Today we hear about great rewards given to those who welcome others. A childless couple, who welcomed the prophet Elisha, received what they most longed for – a baby boy, their own son. Jesus says that those who give even a glass of water to “one of these little ones” will win a great blessing.
Hospitality, welcoming others, is an important value in the Bible – and in all human cultures. The ancient Greeks, for example, treasured the guest-host relationship so much that they considered it to be divinely ordained. When you read the Odyssey, you will notice a recurring theme: each person is judged according to how he treats the wandering Odysseus (Ulysses).
Because hospitality is such a basic human value, it can be misunderstood and misused. In the bulletin of a local parish, the pastor wrote about the importance of welcoming all. Then he told about conversations with two different people who had same-sex partners. Although they had felt the rejection of the larger church, he wanted the people of his parish to “work actively to proclaim the message: ‘All are welcome here.’”
The pastor in question is a big hearted man who has given many years of priestly service. Still, in all humility, I would like to go a bit further than he did. Besides homosexual couples I want to expand the list of those whom we should welcome. They include car thieves, wife batterers, purveyors of child pornography, drunk drivers, abortion doctors, Ku Klux Klan members, pedophiles and polluters. I want them all – under an identical condition: That they repent of their sins and take the necessary steps to reform their lives. I come to the altar the same as them – a sinner who needs God’s mercy every day.
As Jesus receives us, so we must welcome each person in his name. But we do so with discretion. An example from literature will help clarify my point. In the Odyssey, young Telemachus (Ulysses’ son) receives into this home a goddess disguised as an ordinary mortal. Telemachus warmly welcomes the personage, but he discreetly takes the spear and places it to one side. Thus he protects himself and the others in his household from potential harm.
As pastor I have a duty to protect those in my parish. If a pickpocket wishes to join the parish, I will do my best to welcome him. However, before asking him to man the cash register at the parish carnival, I want some assurance that he has learned a more honorable profession. Like Telemachus relieving the guest of the spear, I have a responsibility to protect those in my household. In a similar manner, I would welcome two men or two women who are living together. I have no reason to conclude they are not simply two friends or two relatives who share a common living facility. However, if they declared themselves “same-sex partners,” we would need a longer conversation.
I am not advocating a “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, even though that approach does have a certain value. The problem is that, while it may work in civil society, membership in Christ requires something more – not only attention to outward behavior, but a conversion of heart. Moreover, although breaches of God’s law are best handled in the confessional, we know that even our “private” sins hurt the body of Christ. No one would know that a certain member of the congregation is viewing pornography, but he is still harming the entire body. So it is with hidden acts of anger, gluttony, envy and bitterness. The others do not know, nor should they, but those deeds still damage fellow Christians. The same applies to the couple that engages in fornication, contraception or homosexual activity. The hidden acts have effects beyond the people immediately involved.
Unrepented guilt can sometimes drive a person to make public his hidden actions.* If he does it on the Jerry Springer show, it is one thing. It is another thing if he opens his private life to the Christian community and asks their acceptance. Our sympathy for the person can cause us to ignore or diminish the teachings of Jesus.
I remember a man sharing with a group of engaged couples that he had obtained a vasectomy. The man had won the young people’s sympathy and in every way he appeared an outstanding parishioner. As a consequence, Jesus’ teaching about sterilization seemed worthless. I did my best to speak about fecundity as a gift from God and mentioned that a significant percentage of couples regret their tubal ligation or vasectomy. But, really, I had lost that battle. I did talk to the man afterwards, advising him that sharing something so personal and intimate was unfair in that context. He said that he saw my point.
Not everyone does grasp the point. Ultimately we belong not simply to a Church, but to a person. Although Jesus understands our confusion, our anxieties and desires – much better than we ourselves do – he does not accommodate to them. He knows that we are capable of things we never imagined. For that reason he says “take up your cross and follow after me.” He asks us to lose our very life for his sake. His moral teachings, especially in regard to sexuality, have been difficult for people of every culture.** They can seem like a daily death, but in the long run they give life.
I have never been much of an athlete, yet when I was young I did enjoy the high jump – for fun, not competition. A friend, much taller than me, kept setting the bar higher. I missed many times, but what a glorious feeling to once soar over that bar. Jesus is like my friend. He sets the bar high because he knows that – with his grace – we can achieve what we never dreamed. Take up your cross. Follow him. If you lose your life for him, you will find your true self.
*"The need to confess arises from transgression against what we know, at some level, to be truth. I have already commented on the tendency of accessories to suicide to write about their acts. Besides George Delury, who killed his wife, we may mention Timothy E. Quill, who prescribed lethal pills for his patient, and Andrew Solomon, who participated in the death of his mother. Solomon, for instance, writes in the New Yorker that 'the act of speaking or writing about your involvement is, inevitably, a plea for absolution.' Many readers will remember the full-page signature advertisements feminists took out in the early days of the abortion movement, telling the world that they had killed their own unborn children. At first it seems baffling that the sacrament of confession can be inverted to serve the ends of advocacy. Only by recognizing the power of suppressed conscience can this paradox be understood." (The Revenge of Conscience by J. Budziszewski)
**Those who consider Christian morality “old fashioned” have things reversed. Before the arrival of Christianity, the Greeks and Romans (like folks today) had a tittering acceptance of homosexuality and even pederasty. Divorce, contraception, cohabitation, abortion and infanticide were also widespread. Although Jesus did not bring new moral teachings (the commandments he taught were well-known both in the Old Testament and by noble pagans), he did teach the sanctity of marriage and a deep reverence for the human body. Next Sunday I will try to say more about how Christianity revolutionized the ancient world and, in that sense, brought the only new morality.
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