On the HGTV show House Hunters, as prospective home-buyers tour various flawed homes and try to determine which might best suit their needs, a phrase pops up over and over again throughout the search: “We want to make sure we have room to entertain our friends and family!”
My husband and I can only laugh. The people we’re closest to are several hours away by car, and we can’t simply ring them up and ask them over to dinner. In our small apartment, we don’t have a dedicated dining room where I can set out the fine china. I like cooking meals for people and have volunteered to do so on multiple occasions, but, as an introvert, I get drained and exhausted even thinking of planning a dinner party or social gathering. We meet our friends outside the house, at dinners, or over coffee, or at movies.
Because of this, I assumed I was not particularly adept at hospitality. And that has always bothered me a little, because hospitality is a Biblical virtue. But over time I’ve discovered that my definition of hospitality is somewhat flawed. I always assumed hospitality meant something like “entertaining” or “creating a welcoming environment for people.” That it manifested in things like dinners and get-togethers and required me literally opening the door to my home.
Hospitality can involve all of those things. But there’s also more to it. The Greek word translated in the Bible as “hospitality” is φιλόξενος (philoxenos). The first part of the word, φίλος (philo), many Christians will recognize as meaning “love”: the dear and intimate sort of affection you’d share with a friend. The second word, ξένος (xenos), means…well, it can mean a lot of things. It can mean “guest.” It can also mean “alien,” “stranger,” or “foreigner.” And given Christ’s injunction to love our enemies (Matt. 5:44), I think it’s entirely acceptable to embrace all the multiple meanings of the word. Hospitality, then, means something like “loving strangers” or “loving guests” or “loving aliens” or “loving foreigners.”
In ancient Israel, this did translate to food and shelter. Weary travelers had to go long distances, and absent the comforts of a local hotel or B&B, they depended necessarily on the kindness of strangers. This was a sacred act in the Bible. The Old Testament is replete with examples of hosts receiving travelers and treating them kindly, and Christ Himself implored His disciples to do likewise. In some ways, the church keeps this tradition today by offering meals and get-togethers where anyone can come and attend.
Outside the church, though, we have to handle hospitality on our own. Believers still open their hearts and homes to people, but more likely than not we already know those people, and like them. We entertain, but entertaining doesn’t always mean we’re “loving strangers.” Most of us won’t come into direct contact with weary travelers crossing the land and looking for a place to stay. What does hospitality look like in the modern age?
I’d argue first that hospitality in the modern age means creating a welcome refuge for “strangers” anywhere you happen to be. Is your office welcoming? Is your little apartment welcoming? Where you are – whether it’s in your car, or walking down the street, or in the store – are you available? Are you available to all (not just those you like or might feel predisposed to help or accept)? Is your metaphorical door open? In the Bible, visitors of all cultures, races, and creeds call at all sorts of odd hours, and not wanting to open the door really isn’t an excuse. Being open to people and available to them, being ready to answer the figurative door whenever you hear the knock and to invite someone in, composes a large part of hospitality.
I’d also argue that hospitality in the modern age means meeting needs by sharing resources. In ancient days, this meant that hosts offered food and shelter to travelers who otherwise would be in a bad spot without it. We can certainly do that in the here and now, of course. But there are many other needs besides food and shelter. And many of us have many other resources that extend beyond the material. I don’t have a dining room, but I’ve got writing and language skills, financial stability, and an ear to listen. How can I use that surplus to meet the needs of strangers? And what do you have that you can share?
Finally, I’d point out that hospitality in the modern age isn’t about the people we know. It’s about the people we don’t. You are the last port of call for strangers. For foreigners. For guests. Even, yes, for your enemies. Christ pointed out that we are to be “the light of the world,” a “town on a hill.” When travelers wander alone, aren’t they attracted to the light – to the place where it’s evident that people might be? Hasn’t our civilization in some way or another always been drawn to towns, to villages, to the promise of help and safety in community? Being so prominently placed comes with a duty and a privilege attached: we’re granted light, but that light is meant to attract others.
When people come, our door – figurative or literal – must be open. We must be able to love freely and without restraint, regardless of person, and to share what we have. That – not just entertaining well-loved guests – is the basis of hospitality.