“Come over for dinner?” Much western hospitality has become an invite to friends or someone just met – often someone who thinks and looks like us. As Christians, when we’ve done this we may feel we have fulfilled the biblical injunction to “practice hospitality”. We may have done what we can – and that’s good, but if this is the only way we practice hospitality we have not understood the essence of hospitality in the world of the Bible.
In the pre-hotel ancient world, hospitality was the welcome of a stranger who arrived in your village or at your home or compound, and needed a place of shelter for the night. Hospitality was a sacred duty to your God in Judaism, Christianity and other religions. Hospitality was about making room for people and giving them a place at the table. A protocol of ancient hospitality was that it was undemanding in that the stranger was welcomed in without the host first determining their name, business, etc. It was impolite to ask the guest’s name until their animals were cared for and the guests had eaten.
We live in a different world. Strangers are danger, not potential angels (cf. Heb 13: 2). We don’t live in compounds with large extended families. Paid accommodation abounds. No one is knocking on our door seeking a bed, and if they did many of us would lack the capacity or courage to welcome them in. “Stranger Danger” needs to be factored in to our hospitality. Consequently, hospitality distils to people we know who are like us.
At Blair Athol, a suburb characterized by difference and otherness (57 languages spoken in the local Primary School!), we try in our Drop-in Centre to practice some of the ancient mores of hospitality. Hospitality is done together at the Church because it’s not practical and may not be safe to practice alone in our homes. But together we form a large and extended family and have learnt to safely welcome strangers into our “compound”. We are undemanding and a person may attend for weeks before we know their name. The stranger is not asked to conform or reform in order to be made welcome, unless they are a threat to others in the space, when they may be asked to leave. We believe that once we start making demands on a stranger, whatever we are offering ceases to be hospitality.
This hospitality requires lots of grace and carries some dangers.
Hospitality involves tolerance because it requires accepting in the other what we may not understand or agree with. The danger with this degree of tolerance is that it requires the suspension of judgement, and this is naïve given our sinfulness.
When this degree of hospitality is practiced, the question arises, “Does this mean the host forfeits all rights, suspends all judgment and tolerates anything and everything?” I think the answer is “No.” Instead, we have to “to trust that God, through the Holy Spirit, will make demands on the guest.” (John16:8).
Our job is to love and welcome people as God loves and welcomes us – not to “fix” people. Our experience in providing hospitality that is welcoming and undemanding of strangers is that it is intrinsically missional. We have seen lives changed and people come to faith, not because we demanded of them, but because God through the Spirit made a demand on them to which they responded.
Stranger danger impedes mission. But if we courageously risk welcoming the stranger, including those who are different, intimidating or threatening, we may find ourselves in the presence of an angel.
This article first appeared in “Need 2 Know (September 2016)”, a publication of Churches of Christ SA and NT.
Rev Grant Simpson is the Minister at Blair Athol Church of Christ. His Master of Ministry thesis was entitled “The Church as a Community of Friends: Hospitality and Friendship as Mission”
Mark Riessen- Tabor, College of Higher Education
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