Morality Ch. 25: Disappearance of Hospitality

Roman houses were designed as much for guests as for residents, and Jews regarded hospitality as a moral necessity. Early Christians encouraged each other to excel in this. And now we barely invite anyone in for coffee – has something gone wrong?

If I were asked what “Britishness” is, I’d suggest it used to be “being fair” and now it is “being tolerant.” In similarly simplistic ways, we might characterize Germans as “being industrious,” the French as “living to the full,” and the Italians as “looking good.” In New Testament times, the Romans borrowed culture from the Greeks, for whom the most admirable quality was “being hospitable.” Homer’s epic poems the Iliad and the Odyssey (from the eighth century BC) include lots of stories where hospitality is rewarded, and bad things happen if it isn’t offered or is misused. Even the war with Troy starts when hospitality goes wrong, because Paris goes off with Helen – his host’s wife.

Roman homes were designed for hospitality, though from the outside they looked rather inhospitable. Very few windows looked outward, and the entrance had a porter to turn away undesirables. But once inside, you found a spacious lobby opening to a courtyard with doors and windows to all the surrounding rooms. They had fountains and plants to cool the air, and lots of seating because this was the most comfortable area before air conditioning. A rich person would have audience rooms and dining rooms for various types of visitors and occasions. If you weren’t rich, the surrounding rooms would be filled with your extended family, who all lived and ate together in the evening, and it was normal to invite visitors.

This Greek and Roman emphasis on hospitality was something that Jews could agree with. They placed the same value on hospitality to strangers that many nomadic Arab tribes still honor – they welcome a traveler without hesitation.

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Entertaining angels

In the area of hospitality, Abraham is the role model for both Jews and Arabs. When he sees three strangers some distance from his tent, he runs to greet them (despite it being very hot) and persuades them to eat with him. He organizes bread, cheese, and milk while they wait for the lamb to roast. He doesn’t talk with them about their business until after they’ve eaten – which was a rule in Greek culture too.1 In Hebrews 13:2 we read the moral of this story: “Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it.” Two of those three strangers turned out to be the two angels, who continued on to visit Lot, and the third appears to have been God in some physical manifestation, because Abraham “remained standing before the LORD” (Gen 18:22).

The first sign that something is terribly wrong in Sodom is the way they treat strangers. No one offers these angels hospitality except Abraham’s nephew Lot. The story of this rejection would have reminded non-Jews about the ancient story of the Greek gods Zeus and Hermes in which they were refused hospitality by everyone except one poor couple. They were rewarded while all their neighbors were killed. This story was in the consciousness of many people even in Paul’s day, because he and Barnabas were mistaken for these two gods when they healed someone (Acts 14:8-13).

Some stories in the Gospels make more sense when we realize the importance of hospitality. Getting your neighbor out of bed to lend you food for a midnight supper seems ludicrous – unless you have found someone who needs hospitality (see Luke 11:5-8). And the revealing of Jesus’ identity to the pair going to Emmaus occurs after they invite him in for a meal – perhaps because a stranger wasn’t required to state their name or business until you had given them food. Jesus is able to assume that his disciples will receive hospitality when he sends them to preach, and he even warns them not to take up a second offer if it is better than the first: “Stay there. … Do not move around from house to house” (Luke 10:7). No, he isn’t forbidding door-to-door evangelism!

In contrast, no one gives up their room for Jesus’ heavily pregnant mother. That’s like refusing to give up your bus seat to an old woman struggling to remain standing. And when he becomes an itinerant preacher, Jesus is often refused hospitality. Samaritans refuse because he also wants to speak to Jews, and so many Jews refuse him hospitality that he concludes, “Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head” (Luke 9:58).

Hospitality was especially important for Jews and Christians in the Roman-dominated world of the New Testament. Jewish dietary rules made staying in an inn very difficult. Christians sometimes had to stay with fellow Christians secretly because of persecution by Jews or by Romans. This wasn’t problematic most of the time, but the emperors Caligula, Nero, and Hadrian were particularly paranoid, and even Jews could be considered dangerous sometimes. In Lystra, where Paul is mistaken for Zeus, he is talking to the crowds who want to offer sacrifices to him when some Jews arrive from nearby Antioch and persuade the crowd to stone him instead (Acts 14:18-20). They almost kill him and yet, after preaching elsewhere for a while, he returns to encourage the believers in Lystra. Whoever gave him hospitality on that occasion was being as brave as Paul himself!

Peter, who wrote to a community suffering persecution, has to remind his flock to “offer hospitality to one another without grumbling” (1 Pet 4:9). The word for “hospitality” is philoxenos – that is, love of the stranger. It is opposite to “xenophobia,” meaning “fear of the stranger,” which we know all too much about today.

Stuff as a hindrance to hospitality

The Bible only presents hospitality as an actual command with regard to fellow believers, but both the Old and New Testaments assume that hospitality will be shown to strangers too. This Bible teaching reflects the culture, which may imply that hospitality is not a timeless aspect of morality. However, this moral imperative remains the same throughout the Bible, which tends to imply that it is timeless. So we have one factor that implies that this is a timeless teaching and one factor implies it may not be, because it aligns with the culture of the time. In this situation, we could only show that the teaching has changed if the culture has also changed. If our culture is very significantly different from that of Bible times, we have to conclude that God still requires his people to show hospitality to strangers.

One such difference in our culture does exist, and it is a very real and practical hindrance to our practice of hospitality. It isn’t that we don’t have enough food, or we don’t have a spare couch. It is that we own too many precious things and fear that they will be misused or stolen. It is a sad fact that those who have the least are the most likely to be hospitable. When a homeless person looks for a bed or a couch, they are much more likely to find hospitality in a one-bedroom flat than in a four-bedroom house.

So many of today’s displaced immigrants are Christians, though there are also other religious groups fleeing hatred that has been stirred up in their home cultures. Jesus doesn’t call us just to love ourselves but to love our potential enemies and explains: “If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that?” (Matt 5:46-47). That last sentence cuts into my heart as a reserved British person. I might “love” a stranger, but surely that doesn’t mean I have to be friendly to them! Jesus disagrees. If our love doesn’t even extend to a friendly greeting, what kind of love is that?

Many in our grandparents’ generation didn’t lock their doors, and they knew their neighbors well enough to offer help when needed, as friends. In contrast, our generation complains that the government doesn’t arrange enough help for elderly people who live alone – perhaps on our street. Our lonely neighbors usually only need coffee and a chat, and perhaps some shopping – which is much easier than the hospitality (that is, food and lodging) that the Bible expects us to give to complete strangers.

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This was previously published in a similar form in Christianity magazine

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