When you, dear reader, think of Christian values, which ones do you think are at the top for importance? I’d forgive you if you said sexual purity — some days it seems like all you ever hear from Christians in the media is talk about sex and how it’s bad. But no. Jesus says hardly anything about sex.
Some of the values I see most when I read the New Testament are:
– Being loving to all, including yourself
– Not being a hypocrite (especially not a religious hypocrite – for an example, Matthew 23:13 “‘But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you lock people out of the kingdom of heaven. For you do not go in yourselves, and when others are going in, you stop them.”)
– Sharing what you have
– And today’s topic… hospitality.
As I understand it (and it should now be noted that I != Biblical scholar), hospitality was a critical virtue in the ancient world in which the Bible was written. There were few inns, and pretty much no restaurants, quickie-marts, C-stores, or even cars to take shelter in. The earlier you went, the rarer the inns were. So if you had to go anywhere, you relied on hospitality and that hospitality was a sacred rite and obligation.
For example, in Genesis 19:6-8, Lot welcomes two angels into his home: “Lot went out of the door to the men, shut the door after him, and said, ‘I beg you, my brothers, do not act so wickedly. Look, I have two daughters who have not known a man; let me bring them out to you, and do to them as you please; only do nothing to these men, for they have come under the shelter of my roof.’” Lot’s obligation as a host here trumps his obligation as a father and caretaker to his daughters (harsh, huh?).
Throughout the New Testament there are stories of hospitality. Jesus’ very first miracle (by tradition — this miracle is only recorded in John) was helping a groom out of a predicament when the wine ran short at his wedding – a failing of the expectations of hospitality. Jesus then goes on the ACCEPT the hospitality of the unacceptable. He sits down with and eats meals with sinners, prostitutes, soldiers, tax collectors (who were probably as popular as drug dealers are for us), turncoats and traitors. When the disciples go out to spread the good news, they are told to shake the dust off their feet from any town which does not offer them appropriate hospitality.
Hospitality is harder than it was, because we’ve lost the habit of it. We don’t invite the homeless to come eat dinner with us because they might be sociopathic kleptomaniacs who will sleep in our front lawns for the rest of our lives if they know where we live. Strangers to our land, the aliens who also populate the Bible, do not expect a welcome to our homes. Instead they book rooms in Motel 8 and buy food from the “Excellent Mart” we’ve never been to; and we glance away across the gulf of culture at each other on the rare instances our paths cross.
I think about this imperative to welcome and nurture when I set the table for company. We do sometimes feed others, although it is usually friends. I wish that I had more courage to be more outrageously hospitable, and welcome the too-talkative, the kind of weird, the left out, the unknown to share a meal with my husband and I, and our two screeching sons. I meet people in those few margins of intersection, and I wish it was ok for me to say, “You look cold. Would you like to come in and have some dinner? There’s plenty.” I’m afraid to. I’m afraid that they will be offended. What if they’re perfectly well off and see my offer as pity? I’m afraid of the disruption in my tightly slotted life. I’m highly cognizant that culture is constantly telling me to be more afraid than I am. I’m supposed to teach my four year old “stranger danger” and it’ll be all my fault if he’s abducted by a dangerous pedophile because I never taught him that people he doesn’t know are enemies until proven otherwise.
Still, I’m haunted by the hospitality I don’t offer. There was the man and his two children, trudging up the hill our house sits on too late at night. Where was he going? Did he have a place? He seemed so quiet, and they so subdued. Would he have welcomed some warmth in the darkness, or was he just going on an evening constitutional?
There was the other man with the Santa beard — his name is Hal — at the grocery store. He was there the entire time I was. I bought $175 worth of nutritious produce, milk, meat, cereals — a veritable bounty. He, after looking in the scratch-and-dent section and walking all through the store… he bought a jar of sauce. Was he lonely? Bored? Hungry? Broke? Did he have a place to go? I wish I had the courage to ask him to come home with me, and I would fix him up a nice dinner and we would talk and he could be filled with company and food.
Did you know that is simply not done? And as a woman and a mother, it is particular verboten for me to do it. Risking my self (and my sexual purity and property) is bad enough. Exposing my sons to such risk, and my husband to such inconvenience? Keep it to a smile and small-talk. Even that, I’m told, is risky and only marginally appropriate.
I’m afraid to even pray for the courage to offer hospitality, because what if that courage arrives? Never ask the Holy Spirit for gifts you will not accept.
I don’t know how to end this rather rambly essay on a snappy note. I will say this, however. If you tire of the tropes of Christianity, why not pay attention to a different virtue this holiday season? Instead of being sparkly pure and blameless, like I know you are, why don’t you try to be courageously hospitable? Risk a little in the cause of kindness. Whether that’s eye contact where you would usually look away, or asking the homeless person you see what their name is, or even inviting someone to share your meal with you, tell the tsking voices to be silent for a moment.