Christian hospitality

Daily Reading for July 23

For leaders of the ancient church, hospitality was an important practice for transcending the status boundaries of the surrounding culture and for working through issues of recognition and respect. It was crucial to meeting human needs—especially the physical needs of impoverished believers—and it made sense in the economy of God. Generous hosts, though not seeking gain, would find themselves blessed in the hospitality relationship. By offering hospitality to someone in need, one both ministered to Christ and responded to God’s generous hospitality. John Chrysostom pointed out the disproportionate generosity of God that stands behind all of our acts of hospitality. In a homily on the book of Acts, he explained that we receive Jesus into our homes, but he receives us into the kingdom of his Father; in responding to a hungry person, we take away Jesus’ hunger, but he takes away our sins; we see him a stranger and he makes us citizens of heaven; we give him bread, but he gives us an entire kingdom to inherit and possess. . . .

There are many discussions within the tradition concerning to whom aid should be given and how it should be distributed. Faithful Christians struggled with questions about whether it was right to distinguish between “deserving” and “undeserving” poor, and with questions about whether help should be offered indiscriminately or by using certain criteria. These are the same questions with which we struggle. How many of us wonder whether we ought to make sure the person to whom we give a dollar will use it well or, at least, that they will not use it for drugs or alcohol? How many times have we volunteered at a homeless shelter or food pantry and felt a little uncomfortable about asking people to prove their need for a loaf of week-old bread, a brick of government cheese or a cot in an overcrowded gymnasium?

John Chrysostom’s warning to his congregation speaks to us about our rigorous needs tests: that it is the height of stinginess “for one loaf [of bread] to be exact about a man’s entire life.” While insisting on the importance of offering enthusiastic, generous and cheerful hospitality to strangers and to poor persons within the community, he also recognized concerns that imposters might take advantage of indiscriminate generosity. He acknowledged that if one knew they were imposters, it was appropriate not to receive them into one’s house, “But if thou does not know this, why does thou accuse them lightly?” In any case the risk is in the giver’s favor, because “greater are the benefits we receive than what we confer.” . . .

Among the most compelling discussions of hospitality are Chrysostom’s insights about the risk of shaming recipients while providing them with assistance. He repeatedly warned against having a grudging spirit in the exercise of hospitality, describing such an attitude as “cruel and inhuman.” Holding together respect and assistance is difficult—there is, as Philip Hallie has written, “a way of helping people that fills their hands but breaks their hearts.” Chrysostom understood how easy it could be for those with resources to “think themselves superior to the recipients and oftentimes despise them for the attention given them.” The antidote was deeply biblical and theological—remembering the generous welcome we had received in Christ and recognizing that in offering welcome to one in need we were somehow offering welcome to Jesus.

From Christine D. Pohl, “Hospitality: Ancient Resources and Contemporary Challenges,” in Ancient Faith for the Church’s Future, ed. Mark Husbands and Jeffrey P. Greenman (Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP Academic, 2008), 143-155.

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