What is hospitality? Every culture has its own forms of hospitality. We often take pride in how well our people offer hospitality. As a Texan I do take pride in our sometimes-overbearing Southern hospitality, which does not go over too well in many other parts of the country.
Hospitality has a professional side. Hospitality is offered to us when we are in the role of consumer. When we pay for hospitality, we expect excellent service. We paid for it, and are thus entitled to it. In the hospitality business one side is purely on the receiving end.
Then there’s ordinary hospitality, the kind you offer when your friend comes over and you share a meal together. Ordinary hospitality stays within the same social strata and is comfortable. You receive your guests’ company, but you are mostly in the role of the giver as you serve and provide for others.
How can we move from commonplace forms of hospitality to a form of hospitality that has the power to transform lives and communities, a hospitality that is mutual and transcendent, a radical hospitality found deeply rooted in our Christian faith? Especially when that entails caring for the least of these?
The word “hospitality” comes from the Latin root hospes, meaning guest or stranger. It’s interesting to note that hospes can also mean host, which is kind of a paradox. After all, don’t guest and host have opposite meanings?
The Greek word for hospitality in the New Testament is philoxenia, meaning “love of strangers.” Ancient Jewish law included hospitality toward the “strangers,” or resident foreigners, living among the Jews. Hospitality was not simply a virtue, it was a legal obligation and social obligation.
There were laws affirming this: Leviticus 19: 33-34 says, “When a foreigner resides among you in your land, do not mistreat them. The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the Lord your God” (NIV).
Other examples included:
- Harvest workers were to leave grain so that the poor and the stranger could glean from the fields (Ruth 2:7).
- Sabbath rest was extended to Jews and stranger alike (Ex. 23:12).
- The Jews were to designate part of their tithe for the poor and the strangers (Deut. 14:28).
These laws distinguished the Jewish people from their neighbors. Today, how are Christians distinguished from others in the way we extend hospitality?
Christians should welcome others because hospitality in this life is tied to God’s invitation to the Kingdom. Practicing hospitality is exercising our faith because hospitality to others is an outworking of the grace we receive. It is embracing our identity as the covenantal people of a generous, loving God as we obey biblical commands to show hospitality without grumbling (1 Pet. 4:9), contribute to the needs of the saints (Rom. 12:13), and take care of widows and orphans (Ja. 1:27).
As people of God we have always lived by God’s invitation—He is the divine host and we are His guests. This reminds us that we are all utterly dependent upon God’s generous, gracious hospitality. At the same time that we are God’s guests, we also fulfill the role of hosts as His ambassadors by reflecting God’s hospitality back to others. And this is how hostes can mean both guest and host. There is mutuality in biblical hospitality. We are constantly giving and receiving. By recognizing ourselves as both perpetual and simultaneous guests and hosts, we recognize our position before God as constant receivers of his grace. We recognize the fundamental equality of humanity. We also recognize that everything we have comes from God, and is not of our own deserving or virtue.
Besides this theological reality of being “hosts-yet-guests,” we also have a social reality: globalization has created forces of migration and thus strangers in our midst have increased. When we merge these two realities, we are confronted with how well we welcome immigrants and refugees. The Bible says, “[God] executes justice for the fatherless and the widow, and loves the sojourner, giving him food and clothing. Love the sojourner, therefore, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt” (Deut. 10:18-19).
What are you doing to love the sojourner or stranger? Challenge yourself to put your faith into action one time this month, and find a way to extend hospitality to a stranger.