Written by Michael Petrin, a professor at The Catholic University of America in Washington, DC.
And the Lord appeared to him by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat at the door of his tent in the heat of the day. He lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, three men stood in front of him. When he saw them, he ran from the tent door to meet them, and bowed himself to the earth, and said, “My lord, if I have found favor in your sight, do not pass by your servant. Let a little water be brought, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree, while I fetch a morsel of bread, that you may refresh yourselves, and after that you may pass on—since you have come to your servant.” So they said, “Do as you have said.” And Abraham hastened into the tent to Sarah, and said, “Make ready quickly three measures of fine meal, knead it, and make cakes.” And Abraham ran to the herd, and took a calf, tender and good, and gave it to the servant, who hastened to prepare it. Then he took curds, and milk, and the calf which he had prepared, and set it before them; and he stood by them under the tree while they ate. – Genesis 18:1-8
In chapter 18 of Genesis, we find Abraham and Sarah living in a tent by the oaks of Mamre. It’s been about 25 years since the couple first left their home and settled as strangers in the land of Canaan. And it’s been the same number of years since God first promised that he would make of them “a great nation” (Gen. 12:2). So far, however, Abraham and Sarah have been unable to conceive a child, and they know firsthand just how difficult it can be to have faith—just how difficult it can be to trust in the promises of God and to walk in the way of righteousness.
When three strangers show up unexpectedly at their camp, then, we might expect Abraham and Sarah to turn them away. We might expect them to say, “Sorry, we already have enough to deal with right now. You should ask somebody else for help.”
But that’s not what they do. Instead, when Abraham sees the three men, he jumps up from his seat and runs to meet them. He calls himself their “servant,” and he invites them to rest at his camp and wash their feet. He and Sarah also set out a sumptuous feast: cakes baked with fine meal, curds and milk instead of mere water, and the prime meat of a freshly slaughtered calf. After the strangers enjoy the couple’s remarkable hospitality, one of them promises Sarah that she will finally give birth to a son within the year.
Who are these three strangers? And does Abraham know their identity?
The Letter to the Hebrews offers us a preliminary answer to these questions. “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers,” the letter says, “for thereby some have entertained angels unawares” (13:2). According to this verse, the strangers to whom Abraham showed hospitality were angels, but he did not know their identity.
Subsequent Christian interpreters have disagreed about precisely which of the strangers were angels. Some, such as Saint Irenaeus, have claimed that two were angels, but that the third was the Son of God himself, whom Christians worship as “Lord” (see Gen. 18:1, 22-33). Others, such as Saint Augustine, have argued that all three of the strangers were angels, but that God’s own presence was made manifest through them.
Christians have thus long understood the visit of the three strangers as a story that teaches us about the very nature of God. According to some, the story prefigures the incarnation of Christ: that wonderful event when the eternal Word of God became flesh and was born into a world that did not know him (John 1:1-18). According to others, the story is an image of the Holy Trinity: the one God who exists as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, an eternal communion of divine love (2 Cor. 13:14). Either way, the story of the three strangers is about more than meets the eye; it is a story that tells us something about who God is.
It is also a story that tells us about our relationship with God. For example, it teaches us that we are able to meet God—to encounter his very presence—in the process of eating a meal. And of course for Christians this happens in a special way at the Lord’s Supper, when we have the chance to share in the body and blood of Christ himself (1 Cor. 10:16). In a way, whenever we eat the bread and drink the cup, we join Abraham in welcoming the divine stranger who is our Lord. This is a lesson that two of the first disciples learned on the road to Emmaus, when they first encountered the risen Christ as a stranger but later recognized him “in the breaking of the bread” (Luke 24:35).
The story of the three strangers also teaches us that we can meet God by performing concrete acts of love in service of other people. Jesus himself offered us a model of this loving service when he washed the feet of his disciples and commanded them to love one another as he had first loved them (John 13:1-35). He also taught us that when we love our neighbor, we actually love God as well—because when we feed the hungry, we feed Christ himself; when we clothe the naked, we clothe Christ himself; and when we welcome strangers, we welcome Christ himself (Matt. 25:34-40).
When we read the story of the three strangers in Genesis 18, therefore, we can find various levels of meaning. We can, of course, learn about Abraham and Sarah’s hospitality, but we can also learn about God’s own nature and about where we can encounter God in our daily lives. As Christians, then, we should follow the example of Abraham and Sarah in being always ready to show hospitality to strangers and thus always ready to welcome God into our hearts. What is more, we shouldn’t forget to thank and praise God for the hospitality that he has shown to us, who have fallen away and become strangers to him through sin. For if “God shows his love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8), how can we choose anything but to love him in return?
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