Hospitality, the Bible, and Jesus
by Lynne M. Baab
Both the Old and New Testaments encourage hospitality, but one story has shaped my understanding more than any other. On the day of Jesus’ resurrection, a disciple named Cleopas and another person—perhaps a friend, a sibling, or Cleopas’s wife—left Jerusalem before news of the resurrection reached them. Both of them had been eager followers of Jesus, and they walked home to Emmaus disconsolate and discouraged because Jesus had died. A stranger on the road joined their discussion, asking them why they were sad. They told him about Jesus, their hopes about his kingdom, and the dashing of those hopes at his crucifixion. The stranger, extremely well-versed in Jewish history and the Hebrew scriptures, told them his perspective about the life and work of the Messiah.
When Cleopas and his companion reached their home in Emmaus, they invited the stranger in for a meal. When the visitor broke bread at the table and blessed it, they knew instantly that this was Jesus, now resurrected and still alive. After their moment of recognition, he vanished. They thought back to the conversation on the road, and realized the thrill of hearing him explain his own mission in his own words. “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?” (Luke 24:32)
These disciples invited a stranger into their home for a meal. They were the hosts, the ones who asked him in, but at the table this guest turned things upside down. The stranger broke the bread and blessed it, becoming the host. Like Cleopas and his companion, Christian individuals and congregations today are increasingly exploring ways to provide hospitality. As they do, they are experiencing the presence of Jesus, who is present in friend and stranger. God invites us to extend the rich welcome that we ourselves have been offered.
Hospitality plays a role in the Bible from beginning to end. The Jewish sacrificial system involved contributions of food that were consumed in festivals in the Temple. Some of Jesus’ most memorable encounters with individuals occur in the context of hospitality in people’s homes. Two examples are his discussion with Mary and Martha about the “one needful thing” while Martha was preparing a meal (Luke 10:38-42) and Jesus’ extension of loving grace to an outcast woman who washed his feet with her tears in the middle of a dinner (Luke 7:36-50). Several of Jesus’ parables present vivid pictures of feasts; one example is the parable of the great wedding feast in Matthew 22:1-14. In his last meal with his disciples, Jesus invited them to adopt a celebration of remembrance and presence that involves bread and wine.
New Testament believers viewed hospitality as an essential component of ministry. In 1 Timothy, the good works attributed to bishops and widows above reproach include hospitality (1 Timothy 3:2 and 5:10), and being hospitable occurs throughout the epistles in lists of recommended behavior (Romans 12:13, Hebrews 13:2, 1 Peter 4:9).
It is no accident that two of the post-resurrection stories involve Jesus acting as host. In the Emmaus story, Jesus begins as a stranger and guest, but then is revealed to be the host of the meal. In the incident on the beach in Galilee, Jesus helps the disciples catch fish and then cooks it for them (John 21:1-14). Both of these stories are a culmination of the generous and hospitable earthly life of the Son of God. Jesus was hospitable in spirit before his death, speaking with honor and respect to outcasts, and he demonstrated hospitality in concrete forms—involving bread and fish—after his resurrection. We are invited to go into the world with the same spirit and goals that Jesus had (John 17:18). Sometimes we are stranger and guest, and sometimes we are host. Sometimes our hospitality involves food and sometimes we act hospitably in our words or other deeds. In all roles, we are called to be open to the people we encounter in a spirit of hospitality and welcome that reflects the generosity of the God who has welcomed us.
A handful of books have changed my life, and Making Room: Recovering Hospitality as a Christian Tradition by Christine D. Pohl is one of them. I read it soon after it was released in 1999, and immediately I began to see hospitality as a metaphor for ministry, a metaphor that opened my heart and changed my daily encounters with others.
I was raised by a mother with a distinct and significant gift of hospitality. My childhood memories are full of parties and dinners that my mom hosted. She is an excellent cook, and her extraverted and warm relational style helps people feel welcome in her home. As soon as I moved into my first apartment, I started having people over for meals. When I got married, my husband and I continued that tradition. I deeply enjoy hosting people for meals, and I know I learned that skill and attitude as a child from my very hospitable mother.
Before I read Making Room, the word “hospitality” meant hosting people for meals and having houseguests from time to time. Christine Pohl helped me see hospitality as something bigger, an opportunity to meet the risen Christ in the lives of others, which might involve hosting people for meals or lodging but also means meeting Jesus in conversations and encounters with others in many settings where I am not necessarily the host or a guest. I now believe that every encounter is an opportunity to show hospitality and welcome, and this has shaped my understanding of Christian ministry in all forms.
The Bible is full of commands to be hospitable and models of hospitality. However, the biblical invitation to engage in hospitality goes far beyond specific verses that command it or stories that illustrate it. The deepest invitation to engage in acts of hospitality and welcome comes from the sweep of biblical history that shows the actions of a generous and hospitable God. This history began with God’s invitation to Adam and Eve to dwell in the Garden, and to abstain from eating one particular food. Adam and Eve violated this act of hospitality on God’s part, and the rest of biblical history is the account of God’s continual invitation and welcome to the people God created in love. In the incarnation we see Jesus, who came as a stranger to earth, but showed a profound welcome to the people he encountered.
We are sent into the world in the same way Jesus was sent (John 17:18), and this means trying to be receptive to the gift inside each person we meet. To be truly hospitable is to welcome with tenderness and kindness each person we encounter as a precious reflection of the image of God, even in those moments when we need to be forthright about something important to us. Being hospitable means to learn from everyone, growing as a listener and watching for the ways God is transforming us through the lives of the people we meet. Sometimes we meet people over a meal and sometimes in another setting, but wherever it happens, God calls us to extend a warm welcome in the spirit of Jesus Christ.
(This article originally appeared on the Godspace Light blog.)