I’d rather run with the bulls in Pamplona than host a dinner party. Cooking for groups totally flusters me – an otherwise capable, confident woman – because it means I have to manage prepping and cooking multiple dishes on different surfaces at different heats for varying lengths of time. The goal of this madness is to get each dish to the table at the same time, hot and at optimal consistency. You might as well ask me to conduct the New York Philharmonic or control the air-traffic at Chicago O’Hare. I may have a Master’s Degree in Divinity but my superpowers melt in the kitchen.
My friend Sheri is the ultimate hostess. Seriously, get this woman a cape. Sheri thrives on large dinner parties. An invitation to the Cross house is like a golden ticket to food paradise: bowls of snappy mixed nuts on every side table, trays of crisp veggies with tangy dip, a selection of fine crackers with your choice of gourmet spreads that are an explosion of flavor in your mouth, the sumptuous smell of slow-roasting meat. It doesn’t matter if the house is bustling with ten or more people; Sheri has a way of making each person feel like the guest of honor.
Sheri especially loves having women over for tea. She makes those delicate tea sandwiches the likes of which you’ve only seen in ritzy hotels or in the well-manicured hands of women wearing derby hats. Even if you are the only guest, she’ll put out a three-tiered tray and fill it with a buffet of sweet and savory goodness. She has at least twenty kinds of tea to choose from – delicate white teas from Asia, robust black teas from England, spicy teas from India, tangy teas from South America. Sheri has fine teas for the connoisseur and supermarket teas for the novice but she never judges an unrefined palate. When you have tea with Sheri you feel like a queen, even when you’re wearing jeans and running shoes.
I’ve heard mutual friends say that Sheri has the gift of hospitality. I agree, but I don’t think her ability to set a beautiful table or serve a delicious meal is proof of this gift. In fact, I think we completely miss the richness of the gift of hospitality when we equate it with the ability to dress a table or a salad.
I spent last Saturday morning teaching a group of women. I asked them to call out the first image or word that comes to mind when they hear hospitality. This is what they said:
family, friends, food, the dining table, holidays, cleaning, my mother, the good china, making up the guest bed, tablecloths, casseroles, wine, cooking, perfect presentation, washing dishes, a lot of work.
I think this is what most North Americans, and most Christians, believe hospitality to be. But if hospitality is about elaborate dinner parties with bountiful food and sophisticated presentation, then is it only the privilege of the first world and an offering of the rich? Is hospitality more the domain of women than men, and specifically women who enjoy cooking and who care about matching stemware? If so, then why did Jesus praise Mary over Martha when Mary was the one neglecting the table?
I’ve been suspicious of this brand of hospitality for years. I have a deeply rooted conviction that there is more to hospitality than tea cups and tablecloths. So I followed an inner hunch and did a scriptural survey of hospitality, looking for its meaning, context and expression among the people of God.
In the New Testament, the concept of hospitality centers on the word philozenia. Philo means friend, friendly, or companion. Zenos means foreigner or stranger. So when Luke, Paul and Peter write about hospitality, it’s grounded in the idea of befriending someone new, someone different from you. Paul ups the ante on hospitality, making it critical to the life of the church. He writes that overseers and elders are to be “blameless” and “above reproach” and then lists several indicators of these. Hospitality makes both lists along with things like fidelity in marriage, self-control and gentleness (1 Tim 3:1-3; Titus 1:6-9). In these passages, hospitality takes shape as an outward expression of inner holiness.
In several other passages, the instruction to practice hospitality comes seconds after these phrases: “be devoted to one another in love. Honor one another above yourselves” (Romans 12:10-13), “love each other deeply” (1 Peter 4:8-9), and “love one another as brothers and sisters” (Hebrews 13:1-2). To me, the call to love strangers like siblings eclipses any brand of hospitality focused solely on feeding and entertaining friends!
The early church’s call to hospitality flows easily out of the heart of Jesus and reflects his instruction to love our neighbors as we love ourselves. We see him practice hospitality countless times, but in my opinion no example could be greater than when he spoke with a Samaritan woman at a well in the midday sun. Without condemnation for her public sin, Jesus shows her not only his compassion, but her offers her the living water of eternal life. While it might be as surprising to us as it was to his disciples, Jesus’ hospitality was nothing new. He simply embodied and enacted the hospitality that God commanded of the people of Israel in the time of Moses.
Israel had very explicit instructions about how they were to treat strangers and foreigners living among them. God told Israel that they must not mistreat or oppress the foreigners because the Israelites were once foreigners and slaves in Egypt. This bit of historical empathy was to motivate Israel to treat foreigners justly. Israel was also to be generous; gleanings from the fields and grapevines were purposefully left to feed the foreigners. Both Israel and the foreigners were subject to, and protected by, the same law. They had access to the altar of God and were even given an inheritance of the land! And just when we think hospitality can’t get any more radical, God says something completely wild and wonderful:
The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the LORD your God. (Leviticus 19:34)
When we get our definition of hospitality from the whole of scripture, we see anew that it’s about making a stranger a friend. But it’s an expression of friendship so radical that it initiates a foreigner into your tribe. Through hospitality, the “chosen” people and the outsiders become one people, equal in God’s law and God’s love.
Biblical hospitality is a outworking of inner holiness. Every time we show hospitality to a stranger we grow more and more like our God who made space in the Kingdom of Heaven not just for Jews, but for Gentiles, Samaritans, women, children, lepers, prostitutes, adulterers, and sinners of every kind like you and me. If you think that you don’t have what it takes to be hospitable, remember that God has made a place for you in his kingdom. Do you deserve this? No! But by the grace, mercy and love of God, you are welcome.
How can you extend this welcome to others?
Hospitality is rooted in empathy. We may not know what it feels like to be slaves in Egypt, but some of us daily feel the repercussions of slavery in the American south. Others of us are immigrants or the children of immigrants and our sense of identity is shaped and reshaped by the diverse cultures we embody. Maybe it’s not race or ethnicity that makes you feel like a foreigner or outsider. Maybe it’s a disability, something about your physical appearance, an event in your life, or a way in which you live counter-culturally. All of us, at some point and in some way, have felt like an outsider or a stranger. Reconnect with those feelings for a minute – those turbulent emotions can help us cultivate empathy for the foreigners among us. As our empathy expands, so should our compassion. Hospitality is empathy and compassion put into action.
I said earlier that my friend Sheri has the gift of hospitality. Sheri is a great example of hospitality not because of how she sets her table, but because of who she invites to her table and how she treats them. It seems like every new person that enters her church ends up at Sheri’s table. And as she honors them with a beautiful tea service or an overflowing buffet, her first question is usually, “So Jane, what’s your story?” Sheri’s real gift is in making space in her world and her heart for someone else’s story.
She invites more than friends or people she likes and understands to her table. Sheri – a former nanny, a pastor’s wife, a mother of two grown children, a doting grandma, a domestic diva with a drawer full of floral aprons and tea cozies – has broken bread and swapped life stories with bikers in studded leather, heavy metal drummers, tatted sailors, undocumented immigrants, former felons, addicts and many more. Even though it’s impressive, it’s not her food or table settings that make Sheri’s guests feel like they are at home with family, it’s her spiritual posture of welcome.
This is God’s brand of hospitality. It starts with empathy for outsiders and compassion for those unlike us. It asks us to share physical provisions with them, but that is only the first course of action. The ultimate goal is not to meet someone’s physical needs, but to meet their spiritual needs. The human soul craves to be known, to connect, to belong — to others and to God. Biblical hospitality shows us how to love strangers so well that they become not just friends, but siblings, members of the same tribe. If you think about it long enough, you realize that this hospitality is excellent soil for the gospel. What a better way to gently open a soul to the good news of Jesus than through a sincere and generous welcome and the offer of true friendship?
Hospitality is a spiritual gift. It’s a gift of love that all of God’s redeemed children have the capacity to give the world. With God’s help, we will.
As you come to him, the living Stone – rejected by humans but chosen by God and precious to him – you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.
Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God;
once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.
(1 Peter 2:4-5, 9-10)