Ancient Biblical Hospitaltity
By Dr. Heather Entrekin
Yesterday, at the memorial service for Mary Kay Meyer, this scripture was preached. Nobody read these words. It was not one of the texts selected for the service. But these words were preached, nevertheless: Blessed are the poor, for theirs is the kingdom of God.
These words are true. God’s heart belongs to the poor. God’s presence, justice, and love will be seen among the poor. These words must be true, because when someone lives as if they are, hundreds come, hundreds, into the presence of God.
I remember Mary Kay speaking for one of our Unmack Lectures at Prairie a couple of years ago. She quoted another teaching of Jesus, from Matthew 25 which goes hand-in-hand with the Sermon on the Plain from Luke, “…as often as you did it for one of the least of my brothers or sisters, you did it for me.” I remember her reading those words and saying simply, “I just believe they are true.” And on that belief, she dedicated her life to the poor, living at Shalom House and giving shelter, food and hope to homeless men there. Her care for the poor went far beyond Kansas City. She got thrown out of the Muehlbach Hotel for speaking up to General Schwarzkopf, went to jail, to El Salvador, to Iraq for peace.
Mary Kay Meyer was one of those disciples who decided to live the teaching, not just listen, that day when Jesus came down from the mountain to the level place. On the mountain he had done the important, strategic, critical work of choosing the 12 disciples. Now, down to the flat part, the featureless, the fly-over part of the world where crowds are waiting and demanding, where the troubled, sick and distressed are pushing and shoving to get close to the one whose touch can heal.
Luke makes a point to tell us that they came from all Judea, Jerusalem and the coast of Tyre and Sidon. And he tells us that all were trying to touch him and that his power healed them all. And yesterday at Our Lady of St. Rose Catholic Church at 8 and Quindaro in Kansas City, Kansas, it seemed like all were there.
They put out extra rows of folding chairs to accommodate us. A well dressed man sitting behind Peter and me put out his hand and said he was Roy. “I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for Mary Kay. You’re supposed to stay at Shalom House 5 days but I stayed 5 months.” Then he patted his belly, which reminded me a little of the one that is like a “bowl full of jelly,” and said, “Those meals you all serve are awfully good.” I don’t why he thought that I belong to one of the churches that serves meals once at month at Shalom House but he was right. We joined Mary Kay in caring for the hungry and the homeless years ago, first led by Maxine Cook, then Marge Fey and now Jackie Sanders.
I wondered how many others in that multitude had been homeless and how many others had served meals and eaten together at Shalom House, now standing side by side, singing, praying, worshiping God, because Mary Kay believed that “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.”
When Jesus started teaching to that crowd, it must have sounded as strange to them as it does to us. Blessed are the poor. What could be a blessing about being poor? Mae West famously said, “I’ve been poor and I’ve been rich. Believe me, rich is better.”
But poor meant more than not having money. In Jesus’ day, you were poor if you who had no one to help you, to protect you, to care about you. Orphans and widows are often named as poor because they were the overlooked ones. The rich were ones who had power to take advantage of others. So when Jesus speaks of the rich and the poor, a fuller understanding would be of the greedy and those who are socially oppressed.
Through our justice work in Kansas City I have come to know pastors of churches in the inner city whose parishioners are poor. A few weeks ago, Peter and I met a woman who works all day on her feet at Subway for minimum wage, trying to raise three children alone, without a car, trying to overcome the burden of a violent upbringing and a prison record and racial prejudice.
Why the blessing of God upon those who are discarded and shoved aside? Because this is where God’s heart is. These are the ones with whom Jesus fundamentally identifies. This is who God welcomes and honors and how God is welcomed into the world. It’s a scandalous really. God is prejudiced…for the poor.
Even before Jesus preached, people of God understood God’s love for the outsider. In Genesis we read of Abraham and Sarah welcoming three strangers and preparing a lavish meal. They turn out to bring God’s assurance that they will have a son though they are old. They open the tent flap to strangers and God comes in with a promise and a blessing.
Lot welcomes guests to his home in the city of Sodom. This story didn’t turn out so well. It’s an X-rated story of danger and sex, although the strangers save Lot and his family in the end.
In 1 Kings, Elijah goes to a widow in unfriendly territory and asks her to help him though she and her son are about to starve. But what little she has she gives and, again, God comes in with promise and blessing.
There is always the temptation of greed and gain in hospitality, however. Cicero taught that “houses of illustrious men should be open to illustrious guests.” One should “bestow bounty on suitable persons.” The early church struggled live out Jesus’ challenge in the sermon on the plain to deliberately welcome those who bring nothing. It caused discussion and disagreement over whether and how and how much.
But John Chrysostom preached in the 4th century, “Only Christians have a true sense of values; their joys and sorrows are not the same as other peoples.” Blessed are the poor….
Our work is to welcome those who cannot give anything in return because that is the work of God.
Not a great church growth strategy. Not the way you get popular in school or climb the ladder of success at work.
But Paul preached it, constantly, “Welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you, no strings attached, all welcome…. It turns out that we, personally, are responsible for bringing about material justice and peace. And, by the way, it will provoke resistance. Expect persecution and rejection. If the road you follow brings criticism and opposition, it could be a sign you are on the right road.
Mary Kay Meyer walked that road. Now it’s our turn. Our children sang, “Our God’s love will never stop.” Not if we will live the words that create the world that God intends.
COPYRIGHT 2006 Dr. Heather Entrekin. Used by permission.