“If there is any concept worth restoring to its original depth and evocative potential, it is the concept of hospitality. It is one of the richest biblical terms that can deepen and broaden our insight in our relationships to our fellow human beings.” Henri Nouwen, Reaching Out
The biblical idea of hospitality overlaps only partly with the ideas of hospitality in our culture.
As the Israelites inherited cultural ideas of hospitality in their time that were altered by their knowledge of God, so too should our ideas of hospitality be transformed by our lives as followers of Christ. Our modern Western notion of hospitality is typically centered on close family and friends sharing a fun meal with all the best food and trendiest table settings—and that is a good thing. But God calls us to something radically deeper, more holistic and more inclusive.
Contrary to cultural norms then and now, Jesus calls his followers to welcome others who cannot offer anything in return. Think about it: don’t we often invite people into our homes or lives, not just whose company we enjoy, but who have something we want or can help us make a connection we need?
Jesus calls us to invite those who have nothing to contribute to the meal, or to our own security and identity as hosts. Hospitality is a symbol of the divine welcome of Christ and is an expression of his embrace and the generous, loving community of the Trinity. As Paul writes in Romans 15:7, “Welcome one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God.”
In other words, hospitality is a rich, beautiful representation of the gospel.
Motivated by Christ’s kindness and love, the practice of hospitality opens us up to see others not as means to our own ends, or as people to judge and compare ourselves to, but as those created in the image of God who depend on God and on each other. As we welcome others, especially strangers, as people God has brought into our lives to share life with, reconciliation can begin and community flourishes.
Practically speaking, we can start small by inviting a co-worker or neighbor we don’t know, or someone of another generation or life stage. If that already sounds easy, invite someone of a different race or socioeconomic status. When we start where we are God will broaden our horizons moving us to welcome even our enemies. Without this fullness of life in community with others, the church cannot bear witness to the reality the kingdom of God that stands in contrast to our culture.
As I’ve reflected on the nature of hospitality and tried to begin practicing it, there are three things I’ve been learning.
- It’s uncomfortable. If I’m honest I’d rather just invite my friends over. That’s easy, that’s comfortable, and I know that in most cases I’m going to have fun. In contrast, inviting people who aren’t like me can be awkward. Opening my life to them beyond a meal is even harder. But we’re called to it and can be sure God is with us as we do it.
- It’s a practice. Though we often speak of the gift of hospitality, Christian hospitality requires practice and intentionality. It doesn’t necessarily come naturally and we must go out of our way to go against the flow of culture and reach out to others in a more inclusive way. As with other spiritual practices, when we do them we make space for the Spirit to work and move. Plus, it starts to get easier and less awkward as it becomes a way of life.
- It’s a gift. Scripture also paints a picture of the blessing God bestows on those who welcome others. For example, when Abraham welcomed three strangers they revealed themselves as the Lord and announced that Sarah would give birth to a son, and when the travelers on the road to Emmaus invited the stranger to join them Jesus revealed himself to them over the breaking of bread. It’s not all about our action as hosts; God uses those we welcome to speak life and bring gifts, as well.