"Hospitality in the New Testament"

(JA) - an address given before Indian Nations Presbytery
Edmond, Oklahoma, March 13, 1998

I. It was my assignment in college some years ago to translate a section of the Didache, the Teachings of the Twelve Apostles, from Greek into English. I worked hard at it, but it was slow going. I translated the line, if I may paraphrase, "don't withhold your hand of almsgiving from a brother in need" and then all of a sudden the door bell rang. I went to the door and was met by a young man who said he was hungry and needed some money for food. Wow! I thought to myself. This is providence for sure. I gave him $10 and closed the door...beaming. I returned to the room where I was studying and by chance looked out the window. To my astonishment I saw several young men, pushing one another and laughing loudly as they pooled their money...having "fleeced" me and several of my neighbors, I'm sure. I sat back down and translated the next line. It read, "but let your coin sweat in your hand before you give unworthily!" My first reaction was that I must learn to translate faster! In the intervening time my second reaction has been that I would still prefer to err on the first side, even if it means to give unworthily! The invitation to be hospitable evokes spontaneity of giving.

II. Why should anyone care about "hospitality?" The Greek word for it, "philoxenia," and cognates only appear about a dozen times in the New Testament, so what is the big deal? Maybe the matter of hospitality is bigger than the word for it. One way to get a feel for the topic is to make a brief review of scholarship on the topic by way of Bible dictionaries. Here are three representative works:
A. In 1976 the Abingdon Press (Methodist) produced a supplementary volume to the long-time standard work Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible under the editorship of Keith Crim, Lloyd Bailey, and Victor Paul Furnish. There is an article on "Hosea" and one on "Humility," but there is no article on "hospitality."

B. A decade later the Harper-Row publishing house published the now famous (New) Harper's Bible Dictionary, in cooperation with the Society of Biblical Literature and under the editorship of Paul Achtemeier and colleagues Boraas, Fishbane, Perkins, and Walker. Here there is an article on "hospitality," written by Bruce Malina. He sees in the biblical material a discernible pattern to its development: 1) Testing the Stranger (one must decide if the stranger's visit is honorable or hostile...reminds me of the neighbor's visit to the ranch as he got out of the truck and called "hello the house!" himself cautious of those within). Then comes a transition by foot washing to 2) the Stranger as Guest ( the guest enjoys a full expression of welcome, becomes a part of the house) and then the day comes when the guest must leave > 3) the Guest is transformed in departure now to the stranger as friend or enemy (the guest must move to the status of independence...reminds me of my farmer friend Doyal, who at the beginning of our friendship, used to help me out regularly to get me started and keep me going in the rhythm of farming. Then one day he said that while your friend and neighbor would always help you in time of need he could not do your work for you...it was time that I buy my own tractor and plow and plant on my own!). To support this pattern Malina produces a modest selection of biblical references.

C. Roughly another decade later, in 1992, John Koenig's article on "hospitality" was published in The Anchor Bible Dictionary, ed. by David Noel Freedman et al., NY, Vol. 3, pp. 299-301. He produces a far more comprehensive overview than heretofore has been available together with a helpful initial bibliographical supplement (including his own 1985 monograph on the topic, bearing the subtitle "Partnership and Strangers as Promise and Mission"). He finds - among other things - a distinctive element in biblical hospitality vis-a-vis that of culture in that God and/or Christ is often the host or guest and this changes everything. He also points out that Luke seems particularly interested in hospitality since he alone includes the stories of the Good Samaritan, the Prodigal Son, the rich man and Lazarus , Zaccheus, and the Emmaus appearance story. His thoroughness makes this a very good resource.

This brief review might offer the following for our question: why care about "hospitality?": perhaps there is a direct inverse proportion before us between the experience of and study about hospitality. That is to say, as something becomes a problem ( a longing?) through absence we study it and talk more about it; when we experience it there is no need to study it! Maybe this tension in fact exists and has grown in the passage of the last three decades. If there is any merit to the question we might ask about the standard(s) by which we measure whether or not we are hospitable, since after all the practice is more important than the study anyway! I find it a strange thing that the more affluent we become the less hospitable it seems that we are.
III. This brings me to one of the levels of reply that comes to mind to the question about why anyone should care about hospitality. We all seem to have a built-in memory of a time when the practice side was part of everyday life far more than it is today. That memory tells us something like, it is good to care about hospitality because it is decent. It reflects - as we used to say - good breeding and culture. It calls up some of those terms we might call synonyms: being generous and open and welcoming; showing willingness to invite someone in (like the householder who threw a party and when the guests were all detained for whatever reason he sent messengers to invite strangers in a compelling way to join him for the celebration!); to strike a supportive posture toward others! (when we come to the household codes of Colossians, Ephesians, and I Peter we'll see that this is a technical term for the posture of the Christian house).

I have no direct recollection of the Great Depression. All of us, however, with any sense of history have a collective memory, as it were, of this time in the history of our country and the world. Hard times for nearly everyone and surprisingly it was one of the most generous, hospitable times too...in contrast to our affluent times and its lack! In the company of another minister some years ago I visited the home of Dick and Julie Hall in Texarkana. Most of the conversation was done in the kitchen and dining room and there on the wall in the kitchen was a sign that went like this: "Make it do - wear it out - use it up - do without!" Often that meant that when someone else was in need it was better to give what you had away and just do without for their sakes. A colleague's grandmother used to refer to the Depression's "back door friends" who would come by struggling with hunger. She would invite them in for a meal at the table and more often than not they would then reciprocate by helping with chores around the place - yard work or whatever - in a kind of reciprocal hospitality. Not long ago I heard another colleague speak about the old days when there were "backyard kids" who knew that they were always welcome at the home where they were playing. There was no thought about going home for lunch...and when the cookies came fresh out of the oven they were there for all to enjoy...you were home away from home. Hospitality felt easy, comfortable, real, secure...and tasted good too! The Spillers - Wayne and Nell - lived through the Depression too and now live outside Brady in Voca, Texas. When "Lucky Jewel" showed up the other day a bit bewildered and out of sorts having become confused about the distance to Austin - too far to walk there! - Nell took her in and gave her some hot tea and a warm meal and then drove her back to Brady to safety. God bless the Spillers! They know about and practice hospitality. "It always smells good in the kitchen," a dear friend of their's told me, "warm bread and butter always awaits you no matter when..." Another spoke up, "And there is always an eskimo pie ice cream for the road in the freezer!" It is no coincidence that hospitality and the smells and tastes of the kitchen belong together, the place where hunger is stilled and people are shaped and molded toward one another both in the receiving and the giving. All this is not to romanticize the Depression. Wolfgang Borchert's "Das Brot" with its satirical social commentary about similar conditions in Germany is real too. Human's can become narrow, suspicious, and calculating over a piece of bread: no giving away of one's self, no "do without" for the sake of the other, no hospitality! It is not the condition of tidiness in the abode but the degree of outward orientation, out-reaching, openness that manifests hospitality. And with "Lucky Jewel" and the Spillers I hear a distant echo: "I was cast adrift and you fed me and drove me back to Brady" as though it came as a word straight from Jesus' mouth.

IV. This "echo" lands us square in the middle of the other and most important reason why anyone here today should care about hospitality: it is not just a matter of decency, there are theological reasons that make it compelling for those who have ears to hear and eyes to see. This affirms the starting point of John Koenig's excellent Anchor Bible Dictionary article.

The origins and basis for Christian/biblical "hospitality" are located in the reality of the household, the "oikos," the dwelling place wherein people have special roles of responsibility to one another and outsiders. Those roles emerge in conversation with traditions of piety and faithfulness. For hospitality, the roots reach back to the raw material of an ancient nomadic custom according to which one honors and welcomes the stranger. The custom has a name in Greek: "philoxenia" or the verbal form "xenizo"...valuing, love of, or care for the stranger. In the classic epitaph of Simonides the "stranger" is honored by calling upon that one to be the witness and bearer of the news concerning the Spartan's sacrifice of their lives for the homeland at Thermopylae. As with the words, which emerged in response to issues of substance like the one posed in the Good Samaritan story (Luke 10:29ff: "who is my neighbor?" ), such as "brethren" = "brothered-ones" (cf. Romans 8:12-29), or "adoption" = "("huiothesia" >"linked to/placed toward the Son [as heir]" cf. Rom. 8 and 9), or the potentially contrasting "philadelphia" = "brothered-one-love" (cf. Heb. 13:1f), or "adelphotes" = "community of brothered-ones" (cf. I Peter 2:17; 5:9), or the "beloved brothered-one" as a "beyond-a-slave-one" (cf. Philemon 16), so too the theological reality of hospitality is bigger than the word! One experiences a sense of the complexity when reading and pondering Ecclesasticus [Ben Sirach] 29; there is more here than meets the eye not only for the context of the Maccabean revolt but also for our time.

Hospitality is storied in Genesis 18, for example, when Abraham and Sarah show gracious receptiveness to three strangers at an oasis among the terebinths of Mamre. This story is classic because it is actually the occasion of God's appearance (a "theophany") in anthropomorphic disguise. This is done to protect the host(s) in response to the dictum of Exod. 33:20 "see God and you die!" The occasion of hospitality has become the occasion of divine visitation and revelation!

We see hospitality at work too in Luke 15:11-32 when the prodigal returns home and the welcome is an exuberant embrace.

We see it in the wanderings of aliens and strangers and admonitions about household responsibilities toward them in Hebrews 10ff and especially in the note about "being sure to show hospitality because some had entertained angels (heavenly messengers) unawares" in 13:1-2! [non-recognition motif in apps. stories...mal'ak Jhwh as same as Jhwh? James Barr]

We see it in the Emmaus story - Luke 24:13-35 - in which the guest for the evening suddenly becomes the host at the table and then vanishes (or literally "became no longer visible" = "disappeared"???)! [Philostratus' "Life and Times of Apollonius of Tyana" has a very similar Emmaus-like walk at the end of the story of the sage Apollonius].

And in the Book of Revelation there is a visitation of angels with a complex picture of hospitality/reception. And there is One who knocks at the door in 3:20! This closing moment to chapter 3 has been preceded by a number of hospitality/household images, including the declaration that this One has the keys to the house and is the One who unlocks the door of openness and no one is able to close (cf. word-play between the noun and verb cognates in v. 7) and the One who locks up and no one opens. And in commentary perhaps upon our earlier remark that affluence is hard on hospitality in our experience we read in vv. 17ff that we deceive ourselves about wealth when in fact we are "the-wretched-and-miserable-and-begging-and-blind-and-naked-one!" It is at the door of this one that the revealing One is knocking! The concluding verse (21) is an appropriate (household) inheritance-giving image which pulls together for us the origins and basis for hospitable behavior in Christian community.

V. These rudimentary beginnings were then formalized and structured with the foundations of social appropriation in the New Testament household codes (Colossians 3:18-4:1, Ephesians 5:(21)22-6:9, and I Peter 2:18-3:7). Luther labeled these as "household codes" with an eye toward their stoic parallels (e.g. in Epictetus); L. Goppelt, in his commentary on I Peter, calls them "station codes" with an eye toward their broader ramifications within Christian parenetic instruction. What does hospitality's appropriation here do for its theological intent? What difference does it make that the context for hospitality is that of the particular shape of the household, the "oikos?"
A. For starters, it means that a particular context and structure recommend themselves for our consideration, the church as "oikos." Our times are so dominated by the language of the behavioral and social sciences that we can hardly "manage" without it. In a recent class on the diction of the Book of Revelation we became aware of how dependent we are on words like "manage," "deal with," "cope," "handle" etc. and seem to be hard pressed to locate a theological vocabulary in which we can converse adequately. This is true here too in the discussion of hospitality; hence, it is good to take note as we journey along this road of linguistic, theological uncertainty that we pay special attention to context and structure.

B. And then it provides a direction for the future, options for alternatives. Living hospitality in the context of death and dying, for example, one can speak something other than about "grief management" and "stages of mourning" and "coping with sorrow" etc.; one can speak out of the household context about "the hardships of learning to live by faith," and "trusting in God," and "looking for light" in word and sacrament. It really is an issue of one's angle of vision and of one's life-style, one's posture on matters that count. This is hard for us to hear - I mean literally "to hear" - yours and my attention span is becoming pre-programmed and we quickly fly to the next item...keep moving...quickly now, faster!...faster is "better" (we say) and we mostly mean "necessary"! If something is stated in terms not embraced by the media and with current pop vocabulary - the latest I heard was "essentialism" used in a course description the other day - we become bored and weary of the talk. We must be entertained; our interest and attention must be seized; we are becoming a people who demand this of anyone who would get our attention. Relevance is quickly pre-judged. Just think of those people who call us and move persuasively and quickly into areas of "blatant advertising" that we would normally have rejected: were we asked, "would you like to hear about X?" no! But too late, you can't have my attention otherwise? Jaded, crusty, deaf, strangled: what a life!?! We need a lifestyle change, an ear-style change indeed. The New Testament household codes provide a direction-setting moment for those who have eyes to see, ears to hear...

C. It provides a reason for hope. The Lakeway study group some years ago made a request: the American family is going to hell in a hand basket, so we want you to fix it from a NT vantage point! What a surprise that we made progress on the "fix" from the back door, i.e. to our surprise the NT was not into fix up strategies prescriptively but the household image as vehicle for reflection on eschatologically new life in Christ, e.g. Eph. 5:32 "this is a great mystery...about Christ and the church!" A growing awareness about hospitality emerged over the problems of being a "doulos" (slave; cf. by the way, rev. 1:1f) or a "kurios" (lord); when all confess that there is but one "kurios" (Lord) then all others, regardless of station, are "douloi" (slaves). The key to this discussion is the use of the technical term "hypotassomai," which is most often translated "be subject" or "subordinate yourselves" and is taken as a recommendation of the life of being a doormat, esp. as regards the posture of women in relationship to men! This is a big mistake. The term is rich in possibilities when considered within the household context where the paradigm for all Christians is that every member of the household is a "slave" to the one Lord (cf. I Peter 2:16; Eph. 5:21; compare also Mark 13:34ff). Functioning well within the world of architecture and engineering it would be far better to translate "strike a supportive posture" toward one another (such a posture often includes the "tough love" of a "no" response!), like the bridge must have all the geometrically sound undergirding beneath the span that allows people to go back and forth safely over the chasms of life from one side to the other. This is the appropriate "posture" toward the one Lord and toward one another...and to all those in need of hospitable reception! Bridges like this enable people to get to the table where the bread and butter and the eskimo pie ice cream bars await them. This transports them to table fellowship...like the table of recognition in the Emmaus story. This embraces all the needy into the arms of inheritance where belonging is a declaration of the good news of grace. This house is a "spiritual house" - God's house (I Peter 2:5ff) - not made with hands (cf. the complex problem of this image in Mark 14:58ff), but "physical households" are a part of the mystery of it all, where those kitchens mediate the aroma of warm bread and fresh-baked cookies of the kingdom! I don't know exactly how all that works but I want to know more. How about you?
VI. Conclusion: The arena for hospitality would seem, therefore, to have less to do with rules and musts than it does with invitation and permission> not: "got to" but "get to"! It is like a lover's quarrel in the "oikos"...always seeking to find the road to make it work. It comes as a surprise that when we get down that road toward the intended destination we find The Hospitable One there waiting for us. It is a bit like the conversation between Bill (who is struggling with the mortal wound of cancer upon his body) and his pastor one day in the hospital: saying to Bill that "Christ is here with you" and Bill responding "how do I know that?" the pastor reaches for the locus classicus for hospitality (Mt. 25:35ff) and replies, "Jesus assures you of this for when we visit one another in hospitals beds of infirmity he declares that he is there, the very co-recipient of the visitation"...and Bill found peace in the assurance.