Amongst the virtues commended to Christians in God’s word, few are so neglected in our day and age as that of hospitality. But if it is neglected, it is not because the Bible is ambivalent about the importance of the practice of hospitality.
Paul commanded the Roman church: “seek to show hospitality (Romans 12:13b; ESV).”
The apostle Peter, addressing Christians at large, wrote, “Show hospitality to one another without grumbling (1 Peter 4:9).”
And famously, the writer of Hebrews began the closing remarks of his epistle by reminding us: “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares. (Hebrews 13:2; ESV)”
It is somewhat interesting to notice that a good number of translators helpfully include the word “stranger,” in Hebrews 13:2. The inclusion is somewhat redundant on the part of the translators, but it is a useful reminder of what the word hospitality actually means. The Greek word translated as “hospitable” is “philoxenos” which is most literally rendered as “affectionate love of strangers.”
Many believe that they are being hospitable when they prepare meals for their friends, or have family gatherings around the holidays, but as a matter of definition, it is impossible to show biblical hospitality to people you know. True hospitality can only be shown to strangers.
This principle is not unique to the New Testament. Many are aware of Moses’ command to “Love your neighbor as yourself (Leviticus 19:18),” but there is another, parallel, command in the same passage: “You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself (Leviticus 19:34; ESV).”
To properly understand what God means when He tells us to be hospitable, and to love strangers as self, it is worth examining the examples the Spirit puts forth for us to emulate: Abraham and Lot who were each quick to care for strangers (cf. Genesis 18, 19).
In Abraham’s case, when he saw three unknown men standing near his tent, he rushed to greet them, offering them water to wash their feet, and then, “a morsel of bread.” Except “morsel” was clearly an understatement, for when they accepted, we read, “Abraham went quickly into the tent to Sarah and said, ‘Quick! Three seahs of fine flour! Knead it, and make cakes.’ And Abraham ran to the herd and took a calf, tender and good, and gave it to a young man, who prepared it quickly. Then he took curds and milk and the calf that he had prepared, and set it before them. And he stood by them under the tree while they ate. (Genesis 18:6-8)”
To be clear here, a seah of flour is about seven quarts, enough to make about eight or nine modern loaves of bread. Abraham had Sarah prepare three times that much. Assuming a five or six hundred pound calf, the young men would have easily obtained over two hundred pounds of meat. When we include the milk and cheese served, Abraham’s “morsel” was a regular feast, thrown on the spot for some random strangers who he happened to see near his tent. That they were really angels was something he only discovered after the fact of feeding them and immaterial to his motivations and actions.
Admittedly, Abraham was very, very wealthy. But the spirit of generosity which informed his gift of food and rest to travelers he had never met before is the same spirit God desires in all His children. He tells us, “Don’t neglect to show hospitality.” One fears that despite the clear instruction, we too frequently do forget and neglect this principle.
As the holiday season rolls around, and as we give thought to how we can show love to those close to us, let us remember that God wants us to proactively show love to strangers as well. As Jesus said, “For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect. (Matthew 5:46-48; ESV)”
Jonathan McAnulty is minister of Chapel Hill Church of Christ. Viewpoints expressed in the article are the work of the author.