change in Palestine. Cultural, political, religious, and economic institutions were all in flux. The Roman Empire and its local operatives exercised political power. The Pharisees- a new religious movement- challenged the powerful Sadducees, the religious group to which most of the power elites belonged. Economically the people were falling into poverty because of oppressive taxes and commercial restrictions.
Culturally, Jews had a close connection with the land. God gave it first to Abraham and his family. Then after their slavery in Egypt, the twelve tribes of Israel each received their portion of the land. Sent into exile in Babylon for three generations because of their disobedience, the Jews returned to Judea to claim their land. A Jew of Jesus’ day believed that the land they possessed was a gift from God and precious to them. Not owning even a tiny plot of land was a sign of poverty.
Since Joseph provided for the Holy Family as a carpenter, he was probably landless and considered impoverished. Being a craftsman and not a farmer was disparaged because the work often took the husband away from his wife and children. He was often not close by and readily available to watch over and protect his family. Landless people were at the bottom of the social and economic ladder.
Hospitality was another integral part of Middle Eastern culture. Not to offer it- and a great deal of it- would be unthinkable. Hospitality wasn’t only offered to family and friends but especially to strangers. In the gospel, Jesus teaches His disciples not to provide a banquet for family and friends who might be able to repay them but to invite strangers who cannot reciprocate. Hospitality was so crucial in the culture of Jesus’ day that no opportunity to extend it to others could be passed up.
A parable is intentionally a silly story and meant to receive the response “impossible” from its listeners. For Jesus’ listeners, not only would the friend rouse his family to help provide hospitality for the visitor, but the whole village would respond to welcome a traveler with generous hospitality regardless of the hour. For them, the honor of the entire community would be at stake, and it would be a privilege and not an annoyance to offer a welcome regardless of the hour. For a community in Jesus’ day, sharing food was sharing life, and it was essential to practice solidarity when offering hospitality.
In Jesus’ day, the social safety net was the family, then the local community. If you were experiencing economic hardship, they were supposed to be there to support you through rough times. However, if their resources or patience were exhausted, a person would have to seek a patron, as the Prodigal Son had to do when he was far from home and out of money. Such a relationship was precarious and open to much abuse.
Dire poverty was threatening the tradition of hospitality. Many people were slipping down the economic ladder, becoming too poor to offer welcome to strangers. Financial need often causes people to want to hoard the little they have for themselves and their loved ones. Jesus, in His preaching, often speaks up for the tradition of hospitality, and He encourages its preservation even in the face of precarious circumstances.
The early Church followed Jesus’ lead and became known for its hospitality. The Bible tells us that among the early Christians, rich and poor pooled their resources to ensure none of their brothers and sisters was in need. This sign of solidarity as a group attracted people who wanted to become followers of Jesus. The early Church was a beacon of support for the poor. Christians proclaimed they recognized the need to lay down their lives for each other. As a community of faith, they offered support, community, and friendship to people fearful of losing their support system. Christians preached they recognized as friends and not slaves everyone who accepted a relationship with Jesus.
We also live in a world experiencing a great deal of cultural change. Our own political, economic, social, and religious institutions are evolving before our eyes. The population of our country is becoming browner. We face political partisanship. Many people are questioning religious faith. The foundations of many of our institutions seem to be crumbling.
All of us need to challenge some of our society’s values. Occurrences of racism, sexism, and other practices that block our brothers and sisters from living life to the fullest need to be confronted and overcome. We must reinforce values such as solidarity and social justice, much as Jesus reiterated the need to encourage hospitality.
There are a great many economic and social disparities in our culture today that we must confront immediately. As in Jesus’ day, economic inequalities are increasing, not declining, and wealth is not trickling down. Since 1975, the gap between rich and poor has increased significantly. The distribution of wealth in our country isn’t what you think. The top 1% of Americans earn twenty times the combined income of the bottom 90%. Over 40% of working Americans are considered to have low-income or low, low incomes.
This week a study was released claiming the average CEO of an S&P 500 corporation makes 380 times more than the average worker. It takes that average worker over a month to earn as much as the CEO makes in one hour.
The recent Dobbs vs. Jackson Heath abortion decision offers Catholics the opportunity to work for changes in our culture that create a more just and equitable society. If we call ourselves pro-life, our work for the respect of life can only have just begun. We can’t limit our concern for pro-life issues to the baby in the womb. It must extend from birth to natural death.
A recent abortion statistic reports that 75% of abortions were performed on women living in poverty or earning low wages. Pro-life Catholics must continue to work for women. They must advocate for maternal health, equal pay for equal work for women, paid parental leave, and other supports for families and parenthood. Sadly, many politicians who claim to be pro-life have failed to support pro-family initiatives lacking here in the United States but offered in other developed countries. We need to remember that as we vote later this year.
Today we celebrate World Day for Grandparents and the Elderly. This group also needs to be a focus for pro-life activities. Massachusetts is considering legalizing physician-assisted suicide despite voters in the state rejecting it several years ago. The sick and aged need to be cherished and valued, not eliminated, because physical decline and pain frighten us.
The early Church recognized it needed to be a source of support and love for the world. Today the Church can be the same place of welcome if we are faithful to the call of hospitality for all, regardless of their backgrounds. If we faithfully follow Jesus’ commandment of love and show our concern for all people irrespective of the phase of life they are living, then we can have as significant an impact on our world as the first Christians transformed the ancient world.
Through prayer, we can do it. Today Jesus and Abraham teach the value of persistent prayer. If we make the coming of the Kingdom of God the focus of our prayer, God will hear and break the stony hearts of those refusing to work in solidarity with the faithful. The grace of the sacraments can be another wellspring of love. Today use the grace you receive from this Eucharist to summon you to action to form this world into a kingdom of solidarity where everyone feels God’s gifts of hospitality.