The second excuse: The story of Sodom is blurred, and the hospitality triptych is lost to us.
Here’s the second of the ten excuses for inhospitality. (List of ten at bottom, in rough chronological order.)
Angels of Sodom, draw near!
The story of Sodom is blurred, and we have lost track of its integrity.
What do you hear if someone prays that the angels of Sodom come now, and come quickly? I have never tried to measure it, but I suspect that most people think they are hearing a plea that God will send angels of destruction to kill off the LGBT folks. That’s a seriously weird distortion. The angels of Sodom are the same as the angels of Mamre. The image of the Trinity painted by the Russian iconographer Andrei Rublev six centuries ago – three tranquil angels by an altar – is an image of the event at Mamre, where Abraham provided hospitality to God. Three strangers showed up at his tent, and he welcomed them, providing rest and refreshment, water for their feet, and a feast. The First Feast in the Bible foreshadows the Eucharist: God and man at table are sat down. The day after the feast, two of the visitors go on to Sodom, and one – now identified as God – speaks with Abraham. The two enjoy Lot’s hospitality, which follows Abraham’s model in a list of details. But the men of Sodom want to rape Lot’s attractive guests, so the angels destroy the city. Homosexual gang rape is the polar opposite of hospitality.
For a thousand years, everyone referring to the story of Sodom used it to talk about luxury and injustice and flaunting your wealth. It was seen as the third piece of a story about hospitality. But in the early years of the Christian church, Peter and Jude (and Josephus) spoke about Sodom referring to carnal evils. Okay, that’s there too; I’m not going to argue against two epistles in the New Testament. But I note that three prophets and two Gospels and Genesis 18 and Judges 20 all offer an interpretation of the Sodom story that has nothing to do with same-sex carnality.
I would argue that the cramped interpretation of Sodom causes two problems. It seems to justify a completely unbalanced attitude toward people who identify themselves as gay. But also, it smudges a story that is loaded with insights into hospitality.
If you pray with all your heart that the “angels of Sodom draw near,” are you asking for the destruction of carnal sinners, or of arrogant men who are content to enjoy luxury without offering a scrap of hospitality to strangers – who, in fact, abuse widows and orphans and strangers? Are you asking the God of justice and hospitality to come quickly to our aid? Is it a Christmas prayer? Is it a Marian prayer, like her words in the Magnificat, rejoicing in God who lifts up the poor and sends the rich away empty?
I am not afraid of the angels of Sodom. I’m not disrespectful of them; I’m careful. But not afraid, or not much afraid, or not just afraid. Their advent is good news for the poor.
Come, O Angels of Sodom!
The list of ten excuses
1. GER, NOKRI, ZUWR: guest, weirdo, enemy. The teaching about strangers in Hebrew was clear; Greek and Latin and English do not have the same clarity.
2. The story of Sodom has been mangled, and the hospitality triptych has disappeared.
3. In the Patristic era, St. John Chrysostom and other Fathers disagreed about who we are commanded to serve. Who is the least of the brothers: people in need, or Christians in need?
4. The shamrock image of the Trinity (attributed to St. Patrick) is a dead end for thought. We are not accustomed to exploring images of the Trinity, including three found all over our teaching: Father/Son and Spirit, husband/wife and sacramental unity, host/guest and unifying hospitality.
5. As St. Thomas Aquinas noted with concern, the corporal works of mercy drifted away from their roots in Scripture. Over the centuries, this became a serious source of confusion.
6. During the Reformation and the division of the Lord’s church, Christians killed each other, instead of welcoming each other. When the killing stopped, the inhospitality remained.
7. Before they were suppressed or weakened, the monasteries in the name of the community – fulfilled the Lord’s command to welcome strangers. When the monasteries closed, no new pattern of hospitality emerged to replace the Patristic pattern.
8. Science fiction, shaped in large part by the eugenics movement, routinely painted the universe as a place of constant warfare. In the sci fi universe, Earth is surrounded by hostile forces. C.S. Lewis worked hard to change this pattern. The universe of mainstream sci fi is inhospitable: a detail of the stupendous damage wrought by the eugenics movement.
9. The Catholic Church was split in reaction to Vatican II. There are still millions of Catholics who have no idea what the Church teaches about social justice. The left-right split resembles the older split over the lessons from Sodom, but it’s deeper and more comprehensive.
10. In the 1960s – a time of sex and drugs and peace, man – rapists on the road changed the way Americans responded to strangers. In 1960, nearly every child in the country was taught: “Be polite to strangers.” One single decade later, nearly every child in the country was taught, “Don’t speak to strangers.”