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Down the Basement Steps
Every now and again when I was young, my parents would have congregants from the church my Dad pastored over for dinner at our home. There was a clockwork buildup to these occasions. Several hours before the appointed arrival of our guests, my Mom would turn into a tornado of dusting and cleaning, straightening and cooking. My two rowdy brothers and I would be sent outside, so as not to create any more messes for Mom to mop up.
Upon the guests’ arrival, my brothers and I would be made to answer the door and welcome our guests. Promptly after this, Dad would send us down the basement stairs to play for the remainder of the evening, with clear instructions that we were not to emerge upstairs again unless there was blood or a life-threatening injury.
This was my nascent picture of what I thought hospitality was. And much of the Church’s understanding of hospitality is not much more developed than my own was, shaped during those nights banished to our basement playroom. The word hospitality conjures images of Martha Stewart, or the hotel industry, or the times you’d get out the fine china to host a stuffy affair with people you don’t really know, or even much like.
Strangers Welcoming Strangers
I’ve been pondering my friend and colleague Jeff Munroe’s piece “The Vanishing Middle,” for a bit. Like Jeff and many others, I lament the currents of polarizing partisanship, the way in which we retreat constantly to our own ideological cul-de-sacs, in order to shout at and vilify others not in our “camp.” I’ve sorrowed at families fracturing, churches splitting, and denominations disintegrating over masks, vaccines, hot-button controversies, politics, and even facts themselves. As I’ve thought about this, I wonder if one way through our rancor is to recover the venerable-yet-forgotten Christian art of hospitality.
In the ancient world, hospitality was a common and crucial practice. There was no leisure travel industry, no roadside Motel 6 or Marriott. So, if you were on a journey, you depended on the welcome of strangers. Gerim (the Hebrew term for “sojourner” or “stranger”) were often landless people in an agrarian society, in which land was indispensable to life. Interestingly, the ancient people of God were commanded to practice hospitality in ways that outpaced their pagan neighbors:
“When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself; for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God.” (Leviticus 19.33-34)
“For the LORD your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who is not partial and takes no bribe… and who loves the strangers, providing them with food and clothing. You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Deuteronomy 10.17-19)
For the Jewish people, hospitality was a central part of their community life because it acted out who they were, and who God is. God’s people welcome strangers because the Lord of lords loves strangers. And God’s people welcome strangers because they themselves were strangers, welcomed into a new life as the people of YHWH. Hospitality is the heartbeat of who God is and what God is doing in the world.
When the Lord of lords lowered himself to enter the world in Christ, hospitality was a main motif of Jesus’ work. A casual reader of the Gospels, especially Luke, could be excused for thinking that Jesus basically ate, drank, and feasted his way through the entirety of his public life. Jesus’ table fellowship, and his habit of sitting down to meals with all the wrong sorts of people, were a dramatic parable, acting out the lavish welcome of God.
Hospitality also marked the life of the Church from her earliest beginnings. The focal practice of the gathered Christian community was a shared meal in which Christians ate and drank of God’s cruciform hospitality. One of the qualifications for church leadership in the early church was a life of hospitality (1 Timothy 3.2). And as the Christian movement spread, it came to be renowned for hospitality. The concept of the hospital, in fact, has its roots in the houses Christians would build to feed and care for sojourners and the sick and poor in the 4th century A.D.
Hostility to Hospitality
In his modern classic Reaching Out, the writer Henri Nouwen characterized the journey from hostility to hospitality as one of the central transformations of the spiritual life:
“In our world full of strangers, estranged from their own past, culture and country, from their neighbors, friends and family, from their deepest self and their God, we witness a painful search for a hospitable place where life can be lived without fear and where community can be found. Although many, we might say even most, strangers in this world become easily the victim of fearful hostility, it is possible… for Christians to offer an open and hospitable space where strangers cast off their strangeness and become our fellow human beings.”
In a deeply hostile time, I think it’s urgent to recover the Gospel art of welcome. Some will see the call to practice hospitality as a lack of conviction, but in reality, bringing someone of a different culture to your table, or entering into an honest friendship with someone you think is wrong about matters of public life or ethics, or making room at your table for another who doesn’t share your faith, are profound acts of conviction.
Leading evangelical theologian Richard Mouw makes this point in his work; he advocates for what he calls “playing host to ideological strangers.” Mouw demonstrates that when Christians engage with, welcome, and befriend those we disagree with, we invite them to show us where our adherence to the Gospel has been deficient, and thus even those we disagree with help us encounter Christ.
This sacramental dimension of hospitality has always been a feature of Christian teaching. When we express the hospitality we experience at the cross and the Table on our own calendars, and at our own tables, by God’s divine alchemy, Christ is really and truly present. This is why St. Jerome would challenge church leaders, “let poor men and strangers be acquainted with your modest table, and with them Christ shall be your guest.”
One of my favorite pieces of short fiction by the Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy is titled Where Love Is, God Is. In his story, Martin, a poor cobbler, receives a vision in a dream from Jesus, informing him that he’ll be visiting on the following day. The next morning, he waits by the window. After a while, he sees an old man with shoes worn full of holes- so he brings him in, pours him tea, repairs his shoes. Later in the morning, he spots a woman with a baby, ill-dressed against the winter wind, so he gives her his cloak, and shares with her the cabbage soup he had been making for lunch. Then, in the afternoon, he assists an old woman selling apples. That evening, he slouches in his chair by the fire, disappointed he didn’t see Jesus. But then, one at a time, each of the three people he encountered appear, and speak to him, but their voices are the voice of the Savior. And Martin finally realizes what’s happened. Tolstoy writes, “Martin understood that his dream had come true; and that the Saviour had really come to him that day, and he had welcomed him.”
I’d wager that if we traded hostility for hospitality at our tables, among our families, and in our churches, that Jesus would come and pay us a visit, too.