Faith shows itself in acts of love
A reflection on Genesis 18:1-15
Abraham is the father of faith. In the New Testament his name occurs more than seventy times. Many of those references, especially those in Romans, Galatians and Hebrews refer to his faith. It refers to the things that we would usually associate with faith, things such as trust and believing God’s promises. But that’s not all; clearly Abraham’s faith had a much wider reach and encompassed much more than trust in God.
Genesis 18 gives us some insight into Abraham’s faith and why he is hailed as the father of faith. But in an entirely different way than we would expect. Abraham and Sarah are not portrayed as ready to believe in the promise, but instead doubting the promise. So why is he hailed then as the father of faith?
To understand this chapter, one has to bear in mind that the bible originally did not have the chapters and paragraphs that our bibles have today. If one looks at Genesis 18, you will see that the NRSV separates it into two, seemingly disconnected stories, one about a son promised to Abraham and Sarah and another about the judgement pronounced on Sodom. However, there is a way in which they could be read that makes them one story; a wonderful account that gives us an entirely different perspective on Abraham’s faith.
To understand all of this, I suggest one keeps the bible open at Genesis 18 and read the whole chapter. The first thing that strikes you, is something odd. Verse 1 states that the Lord appeared to Abraham by the oaks of Mamre, where he sat at the entrance of his tent. In the second verse we are told that when he looked up, he saw three men standing there. But from that moment there is no further mention of the Lord, who seemingly disappears until verse 17. What has happened here?
A visitation by three men
The Jewish commentators suggest that if we read the text closely we will see that all of chapter 18 is one story, God appearing to Abraham, but with an interruption by three men. The key to this understanding lies in verse 3, in the word that is translated into English as “Lord”.
The Hebrew word that is used here is the word “Adonai” which can refer to God (‘Lord’ as in the first verse) or it could also refer to the three men (‘sirs’ as a few translations have it or just ‘Lord’ as the NSRV has it). Most English translations take this to refer to the three men, however the Jewish tradition interprets this as referring to God.
This is remarkable, because it means that Abraham interrupted God as God was about to speak, asking God to wait while he attends to the three visitors.
In short, as rabbi Jonathan Sacks points out, it means that we should understand these first few verses in the following way: God appears to Abraham and at that moment Abraham looks up and three men standing at the entrance of his tent. On seeing them, he quickly gets up (according to the protocols of Semitic hospitality) and bows before them. Then he turns to the Lord again, saying ‘My Lord, if I have found favour with you, don’t leave your servant (i.e. please wait until I have given hospitality to these men). Then, turning to the men again, he calls for water and bread to be served to the visitors. After serving them and the conversation with them, the meeting between God and Abraham resumes in verse 17 when the real reason for God’s appearance to Abraham becomes known for the first time. (‘Shall I hide from Abraham what I’m about to do?’)
This interpretation does not only link the two stories – which appears to be completely in line with the narrative as it plays out here – but has enormously important theological implications.
The father of faith
In fact, this interpretation provided the theological basis for the teaching in Judaism, which says: “Greater is hospitality than receiving the Divine Presence.” Abraham, faced with the choice between listening to God and helping a stranger in need, chose the latter…and God allowed him to do just that!
Abraham is honoured throughout the bible as the father of faith. In the NT Paul uses him, the author of Hebrews uses him. In many ways we have been conditioned by listening to these stories to view Abraham’s great faith as only his trust in God. Therefore we understand faith in the first place as a kind of trust, a kind of blind belief.
Then of course, there are also the stories of Abraham’s hospitality; of which this one in Genesis 18 is perhaps the most well-known. It is also to this story that the author of Hebrews refers to in chapter 13: “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.” (verse 2)
So what we hear in these passages is this: first, that Abraham had a great faith in God, and second, that Abraham showed hospitality to strangers. However, what the author of Genesis is telling us, is not about Abraham’s hospitality and his faith. He is telling us about Abraham’s hospitality as faith. His hospitality was part of his faith. His faith consisted among other things, in hospitality.
This is a sobering thought. In New Testament Greek the word for hospitality is the word “philoxenia”, literally meaning “love for the stranger.” Philoxenia is the exact opposite of another Greek word that has become so well-known in our times that it has been absorbed in the English language. That word is xenophobia: Fear for the stranger.
Xenophobia is a spiritual problem
In other words, xenophobia is not only dangerous politics; xenophobia is also little faith. Xenophobia is not in the first instance a political problem; it is in the first place a spiritual problem.
If hospitality is our openness to strangers, then xenophobia is our suspicion of strangers. If hospitality is opening our identity to the strangeness of others – in other words, understanding that this strangeness is also part of ourselves; then xenophobia is denying an important part of our own identity.
The problem in our times and society is that people who are well-meaning towards strangers often have a completely romantic view of strangers. They think about them as exotic, and in their tolerance to them, expect the stranger to be thankful, to honour everyone who has helped them. Which is of course naïve.
On the other hand, people who are fearful of strangers think they could only be evil, could only have all kinds of devious plans to undermine our own culture and identity.
This was very different with Abraham; and this brings us to the second part of his story. Directly after God resumed the conversation with Abraham, God tells him of the grave sins of Sodom and Gomorrah. God tells Abraham that God has heard of the depravity of Sodom and Gomorrah and was planning to go there to see whether it is true.
Then the reader waits for God to leave – almost like saying good-bye to someone who doesn’t want to get up and leave.
God says “I’m leaving now” but both God and Abraham stood there. The NSRV translates verse 22 “while Abraham remained standing before the Lord”. However, older manuscripts of Genesis say: “While the Lord remained standing before Abraham.”
Abraham pleads with God
We know that what is about to unfold is Abraham’s pleading for the people of Sodom and Gomorrah. Almost his bargaining with God. “God, will you truly destroy these places if there are 50 righteous people to be found there? And God says: no, for the sake of 50 I will save the tens of thousands of evil people. And so it goes on: what if, there’s 40 righteous people….until Abraham came to the last number: what if there’s 10 righteous people? For their sake, God, says, I’ll save the cities.
There are two things very important here: first, if God remained standing before Abraham, it means that God wanted Abraham to plead for the lives of not only the righteous, but also the unrighteous in Sodom and Gomorrah. In other words, the initiative to save them goes out from God in the first place.
But in the second place, it also means that Abraham is under no illusion about the stranger. There could be righteous among them, but also the unrighteous. He welcomes them; not for how he thinks they should be, but as they are.
It means his hospitality and his intercession are the two arms of his faith in this story.
This brings us to the crucial question: why is it that Abraham’s hospitality and his intercession for truly wicked people make him the father of faith?
What makes Abraham the father of faith?
If one looks at Abraham (and especially Sarah’s) response to the news of having a child in their old age, there’s not much sign of any faith. Neither of them seemed to believe the message of the three men in any way… However, their generosity to the three strangers is almost overwhelming. (At the arrival of the three strangers, Abraham hurried out to pick out a calf, ordered his servant to prepare it. He told Sarah to take a sack of their best flour to bake bread. Some translations say 16 kg of their best flour. On top of that he added cream and milk.)
At a first glance it appears as if their hospitality is totally at odds with their little faith or doubt. However, if we look at it from a different perspective, we will soon enough realize: Perhaps their hospitality just shows the strength of their faith in a different way.
For the moment when Abraham and Sarah could only laugh at the promise being offered to them; the moment when, according to our standards, their faith in God was crumbling…In fact their faith in God shows itself in another way: they did not neglect to show hospitality to strangers. (Hebrews 13:2)
When it feels to us as if they had resigned themselves to their childless fate, their faith shows itself in what is indeed the essence of faith: their love, hospitality, humanity, helpfulness and genuine care for others.
Faith shows itself in acts of love
Perhaps it shows us where we could actually see faith. For faith shows itself in acts of love, in practical care, in generous hospitality, in caring for the vulnerable, the stranger, homeless, the children and the refugees.
Isn’t this exactly what Jesus Christ has come to show us, not only in his preaching, but in the way he acted, in what everyone could see? In the Gospels Jesus often reprimanded the disciples for their little faith. Perhaps this reprimand had less to do with what they were prepared to accept as true, than simply those whom they struggled to accept: the marginalised and the other.
Abraham’s story in chapter 18 does not end in a disbelieving laugh; it ends with Abraham’s pleas for Sodom and Gomorrah. It ends with Abraham speaking, even on behalf of the ones who rejected God’s voice, pleading even for those who rejected everything he believed in.
“To plead with God for those who reject God”. Can you think of a more moving definition of faith? Is it still surprising that Abraham is called the father of faith?
Perhaps this is one of the most difficult things for us to learn and this is why, even when God came to us in the suffering Servant, in the all too human face of Jesus Christ, we still had trouble recognising who it was.
Rev. Dr Ockert Meyer