By E.S. Kempson
Hospitality is not what it used to be. Because of COVID the hospitality industry has suffered, meeting friends or family is discouraged or forbidden, and even corporate prayer and worship have been curtailed. It’s difficult to find anyone who doesn’t long for the joy of hospitality. This longing – for a good time in the company of familiar people whom you enjoy, sharing together in food, drink, or entertainment – is a natural and healthy human desire. But the hospitality to which Christians are called is something more.
Nostalgic COVID-tide longing runs the risk of forgetting hospitality’s shadow side. For instance, when the hospitality industry calls people ‘guests’ instead of ‘customers,’ this obscures the common practice of only treating people who can pay as worthy of a welcome. The mutual appreciation of social circles, families, and some institutions often slides into denigrating those outside the group; when exclusivity itself is valued, others must be left out and put down. Hosts, from governments to next-door neighbors, can use ‘hospitality’ as a means to display their own power or prestige, at worst turning welcome into intimidation or belittlement. The characteristics of Christ-like hospitality work against these challenges.
When one looks at the table-fellowship of Jesus’ earthly ministry, at least three traits stand out. First, as an array of biblical passages indicate, Christ-like hospitality involves not only those who are dear to us, but also the stranger (Luke 14:12-14; Matt. 25:34-40; Tit. 1:8; 1 Pet. 4:9; Rom. 12:13). Even the Greek word often translated as hospitality (philoxenia) breaks down linguistically into “love of stranger.”
This idea is deeply rooted in the Old Testament. As the late Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks pointed out, the Hebrew Bible commands “you shall love your neighbor as yourself” once, but thirty-six times it says to love the stranger. The idea of hospitality for the stranger includes embracing the marginalized, welcoming the oppressed, and receiving foreigners — ideas many Christians are comfortable with but find more challenging in practice. Furthermore, the stranger, for Jesus, includes the estranged and sinners, not just the wrongfully marginalized but those who have truly done wrong. Everyone, exactly the people you would not want to spend Thanksgiving dinner with, is welcome.
Second, Jesus is not always the host. Yes, he calls people to eat with him, he feeds them by the thousands. And yet, Jesus also accepts invitations to be a guest at other people’s tables. He washes his disciples’ feet, which a host would never do. He teaches his followers to see him in the guest, the one who is in need. When Christ is both host and guest, it shows that hospitality is not a one-way gift from the host-who-has to the guest-who-doesn’t. There is a mutuality in the encounter, both needing and having something to offer the other, and there is no permanent distinction between guests and hosts.
Third, these gatherings are not (as it is all too easy for hospitality to be) simply a rectification or reinforcement of the status quo. Normal meals are part of an ongoing cycle: fill the hungry with good food and camaraderie so they can go back out and later return to be filled again. But in Christ’s encounters, the status quo has been radically changed. Those who were strangers or estranged from each other are reconciled when they break bread together with Jesus. By partaking, the sinners are turning over a new leaf, as one does in baptism, taking part in a new life. As Jesus says, he came to heal the sick; the sick are welcome and then they are transformed. The late theologian Wolfhart Pannenberg is right to point out that Christ’s meals are not just community gatherings: in them the kingdom of heaven comes near and breaks in upon those present. The bread of life ensures you will never go hungry. The opposite of being left wanting is being filled without the possibility of going hungry again.
If one compressed the heart of Christ-like hospitality into an invitation, it would say: come as you are, receive and give life, and be transformed. And what an incredible joy this is! Greater than going out to a restaurant with friends or being treated to a king’s feast. The Christ-like hospitality Christians are called to offer should have the same character: inviting people, especially the stranger, as they are, acting to receive and give life, and looking for transformation to occur.
There are, of course, challenges. Even Jesus faced them. We may lack the means or health to host the way we would like to. The stranger may be so different that we are not sure how to be genuinely hospitable. The sinner may be so atrocious that we do not know how to engage without becoming complicit. Invitations may go unanswered. When these challenges arise, one can easily be at a loss. When I lived in a Christian community dedicated to offering hospitality, I often found, when at a loss, that the answer was to return to God in Christ. (The story of this community is told in A Kind of Upside-Downness: Learning Disabilities and Transformational Community, ed. David Ford.)
This was because Jesus is not only a model for giving and receiving hospitality; he is also the source of the Christ-like love that animates a true welcome. One must spend time as God’s guest and receive divine hospitality in order to offer Christ-like hospitality. When we, as Christians, find ourselves loved as we are, and received into the household of God, and transformed by this encounter, it instils a love in us that enables us to show Christ-like love to others. This, I have little doubt, is what Jesus wished to convey to Martha when Mary sat at his feet while Martha was consumed with the responsibilities of hospitality. Jesus was calling Martha, and so giving her the necessary justification, to leave her hostess-tasks and to be his guest, receiving his infinite wisdom, forgiveness, and love.
Dr. E.S. Kempson is lecturer and tutor in theology at St. Mellitus College, London and a member of the executive committee of the Society for the Study of Theology.