Elisha was a man of God. That was the conclusion the woman of Shunem came to after welcoming the itinerant preacher into her home. It was her hospitality that helped her to reach this conclusion. While it is a wonderful thing to meet a man or woman of God it’s not always easy to recognise one. It calls for a certain attitude, an acceptance of God’s mystery on our part and a willingness to make room for the stranger, the other, the surprising, the unlooked for and the unwanted. This good woman, so open to life, recognized the grace of God at work in this man and so set about making space for him. It was her way of making space for the divine in her life.
Making space for the divine is the great challenge in today’s busy, topsy-turvy world. Like Martha, we can be busy and upset with so many things that we don’t have the time — nor even the inclination — to sit with Mary at the feet of Jesus, the man of God par excellence. Yet the gospel today spells out how important it is to give Jesus pride of place in our lives. “He who loves his father or mother more than me is not worthy of me!” This is one of those hard sayings that we can truly struggle with as we feel he is downplaying family life. But this is not the case. Jesus himself firmly defended the institution of the family and the stability of marriage. Also, he encouraged children to obey their parents. In fact, Jesus held the family in high regard. Nevertheless, he didn’t hold the family to be something absolute or untouchable. It’s not an idol. There’s something above it and before it, namely the Kingdom of God and God’s justice.
What’s most central for Jesus isn’t the family of our blood relatives, but the worldwide family that we need to build among all God’s children. The family is not an end in itself but a vehicle for leading us all back to the Father. That’s why, if the claims of family become an obstacle to following Jesus, then one must break free from such family bonds: “No one who prefers father or mother to me is worthy of me. No one who prefers son or daughter to me is worthy of me.”
The Second Special Assembly for Africa of the Synod of Bishops said that “there is the urgent need to re-define the family as the “Domestic Church” and the primary place for education in love, reconciliation, justice, and peace. In this way, Christian families would become the solid foundation of vibrant Ecclesial Communities that would in turn form “family communities” into true schools of evangelization. The apostolate of the family must integrate and embrace these elements.”
As things stand not all families are true schools of evangelisation. While there are some families that are open to serve society, there are others that are turned inward exclusively to their own interests. Some families teach solidarity, while others teach selfishness. There are families that liberate, and others that are oppressive. Tight-knit family ties that impede real solidarity and fraternity with others and prevent a person from working for the justice God do not belong to the Kingdom of God. Our homes are meant to be schools of Gospel values, like fraternity, the responsible search for a more just society, sobriety, service, prayer, forgiveness? The last thing a family should be is a place of ‘non-evangelization’, where the parents go about transmitting our society’s selfishness, injustice, business-as-usual, alienation, and superficiality?
Underlying all the Gospel values associated with family life is a spirit of hospitality. Now and again I have come across a doormat to a house with the word ‘welcome’ on it. That sums up the spirit of a good family home. But the welcome extends not just to other people but to God’s word and God’s grace. The beautiful story of the Shunemite woman illustrates the fact that God’s word finds acceptance in people’s lives through human agents. Elisha may seem to be an itinerant preacher. It is the woman who detects his mission and makes room for him in her house. Likewise, many a parent makes space for God in their family life by helping a child learn the words of a prayer and by showing respect for the things of God. The gospel’s emphasis on hospitality is presented in the form of a strange equation: “He who welcomes you welcomes me.”
We may expect, then, that Christ will come to our doors in many disguises and almost always at the wrong time! I may find him hidden in the stranger, the outcast of society, the neighbour, the child needing attention, the sick person. This is a big ask especially in today’s society where security is such an issue. But we can still be open to wonder, to the mystery of Christ hidden in the other. And let’s not dismiss the simple acts of kindness and of love like a cup of cold water, a letter, a phone call, a smile, a word of appreciation. They cost little but how the world today is crying out for cups of cold water!
Mary is the model of Christian hospitality: she made a space in her heart for the Word just as she made a space in her womb for his body. She pondered his words in her heart so that gradually her whole life was filled with his presence.
Sunday, 2 July 2017