Hospitality at the Margins
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This morning, our summer series on hospitality lands us in the book of Joshua. Since most of us don’t spend a whole lot of time in Joshua, let’s start at the beginning:
The first five books of the Hebrew Scripture, known as the Torah, tell the epic story of God’s creation of the world and creation of humanity. It tells of humans finding their place in the world and learning about their relationship to God and one another.
In the Torah, we read the story of God calling Abraham and Sarah and from them creating a whole people through whom the entire world will be blessed. We read about their years of slavery in Egypt followed by their miraculous rescue through the Red Sea and Moses’ leadership in the wilderness for 40 years as they all learned what it looks like to follow God’s ways together.
And in the closing chapters of Torah we read about the death of Moses and a reaffirmation of God’s promises for the future ….and this brings us to the first chapters of Joshua, the first book after those final pages of Torah. This is where the story picks up, and it begins with a transition of leadership to the next generation - the baton is passed to Joshua. As theologian Walter Brueggemann describes it, Joshua lives at a moment when myth disintegrates and must be lived out in history. It’s a moment when God’s people grow up into adulthood and must now find their way in the world. It’s the moment when there is no longer manna from heaven to eat and they must grow crops on land with their own hands.
And this history is messy, as growing up often is.
Our Scripture today is from this moment, from the second chapter of Joshua. It’s the story of Israel’s first encounter as they move from the wilderness and begin to enter the land. Hear now the story of Rahab and the spies:
Then Joshua son of Nun sent two men secretly from Shittim as spies, saying, “Go, view the land, especially Jericho.” So they went, and entered the house of a prostitute whose name was Rahab, and spent the night there. 2 The king of Jericho was told, “Some Israelites have come here tonight to search out the land.” 3 Then the king of Jericho sent orders to Rahab, “Bring out the men who have come to you, who entered your house, for they have come only to search out the whole land.” 4 But the woman took the two men and hid them. Then she said, “True, the men came to me, but I did not know where they came from. 5 And when it was time to close the gate at dark, the men went out. Where the men went I do not know. Pursue them quickly, for you can overtake them.” 6 She had, however, brought them up to the roof and hidden them with the stalks of flax that she had laid out on the roof. 7 So the men pursued them on the way to the Jordan as far as the fords. As soon as the pursuers had gone out, the gate was shut.
8 Before they went to sleep, she came up to them on the roof 9 and said to the men: “I know that the Lord has given you the land, and that dread of you has fallen on us, and that all the inhabitants of the land melt in fear before you. 10 For we have heard how the Lord dried up the water of the Red Sea[a] before you when you came out of Egypt, and what you did to the two kings of the Amorites that were beyond the Jordan, to Sihon and Og, whom you utterly destroyed. 11 As soon as we heard it, our hearts melted, and there was no courage left in any of us because of you. The Lord your God is indeed God in heaven above and on earth below. 12 Now then, since I have dealt kindly with you, swear to me by the Lord that you in turn will deal kindly with my family. Give me a sign of good faith 13 that you will spare my father and mother, my brothers and sisters, and all who belong to them, and deliver our lives from death.” 14 The men said to her, “Our life for yours! If you do not tell this business of ours, then we will deal kindly and faithfully with you when the Lord gives us the land.”
15 Then she let them down by a rope through the window, for her house was on the outer side of the city wall and she resided within the wall itself. 16 She said to them, “Go toward the hill country, so that the pursuers may not come upon you. Hide yourselves there three days, until the pursuers have returned; then afterward you may go your way.” 17 The men said to her, “We will be released from this oath that you have made us swear to you 18 if we invade the land and you do not tie this crimson cord in the window through which you let us down, and you do not gather into your house your father and mother, your brothers, and all your family. 19 If any of you go out of the doors of your house into the street, they shall be responsible for their own death, and we shall be innocent; but if a hand is laid upon any who are with you in the house, we shall bear the responsibility for their death. 20 But if you tell this business of ours, then we shall be released from this oath that you made us swear to you.” 21 She said, “According to your words, so be it.” She sent them away and they departed. Then she tied the crimson cord in the window.
The stories in Joshua are often difficult to know what to do with, and this story about Rahab is certainly one of those stories. Rahab is complicated. For thousands of years she has been identified and shamed as a prostitute, when the truth is she probably had not much choice in life as a woman in an ancient patriarchal culture. And as a woman whose story has been written and passed down by men through the ages, she’s had no control over how her story has been told.
And Yes, she was the hero who saved the spies. But if we’re being really honest, we also have to acknowledge that her actions also resulted in the genocide of her people.
What do we say about Rahab? What do we do with these stories so full of violence?
It’s important first of all to step back and read the trajectory of Scripture, which moves in a direction of peace and inclusion. If we can remember our first reading this morning from Isaiah 56, we see the vision of God’s temple becoming a house of prayer for all nations where foreigners are included. And a couple weeks ago we heard the story of Ruth, who, as a foreign woman, broke all the rules and expectations and played a significant role in shaping Israel’s history.
And yet, this movement towards peace and inclusion doesn’t make the violence in these texts ok. These stories are still here, and they demand us to wrestle with them as Scripture. As theologian Pete Enns likes to say: the Bible is messy because God lets God’s children tell the story. Which means they tell it within their own limitations and cultural contexts. There’s a lot more to say here that deserves our time and attention, but we would need a lot more time than just one sermon. So for this morning, let us spend a little time with Rahab and consider her story.
Rahab literally lived on the margins. her house was on the outer side of the city wall and she resided within the wall itself.
Her physical location reflected her social location. Her status as an unmarried woman, her scandalous line of work – Rahab was a woman on the margins in all kinds of ways.
And so when two spies show up at her door who are wanted by the King’s men, she is quick to notice the opportunity at hand. It’s a strange kind of hospitality that Rahab offers the spies. The kindness and welcome she shows them does not come without strings attached. No, Rahab knows exactly what she is doing when she extends this hospitality, and what she is doing is rescuing herself and her family by using her power to extract a promise from the spies for protection from the destruction she knows is on the horizon. The power is all hers for a moment in this story-- she boldly and easily misdirects the King’s men, she holds the lives of the spies in her hands as they hide helplessly on her roof completely at her mercy. (and lets just acknowledge the fact that these spies failed miserably on day one of their mission to scout out the land.) Of all the characters in this story, Rahab is the only one who appears to be in control of their situation.
The story continues and true to their word, Joshua kept the promises that the spies had made to Rahab. After the walls of Jericho came tumbling down we read in 6:25: “So the young men who had done the spying went in and brought out Rahab, her father and mother, her brothers and sisters, and all who belonged to her. They brought out her entire family and put them in a place outside the camp of Israel…Joshua spared Rahab the prostitute and she lives among the Israelites to this day.”
And here’s where I find a helpful intersection between Rahab and our summer series on hospitality. There’s probably something we can learn from Rahab’s hospitality towards the spies, but I’m more interested in their hospitality toward her and her family in the years that followed. As the story goes, they were saved, but they were moved outside the camp – still on the margins - living among them, but not as one of them.
It reminds me that there’s a danger in hospitality. There’s a danger that as we practice it and work towards welcoming and making room for others, we sustain uneven power dynamics and reinforce divides between “us” and “them.” There’s a danger that in our hospitality, we maintain the idea of the stranger as needy and ourselves as the ones with power to help - perpetually distinguishing between guests and host, keeping neighbors at a safe distance living just outside the camp, but with enough help and welcome to make ourselves feel good about it.
A theologian from South Africa, through his experiences of apartheid in that country, makes the observation that:
“the pinnacle of lovelessness is not our unwillingness to be a neighbor to someone, but our unwillingness to allow them to be a neighbor to us.”
Hospitality needs to begin with an understanding of kinship – the recognition that we all belong to one another. Hospitality must be rooted in the humility and openness not only to welcome others, but to be changed by those we welcome, to receive their gifts in turn, to allow others to be a neighbor to us.
Hospitality goes wrong when it is influenced by the desire for power, when it intentionally or unintentionally preserves long-held divisions. Hospitality in the tradition of Jesus Christ grows from the desire not to serve the other, but to be one with the other – which is a very different thing.
Going back for a moment to Rahab’s story – I should tell you that her story does not end outside the camp. Jewish tradition goes on to honor her and to tell stories of her eventually marrying Joshua and becoming the mother of many of the major prophets (including Jeremiah!). And in Matthew’s Gospel, Rahab is listed as one of four foreign women who are included in Jesus’ genealogy. Turns out Rahab didn’t remain outside the camp forever!
Rahab’s story invites us to think about the kind of hospitality we offer to those who reside at the margins. Does our hospitality keep others there in some way? Do others remain the needy stranger or are they welcomed into kinship? Are there obvious or invisible boundaries to their full welcome in our community? Are we open to being changed and shaped by different stories? To listen to different backgrounds? Is there mutuality at the heart of our hospitality? These are the questions I think Rahab is asking us.
Father Gregory Boyle, the Jesuit Priest famous for his compassionate ministry among gang members in Los Angeles, relentlessly emphasizes the heart of kinship in Christian hospitality. He invites us to imagine:
”inching ourselves closer to creating a community of kinship such that God might recognize it. Soon we imagine, with God, this circle of compassion. Then we imagine no one standing outside of that circle, moving ourselves closer to the margins so that the margins themselves will be erased. We stand there with those whose dignity has been denied. We locate ourselves with the poor and the powerless and the voiceless. At the edges, we join the easily despised and the readily left out. We stand with the demonized so that the demonizing will stop. We situate ourselves right next to the disposable so that the day will come when we stop throwing people away.” (from Tattoos on the Heart)
May we continue to imagine this ever-widening circle of compassion. And in the name of Jesus Christ, may it be so. Amen.