During the season of Lent our church is studying some chapters from Lauren Winner's book Mudhouse Sabbath. The sermons during this time will also follow through on some of her writing, but the sermon author claims all mistakes and goofy ideas as his own.
Although our churches talk about hospitality and modern Christians often make sincere efforts to practice it, our vision of that idea is different from the vision that Biblical writers most likely would have had.
When we talk about offering hospitality to folks, we usually focus on people who've come through our doors. We want to make sure they can find what they need and that they're greeted when they walk in. We want to be able to direct them to the coffee pot if it's been a chilly morning, make sure it's easy to find the nursery if they've got younguns -- and make sure they know where the bathrooms are, younguns or no -- and so on. But that's a focus on guests we already have. The culture of the ancient Near East looked at hospitality a little differently, and many places in that region still carry some of those hospitality traditions today.
The Hebrews passage refers to a time when Abraham saw three strangers passing by his tent and invited them in for a meal and to stay the night. The strangers were a manifestation of God -- or maybe messengers from God -- and they gave Abraham (then Abram) and his wife Sarai a prediction that they would have a son, even though they were very old. When they entertained the three travelers, they turned out to be entertaining angels, or maybe even God. Today, we look at this passage and maybe take from it that we should be kind and welcoming to the visitors in our midst. That's in no way a bad thing.
But it overlooks a difference between our culture and the culture that shaped Abram and the writer of Hebrews. We might think that Abram was pretty nice to offer a meal and a place to stay to people he just happened to see wander by. In his culture, though, someone who didn't offer at least that much to a passing stranger would have been thought of as strictly no-class, the kind of person decent people didn't associate with. If Abram had let the travelers go on by and someone would have heard about it, people would have avoided his company and some might even have refused to do business with him, neither buying anything he might want to sell or selling him anything he might want to buy. Decent people wouldn't even think such a thing!
Some of that may stem from the realities of life as tribal wanderers in a desert or near-desert region. If you were camped out for a longer stay at an oasis, you were at one of the few places where there was water. Individuals or small groups that couldn't carry as much water with them might have been counting on watering up at the oasis where you were and if you turned them away, they might not even make it to the next water source. If you were camped out for the night between water sources and you turned someone away, they might be set on by bandits or wild animals. Either way, you would be responsible for harm they suffered, all because you turned them away from your doorstep. Actually, your tentflap, but you get the idea. Thus, hospitality became not just an issue of good hosting, but of morality -- morally good people didn't turn strangers away.
My Old Testament professor talked about being invited to a house once when he was a student on an archaeological dig in Israel. One of the young boys who hung around the dig, running errands every now and again for the strange Americans who dug holes very very slowly, decided to invite my professor back to his family's home for dinner.
Now, you might imagine the average mom and dad being a little flustered to learn that Junior has invited some stranger back to the house to eat. And you might figure that, were you the person invited, you would have no problem telling mom and dad, "Look, it's no problem if you weren't expecting guests; I'll just be on my way." Not in the Middle East. Mt professor said he was invited in, given the best seat at the table, and told if he liked he could spend the night there and the mom would pack him a lunch the next day. In fact, if he liked he could stay with the family during his whole time on the dig.
When he returned to that village just about 20 years later, he made a point of stopping by the family's house -- not because he was looking for a meal or just wanted to say hi or see if they were still there. But because if he had not, it would have been rude. In fact, if the family learned he had been nearby but had not stopped to see them, so they could invite him to stay for a meal and again, to stay with them as long as he wanted, they would have been insulted, no less than if a family member had done so.
All because their small son had once invited an odd Canadian grad student home for dinner.
That's the kind of thinking behind the hospitality that Jesus offers you and me. We might figure that, since hospitality to a stranger places such immense obligations on the host that hosts would be very very careful about who they invited in. And yet we find that the high cost of hospitality doesn't ease the obligation to welcome the stranger at all! The host can't fall back on, "Well, he looked a little seedy, so I let him keep walking." We don't have to think too hard to see ourselves as wanderers in a deadly land, offered a place to stay and food to eat by Christ as our host. Especially when we realize that Christ doesn't pay any more attention to our "guestworthiness" than a host would have to a stranger's guestworthiness.
We live in a different culture and we probably can't fully adopt the ancient view of hospitality. But we probably could make ours more robust. Saying "Hello" to a visitors and learning their names is good. Saying, "Got someone to sit with during service" is better. Saying, "We're going out for lunch after church. Do you have plans? Our treat!" is even better.
Of course we should be properly careful; this is something only groups or families should do and not solo folks, for example. But I know many if not most of us might balk at doing something like this, although when I run down my list of reasons I'm none too proud of them. The new people might be boring or weird and make lunch awkward? Yeah, that's a reason I want to stand up to defend at the last judgement.
The bottom line with hospitality for me, as a Christian, is that it's a response to Jesus's hospitality to me. When I think of it that way, I can be inspired to make my hospitality try to measure up to his -- of course it never could and never will, but the trying itself can make for growth.
And if that's so, then those I welcomed have indeed become angels to me, ministering to my spirit and heart to stir me to be more like Christ. Which as I understand it is one of those things we Christians are supposed to shoot for.