I am really excited about this series that we are about to embark on, “Divine Hospitality: Feasting with God through the Scriptures.”
Hospitality conjures the image of a lavish feast with people who are close to us, family, especially at holiday meals, or close friends; but the Greek word, xenía, means “stranger-kindness.” No less a god then Zeus himself was the patron of hospitality in Greek mythology. In entertaining a stranger, especially a traveler far from home, one might actually be showing hospitality to one of the gods in disguise. The opposite of xenia, “stranger-kindness,” is xenophobia, “fear of strangers.”
Hospitality wasn’t something you’d show to your “in group,” but precisely something that you’d show to outsiders. Especially in Roman culture, hospitality was a highly-refined legal concept. To be a host, inviting others into one’s family meal, was actually to become their patron, even to speak for them in a court of law. So, it was very discriminating. You didn’t just invite anybody over for dinner. We see the effects of this in Paul’s first epistle to the Corinthians, where even the Lord’s Supper was transformed into a parody, reflecting the socio-economic divisions of Roman society. In the ancient world, especially Middle Eastern cultures, hospitality was extended to strangers. Lacking hotels, restaurants, and electric lights, travelers encountered dangers especially at night.
Many of us can still recall a time, not too long ago, when hospitality wasn’t a big event with a privileged guest list. It was simply having enough on the stove for an extra plate, or checking in on the elderly neighbor a few houses down after she had a fall last week, inviting a new immigrant we met at work to the house, or taking a meal to the family that’s welcomed a new child into the world. A lot of us recall Sunday dinners when you didn’t really know who was going to show up.
Obviously, hospitality centers on our homes but it also extends to our churches. Are our churches welcoming to strangers, even enemies? Or do they make outsiders feel like their crashing the party of those who share the same ethnicity, or socio-economic background, politics, and tastes? Even if non-Christians are excluded from communion, are they welcomed as guests and perhaps even offered an ordinary meal? It’s one thing to extend hospitality to each other in the form of church potlucks, but do we visit prisoners and the elderly, and keep an eye out for refugees, immigrants, and international students? But before we explore hospitality as a command for our lives, here and now, we need to back up and take in the rich vista of God’s hospitality. After all the gospel redefines hospitality as something that God has shown to us, not only as strangers, but as enemies.