"He entered his own realm, and his own would not receive him" (John 1:10, NEB). In these few words from John's prologue we glimpse the intractable depths of human estrangement from God. The One from whom all things receive their form, the One whose vitality animates each creature, the One whose proprietary claim upon the world is without boundaries, once journeyed to his own domain and no doors opened to receive him. Placed within the richly developed context of ancient near eastern hospitality, such an event would be beyond imagination. In Greek and Roman society hospitality to foreigners was a sign of culture as well as a religious obligation. Down the centuries the people of Israel were repeatedly called to offer hospitality to strangers as a work of mercy and a reminder that once they had been aliens in the distant land of Egypt (Deut. 10:19). The possibility that an earthly sovereign could enter his own kingdom and not receive the most minimal expression of hospitality was unthinkable. How much more inconceivable is it, then, that we should refuse to welcome the very Source of our life?
The bedrock importance of hospitality for the early church and for us derives from the drama of human inhospitality being embraced and transfigured by divine hospitality. In Jesus Christ, God has tasted to the full the precarious existence of the stranger in an unfamiliar land (Matt. 8:20). But the excluded God is in reality the inclusive Host who invites to the banquet not only the privileged and well respected but also the destitute and disparaged (Luke 14:16-24). Indeed, God's hospitality draws so wide a circle that it sets a place at table for strangers in their original role as the fearsome, enigmatic enemy. Thus Jesus instructs his followers to love their enemies (Matt. 8:20) and embodies his teaching by sharing a meal with his betrayer (Matt. 26:20-25). It is this fundamental re-weaving of basic human relationships in Jesus Christ that motivates Paul to declare: "Welcome one another, therefore, as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God" (Rom. 15:7, NRSV).
Hospitality is a concrete expression of the love that now binds us to God and to one another. A story from the desert tradition illustrates the redemptive impulse deep within Christian hospitality: "A brother asked an old man: 'If I see a monk whom I have heard is guilty of a sin, I cannot persuade my soul to bring him into my cell. But if I see a good monk, I gladly bring him in.' And the old man said: 'If you do good to a good brother, it is little to him. To the other, give twofold, for it is he who is sick '" ["The Sayings of the Fathers" in Western Asceticism, trans. by Owen Chadwick (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1958), p. 186.] The abba could have added that offering hospitality only to a "good" brother also would do little for the monk himself. Hospitality, which shares linguistic history with "hospital," brings healing to host as well as guest because welcoming the stranger is a medium of growth toward fullness of life. In the experience of hospitality both guest and host receive something they need that can only be obtained through the unique ministration of hospitable relationships. Indeed, because hospitality demonstrates a radically transformed human posture of receptivity to God and generosity toward God's creatures, it is a primary sign of the new creation, God's reigning in our midst.
From Weavings: A Journal of the Christian Spiritual Life, January/February 1994. Copyright © 1993 by The Upper Room. Used with permission.
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