Since we moved in June (for the 7th time since Jared and I pledged our love and plighted our troths 14 years ago), I’ve had hospitality on the brain. One of the reasons we liked this mid-century brick cape cod in the heart of southeast Wisconsin was the good-sized dining/living room combination which greets visitors when they first walk in the front door. (A front door–I might add–that has newly been repainted smoked turquoise!) We imagined this space would work well for gospel community get-togethers, meals with friends, and outreach to neighbors. In the shortsightedness that plagues me however, I’ve been tempted to forget what’s at the heart of our hospitality and instead get wrapped up in paint colors, wall-paper samples and the trappings of entertaining. So today and over the next week or so I’m revisiting why we really want to have those people sitting around our table and scattered throughout the house.
The Greek word for hospitality literally means “love of strangers.” In the OT, God commanded the Israelites to not mistreat the foreigners and aliens living among them, but to show them love. And to motivate this love of strangers (which the NT calls “hospitality”), God reminded Israel that they themselves had once been foreigners during their time in Egypt. The Egyptians–who found shepherds repulsive–had refused to share meals with them, so the Israelites would know firsthand how difficult it was to live as strangers in a foreign land. God encouraged them to draw from their own experiences to sympathize with the strangers living among them so that they would look on them with love and mercy.
God gave his people specific ways they could show hospitality to the the foreigners among them. Without citizenship and family connections, the foreigners in Israel were on the outskirts of society and were in many cases dependent on the natural born citizens for provision. To provide for these “strangers,” God did not allow the Israelites to harvest their fields a second time, but instead commanded them to let the foreigners and another subset of poor people–widows–to glean whatever was missed from that first harvest. We see this command in play when Ruth the Moabitess takes to the fields of Boaz. Boaz, not only followed the letter of this law, but honored the spirit of it as well. He demonstrated God’s hospitable heart by going beyond the requirements of the law when he instructed his men to intentionally leave grain on the stalks for Ruth to pick and share with her widowed mother-in-law.
Showing hospitality to strangers was critical In Biblical times because traveling was a dangerous pastime. Roads were dangerous. Public inns were dangerous besides being far too expensive for the average traveler to afford. So those compelled to hit the road often had to rely on the hospitality of strangers. Rahab, who was herself an outsider to the community of God, extended hospitality to His people when she housed, protected and then escorted the Israelite spies to safety through her window on the Jericho wall. Lot took in God’s messengers and protected them from the evil intent of the men of his city. The good Samaritan rescued a Jewish traveler who had been robbed and left for dead on the road by dressing his wounds and paying for his convalescence at a nearby inn. These were the kinds of hospitable acts that God expected from his people because these acts are little replicas of the greatest act of hospitality demonstrated by God himself to a people estranged from Him. Consider this excerpt from Ephesians 2:11-19.
Therefore remember that formerly you who are Gentiles by birth…that at that time you were separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near through the blood of Christ…Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and aliens, but fellow citizens with God’s people and members of God’s household.”
The vocabulary of those verses was chosen intentionally. The words foreigners, aliens, exclusion, Gentiles, separate and far away depict our position before God. This was our plight before He intervened. We are meant to feel the helplessness and terror of that predicament. We were impoverished, without hope, without rights, completely at the mercy of God. And if God had anything other than a heart of love toward the stranger, then we would surely have perished in that hopelessness. But our hospitable God has looked on our plight with mercy–not with a mercy that throws spare change into a plastic cup, but with a mercy that completely reverses our fortune, with a mercy that overwrites our history, changes our very identity and turns a beggar into an heir. God’s redemptive intervention through Jesus is the greatest act of hospitality the world has ever seen. And in our smaller acts of hospitality, we reflect this great heart of our Father.