When it comes to hospitality, we lack practice

By Deirdre Good

I participated recently in a talk on hospitality at St. Ethelburga’s Centre for Reconciliation and Peace in London. I thank them for their gracious welcome. That talk and the subsequent discussion got me thinking about ways in which we speak about and practice hospitality.

Any discussion about hospitality needs to be hospitable. How is a space welcoming? This particular discussion was conducted in a circle, which for many indicates inclusion. But people may choose to participate from beyond the circle for various reasons and we need to provide for that. We need to focus on the people to whom a welcome is shown, anticipating and facilitating their degrees of involvement in the event.

We can all agree that hospitality is a Christian virtue. But why are we thinking about hospitality at all? Hospitality is central to other religious traditions. Abraham’s offering of food and protection to the three messengers of the Lord in Gen 18 becomes the paradigm for ancient Israelite, Jewish, and early Christian hospitality. In fact, hospitality to strangers is a mandate in most non-Western societies. I’ve been welcomed into the houses of complete strangers in Matere Valley, Nairobi and in the favellas of San Paulo in ways that I would never be welcomed into the apartments of strangers in Manhattan.

Openness to strangers reflects a mindset most of us who are Western don’t intrinsically possess. Is this why our discussions of hospitality can dwindle to stories of our hosting (non-Western) strangers in our homes? But if our discussions and practice of hospitality become questions of whom we welcome into our homes (and for how long under what conditions), then we have lost the dynamic of exchange that hospitality presupposes. Hospitality has become a one-way street. We determine who is invited and who is excluded because it is our home, our castle. Such an interpretation is not about welcoming anyone-it is about control. Welcoming someone has become secondary to an assessment-a judgment by me as host about the kind of stranger that is welcome and the type of welcome that is appropriate. If we reduce hospitality to an arbitration of who is and who is not welcomed by us as hosts into our homes, and under what conditions, is this not a diminution of God’s hospitality to the point of distortion?

I believe this is also true of debates about conditions and circumstances under which people may approach the communion table. If we enter into such debates, we have already decided that there is such a debate about who is welcome and who is not. I myself believe that on this question, the evidence of the gospels is univocal: Jesus practiced open table fellowship with respect to God’s hospitality. It wasn’t his table. He was received as a stranger, welcomed as a guest, and gave hospitality at the tables of strangers or acquaintances. Sometimes he learnt from others about brokering God’s limitless inclusion.

The practice of hospitality is not about being a good host: it is about participating in a continual exchange of the roles of stranger, guest and host. It presupposes a network of relationships-an awareness of interdependence. We can see this best in the story of the two disciples encountering a stranger on the road to Emmaus. That stranger walks and talks along the road with them about recent events in Jerusalem. They offer him hospitality at the end of the day whereupon, invited to stay as a guest, he assumes the position of host and is identified by them as he breaks bread. On the road to Emmaus and in a place that is not his, a homeless, resurrected Jesus moves fluidly between roles of stranger, host and guest. Luke’s Jesus offers Westerners the challenge of receiving and giving hospitality “to go.” In Luke’s gospel, journeys characterize and shape ministry; Jesus journeys to Jerusalem for most of the gospel while in Acts, disciples and apostles travel from Jerusalem to Samaria, to Europe, and eventually to Rome. Hospitality facilitates and defines Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem; it identifies followers and disciples who listen and extend welcome (Mary and Martha, the mission of the Seventy, the Good Samaritan, Zacchaeus) and solidifies opposition (some Pharisees and scribes).

When we relocate the practice of Christian hospitality from who is and who is not welcome in our homes to the recognition that hospitality is offered and received in other places along the way, a different more permeable dynamic opens up. But changing the location of the welcome is only half the solution. Offering someone food in a soup kitchen, while it is a good thing in itself, is not actually hospitality because it is not rooted in an exchange of roles.

In post-biblical tradition, Abraham, the paradigm of hospitality, moves out of the familiarity of his house. He pitches a tent at the crossroads so as to welcome more strangers, according to the Testament of Abraham. Philo says Abraham ran out of his house and begged the strangers who were passing by his home to stay with him because he was so eager to extend hospitality to them. Abraham and Jesus confront our restrictive notions of hospitality, encouraging us to think about our human interdependence in giving and receiving hospitality on the way.

Deirdre Good is professor of New Testament at The General Theological Seminary, specializing in the Synoptic Gospels, Christian Origins, Noncanonical writings and biblical languages. While she is an American citizen, she grew up in Kenya and loves marmite which may explain certain features of her blog, On Not Being a Sausage.

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