When we hear the word ‘hospitality’ we often think of providing food, but for many of us, particularly males, we are not equipped or inclined to do it.
A more constructive view of hospitality is to see it as intentionally making space for others. The heart of hospitality is being welcoming and attentive to other people. This can, in itself, be something we may need to learn, but thought of in this way, hospitality can demonstrate God’s attitude towards others through the way we are. I know of one senior Christian leader, who as a young man from a secular background, was welcomed warmly by Christians into their home. Their hospitality towards him not only made a deep impression on him but actually opened up the start of his Christian journey.
Monasteries developed in the so-called Dark & Middle Ages and many offered shelter to travellers. By seeking to meet the needs of strangers they believed they were offering hospitality to Jesus himself (Matthew 25:40). This view reframes our simple acts of kindness, giving them great dignity. It transforms the value we put on performing menial, ordinary actions and it alerts us to the presence of God in others, particularly his presence with us in the shape of those in need.
Making the other person the centre of our attention can only happen when we ourselves withdraw and make space – either literally giving time to others, or metaphorically by focusing on another person, removing ourselves from the centre of attention.
Hospitality involves welcoming and attending to others. Most of us, even from a very early age, are naturally hospitable: children spontaneously chat with other children, making contact quite unselfconsciously. The desire to be hospitable carries its own reward in terms of friendship, even though, at times, it may be rejected. Whether our offer of hospitality is accepted or not, we are still cultivating God’s presence: Jesus liked a hospitable atmosphere and he is still attracted to the company of hospitable people.
Hospitality should come to characterise our churches and our lives. Hospitality cannot be formulaic and it doesn’t work if we try to imitate other people’s gifts – the important thing is that we welcome others in whatever way comes naturally to us. This will often be rewarding for us because we have a sense of fulfilment whenever we use our God-given gifts. Hospitality is best done when it expresses the genuine desire to serve others in our own unique way. It is less attractive when it is done as a dutiful exercise in self-sacrifice.
Once we discover our natural hospitality niche we experience for ourselves that it genuinely is more blessed to give than to receive (Acts 20:35). We can, of course, put on an act of being hospitable, simply to prove to ourselves we are good people, but genuine hospitality will always focus on the other person, not on the part we ourselves play.
Practising hospitality can have a further beneficial side effect: it enables us to become better people, despite our all-too-obvious imperfections. Acting hospitably can increase our sense of self-worth, as we often find we like ourselves better when we act hospitably. Furthermore, hospitality takes us beyond any tendency to introspection, since making someone else the centre of our attention helps us be less obsessed with ourselves. As we move away from self-absorption, the more likeable we become to other people and, again, their response to us will have a beneficial effect on our sense of self-esteem. Hospitality creates this virtuous circle.
The writer to the Hebrews encouraged us to be hospitable to strangers, holding out the tantalising possibility that we might be entertaining angels though being unaware of the fact (Hebrews 13:2). This injunction is in keeping with a long tradition among Semitic peoples, who count it a duty to provide hospitality to passers-by. The fact that we might, unknowingly, be entertaining a messenger of God suggests we might miss out on all that God has for us if we neglect hospitality. What is more, hospitality is a way of imitating God, as hospitality is the heart of the Gospel.
Once we were outsiders, but God shows his love towards us by inviting us into his inner circle; an act of pure hospitality. The parable of the prodigal son continues to be one of the most well-known stories told by Jesus. It demonstrates that motivated by (undeserved) kindness, the Father is truly hospitable, welcoming us into his presence with outstretched arms. even despite our bad choices (Luke 15:20). He has made it possible for us to become part of his family and continues to include us, forgiving our faults, often on a daily basis.
Having freely received such unmerited kindness our response is to express that same kind welcome to others so that hospitality is a way in which our gratitude naturally finds an outlet. In this way, our experience of God’s grace gets passed on to others. We see a similar dynamic in our everyday encounters: if when driving, someone lets you out of a side road you are then yourself more inclined to do the same for other drivers. How much greater than this is the debt of love we owe to the Father?
Hospitality is the natural outflow of our having experienced the Gospel. Grace causes us to be gracious. Once we begin to view situations or decisions through the lens of hospitality we become aware that it is everywhere in the Bible. It pervades the Scriptures and if we keep the word hospitality in mind when reading the Bible we become aware that different facets of hospitality are encapsulated in a variety of biblical stories and teachings. The main one was spoken by Jesus at the Final Judgement.
“Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Then they also will answer, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to you?’ Then he will answer them, saying, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”