hospitality in the old temstament
I want us to begin thinking about hospitality by musing on the “hospitality industry.” Wikipedia defines it as “a broad category of fields within the service industry that includes lodging, restaurants, event planning, theme parks, transportation, cruise lines and additional fields with the tourism industry.” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hospitality_industry) What makes this reference germane to our discussion is that the hospitality industry understands that it has an obligation to serve the needs of its guests. The Ritz-Carlton chain puts it this way; their staff members are “Ladies and Gentlemen, serving Ladies and Gentlemen.” In other words the people who stay in their hotels are to be treated as honored guests and not merely paying customers. While not all portions of the industry act in this manner, it is becoming more and more common. Virtually every time I buy a fast-food meal or stay in a motel, I am offered a way go on line and tell the company about the service I have received. All of this is a realization that there is an obligation to serve the customer in a way that they feel like they matter.
This sense of hospitality, that one has an obligation to treat strangers as honored guests, is in fact an ancient concept. Most nomadic cultures (both ancient and modern) practiced and practice hospitality. There seemed to be something about the shared experience of wandering and having no idea where your next meal might be coming from that engendered a culture of welcoming the stranger into one’s home. There is extensive literature concerning hospitality within Bedouin, Mongolian, Tibetan and Kazakh nomadic societies. Each of these groups developed a particular set of customs and rituals centered on the welcoming of the stranger. The welcome that was offered was not for gaining money or prestige, but was a culturally condition obligation. Hospitality within these cultures included offering food, shelter and safety to the stranger. This hospitality also included a welcome to an enemy, in so far as the enemy was willing to follow the rules of being a guest (no violence or betrayal).
Hospitality was also part of the ancient Greek culture. The concept was called “Xenia” which can be translated as “guest friendship.” Its roots were based in religion where the Greek god Zeus was also known as Zeus Xenios because he was the protector of travelers; thus protecting travelers mattered. Religion also played a role in that one was supposed to offer hospitality to strangers because they could be gods in disguise. There were two parts to Xenia. The first had to do with the host respecting the guest. This could include offers of food, drink, lodging and safety. The second had to do with the guest respecting the host. The guest was to be courteous and was never to take advantage of the host. In The Iliad we witness the breakdown of this relationship when Paris, as a guest of King Menelaus, abducts the king’s wife, Helen. This infraction of guest friendship demanded vengeance and thus became the basis for the Trojan War. The entire book, The Odyssey, functions around this concept as well with some characters showing Xenia and others not.
The most significant story of hospitality in the Old Testament is that of Abraham and the three strangers in Genesis 18:1-8. In this story Abraham sees three strangers at the door of his tent. Abraham immediately rises and begs the men to stay with him. He follows the custom of offering them a place to rest, water to wash their feet and a “morsel of bread.” The morsel of bread however turns out to be freshly baked cakes and a calf cooked up for dinner. Guests received the best the host had to offer. The most prominent story of a lack of hospitality is that of the city of Sodom. (Genesis 19) When Lot, who had been a nomad and understood hospitality, received his guests into his house, the men of the town want to rape them, which is a violation of hospitality. Lot was even willing to allow his virgin daughters to be ravaged rather than violate hospitality. Notice in both of these stories the strangers are not human strangers but in the Abraham story it is the Lord who visits and in the Lot story it is angels who come to his home.
hospitality in the new testament
While hospitality was primarily a product of nomadic cultures we will see that it became part of the Jewish and Roman cultures in which Christianity was birthed.
We witness the pervasive nature of hospitality within the New Testament in the travels of the disciples, the teachings of Jesus and the travels and letters of Paul. In terms of the ministry of Jesus and the travels with his disciples we need to remember that they did not work to support themselves. They were completely beholding to the kindness of others. Scripture tells us that Jesus and the disciples were supported by the gifts of his female followers. In addition there are numerous stories of Jesus eating with Pharisees as well as with sinners and tax-collectors. In other words Jesus was willing to accept the hospitality of anyone who offered. One of the most retold stories of this hospitality concerns Jesus’ meal with the tax-collector Zacchaeus (Luke 19), where Jesus actually invites himself to dinner. In the Gospel of Mark (6:8 ff.) we read of Jesus teaching his disciples that they must be completely dependent on the hospitality of those who would receive them. This admonition also included a warning that they not move up to better quarters even if they were offered. Jesus’ offering of hospitality is seen in the crowd feeding stories in which the disciples were told to share their meager rations with the thousands who were listening to Jesus preach. The fact that the little food possessed by the disciples fed everyone was a reminder of God’s hospitality.
Jesus’ teachings also include stories about hospitality. One of the most significant of these stories was the Good Samaritan story. If you recall the story it concerns a Jewish man who has been beaten and robbed on a road going from Jerusalem to Jericho. Hospitality would dictate that anyone coming across this poor man would stop and help him. However, in Jesus’ story, a Jewish priest and Levite pass him by and ignore the hospitality directive.
Ultimately the one who shows Godly hospitality is a Samaritan (an enemy of the Jews) who binds the man’s wounds and provides for his lodging. The Samaritan understands that God requires hospitality for everyone including strangers and enemies. A second significant teaching on hospitality occurs in Matthew 25 where we hear Jesus telling his followers that they are responsible for taking care of “the least of these.” The story is focused on feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, giving water to the thirsty, opening our homes to the homeless and visiting those in prison. All of these are acts of hospitality.
Finally we catch glimpses of hospitality in the life of the early church through the stories in the Book of the Acts of the Apostles and in Paul’s letters. In Acts 6 we watch the struggle over hospitality as the church tries to figure out how to care for Greek speaking widows in Jerusalem. They were strangers and thus had been left out of the food distribution. The Apostles take care of this and assure that the widows’ needs are taken care of. In Romans 12 Paul specifically encourages the church to practice hospitality. In I Corinthians 11 he chastises the church because at their love feast (sort of an early communion service) some people were eating and drinking at the same time others were going hungry (a violation of hospitality in which all is shared). The Apostle Peter (I Peter 4:9) reminds his readers to practice hospitality “ungrudgingly”.
In the final analysis hospitality was one of the hallmarks of the early church. It is what set it apart from much of the urban Roman culture in which it was being formed. People were drawn to a community that cared for and about the stranger.
hospitality in the present
Considering that hospitality was essential in both the Old and New Testaments, It would seem fitting then that we as 21st century Christians exercise this spiritual discipline as well. However the question becomes what does hospitality look like in America in 2013? I ask that because chances are most of us would be a bit averse to inviting any and every stranger into our homes in order to feed and clothe them. While this might work on occasion, I have heard too many stories of this kind of hospitality ending up costing people their property and their lives. So what then ought hospitality to look like?
Hospitality ought to look like a loving attitude toward “the other.” I define “the other” as those people who are different from us in any way. Unfortunately we live in a place and time where the media (radio, television, internet and print) and politicians attempt to make us fearful of “the other.” We are to build up security barriers all around us so that regardless of where we are we can be alert and not allow “the other” to harm us. This fear is described in a recent Huffington Post (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/henry-g-brinton/breaking-down-barriers-through-christian-hospitality_b_1968381.html) article where a cab driver (originally from Ghana) decided to attend a local Baptist church in Maryland where he had dropped off a fare. The members called the police and accused him of being a trespasser…even after he told them he was a “Baptist from Ghana.” Christian hospitality is to demonstrate the exact opposite attitude. It is to be one which sees the other as a child of God regardless of race, religion, language, ability or any other worldly condition.
Hospitality ought to look like intentionally welcoming “the other.” In the same article, the author describes attending a church in Washington D.C. which was renowned for its welcoming spirit toward the homeless. Regardless of this reputation however, when the author visited the church not a single person spoke with him during the coffee hour after the service.
Our world has been described as one in which we have come to expect more from our technology and less from each other. (Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other, Sherry Turkle, 2012 Basic Books) This growing technological divide combined with our innate Western sense of personal space leads many of us to feel uncomfortable welcoming those whom we do not know, or with whom we do not have some immediate common bond (school, work, hobbies, etc.). Christian hospitality challenges us to move out of these comfort zones in order to intentionally greet and make to feel welcome those with whom we come into contact. While we ought to insure that we practice this kind of hospitality within our church walls, the critical test of hospitality is how we practice this in our schools, work places and neighborhoods.
Hospitality ought to look like making a place for “the other.” As noted above, hospitality begins with how we see others and then continues with how we welcome them. The final part of hospitality involves integrating people into the community. This means being intentional about discovering and implementing ways to insure that “the other” becomes “us.” At Everybody’s Church we do this through coffee hour (insuring people are introduced to others); through our AAIM ministry (Rejoicing Spirits worship and other inclusion activities); through our hosting SOS during which we get to know our guests and invite them to be part of our community; through Bible studies, Dinners for 8, small groups and other fellowship and service opportunities. Though the description of hospitality I offer does not exactly mirror that of the scriptures (for example by not taking strangers into our homes), I still believe it offers us a faithful vision of Christian hospitality in our day and time