There’s a knock at the door. It’s a stormy night and on your stoop stands an elderly woman, disheveled, cold, sick, and clearly distressed. Will you let her in? In this weather her fragile life is in jeopardy – but your own resources are scant, your own children in need. Leaving her in the elements means leaving her in danger; bringing her in means introducing danger to your own home.
It’s unlikely (though not impossible) that we would find ourselves in this conundrum today. A person of any age traveling far from home will likely have hotel reservations, be traveling by car, and carry a cell phone. Food can be purchased with a credit card; gas stations and other establishments meet basic needs 24/7; a call to 9-1-1 can result in assistance almost anywhere, anytime. If a stranger knocks on the door requesting help, we’re as likely to be scammed as anything else.
But for most of human history — and in some places still to this day — this was not the case. Travel was long and arduous. Without Hotels.com, Uber apps, or fast-food drive-thrus, men and women on a journey had to carry everything they needed for sustenance and shelter on their backs (or their pack animal’s back), or else find it along the way. The margin for error was terribly slim; travelers required the good-will of fellow humans, strangers they met on the road. And so, anyone who encountered a stranger or traveler in need was expected to practice the virtue of ‘Xenia,’ a Greek word meaning ‘guest-friendship.’ This practice was considered a sacred obligation to those traveling far from home. Strangers and sojourners, as potentially dangerous then as now, were to be treated with particular dignity as honored guests — for their lives depended on it, as your own might, someday. Anyone who encountered a stranger or traveler in need was expected to practice the virtue of ‘Xenia,’ a Greek word meaning ‘guest-friendship.’ This practice was considered a sacred obligation to those traveling far from home. Click To Tweet
Fairy Tales, Folk Stories, and Parables Teach This
This deeply engrained value was taught through cultural fables and children’s folk tales, often stories of unattractive, dangerous-looking folks begging for help. Later, the stories revealed these ragged travelers were actually powerful beings performing ‘Xenia’ quality-control spot checks. Under disguise they were kings, enchantresses, wizards, sorcerers. The men and women moved by compassion to sacrificially help even those who appeared least deserving were richly rewarded. Those who chose to protect themselves and leave the apparently needy, vulnerable person by the side of the road were severely punished.
Even my American children know these stories. One famous example is Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, which begins with a beggar woman seeking mercy at the castle entrance. When the prince refuses, she turns into the beautiful witch that she is and curses “the beast” and his household.
But the version of this story we know best — and overlook most often — was told by Jesus.
In Matthew 25:31-46, Jesus tells of a day when the Great King1 will sort every person on earth into two groups. One group will be richly rewarded; the other group severely punished.
“But why?” each group asks. “What did we do to deserve this?”
In answering, the Great King reveals his criteria: He had previously appeared to them, disguised as someone who was poor, hungry, thirsty, a stranger needing shelter, cold and needing clothing, sick and needing care, in prison and needing a visitor and advocate.
“But when?” both groups ask again, “When did you come to us in this disguise?”
“Anytime you saw someone, no matter how undeserving, who had these needs — it was me” the King responds. As in the fables and fairy tales of old, those who passed this test were rewarded with eternal life; those who did not were cast away.
As I wrote in Fearing Bravely,
In other words, the poor, sick, hungry, thirsty person you saw? That was the King in disguise all along. Not just once or twice for a spot check but each and every time. Jesus tells this story to clarify that anytime we see a human in need, God expects us to assume this person is him — and behave accordingly…Jesus drives home all the law and prophets, the greatest commandments, the sum of the Bible and the gospel, the full meaning of the parable of the Good Samaritan: Our love for God is measured on whether we show hospitality to strangers, to whomever needs it, whomever they may be.2 The poor, sick, hungry, thirsty person you saw? That was the King in disguise all along. Jesus tells this story to clarify that anytime we see a human in need, God expects us to assume this person is him, behaving accordingly. (1/2) Click To Tweet Anyone who encountered a stranger or traveler in need was expected to practice the virtue of ‘Xenia,’ a Greek word meaning ‘guest-friendship.’ This practice was considered a sacred obligation to those traveling far from home. (2/2) Click To Tweet
Hospitality: The Gift and the Practice
I have a friend who excels at what we call “the gift of hospitality.” She recently invited my family over for dinner — and treated us like royalty. Everything was spotless, everything comfortable and enjoyable. We sat under lights in the backyard eating and talking until long after the sun went down. Every time I thought we were done, another treat or beverage was presented. It was the perfect evening.
I’ll happily admit that I do not have the “gift of hospitality.” But as life-giving and generous as these occasions are, when it comes to hospitality as a Christian practice our duty and calling is not primarily to host lovely dinners for friends but to share what we have with those in need, even with strangers.
When it comes to hospitality as a Christian practice our duty and calling is not primarily to host lovely dinners for friends but to share what we have with those in need, even with strangers. Click To Tweet
The first Christian communities took Jesus at his word, practicing radical hospitality — or at least, that’s what they aimed for. Acts depicts a community so dependent upon each other for survival that “mine” was no longer a concept that made sense. Paul and the other New Testament epistle writers implored followers of Jesus again and again to practice hospitality and to give freely to each other. The Didache, a handbook of early Christian discipleship, commands the believers to “receive everyone who comes in the name of the Lord”3 and goes on to exhort Christians to “examine him and learn the nature of his situation. If he is only passing through, help him as much as you can, but he must not stay with you more than two or three days. If he wishes to settle with you and knows a trade, let him work and earn his bread. If he does not know a trade, use your judgment to decide how he should live as a Christian among you, but not in idleness. If he will not do this, he is trafficking upon Christ. Beware of such men.”4 Clearly, scammers are not unique to the modern world! Still, even the potential of strangers taking advantage did not detract from the need to open one’s home, family, and resources to a stranger for a number of days — even indefinitely if he or she were willing to contribute to the community in whatever way they could.
Long before Jesus taught his own community, the Scriptures closely linked stranger-welcome with loving and obeying God. Dozens of passages throughout the Old Testament echo the command in Leviticus 19:34 that “The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the Lord your God.” The prophets reminded the people that God’s will for them was to care for those in need: “Is [what I have chosen] not to share your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover him, and not to hide yourself from your own flesh?” (Isaiah 58:7). Whatever we may think of Sodom and Gomorrah’s faults, Ezekiel describes the twin cities this way: “Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy” (Ezekiel 16:49).
Jesus and his followers were clearly not identifying hospitality as a new practice; as the fairy stories and folk tales demonstrated, this virtue of stranger-love was baked into our collective conscience as far back as we can see.
When Jesus was asked to summarize all the law and prophets, he said “Love God and love your neighbor.” But when he was asked to clarify, he didn’t describe caring for the person next door: instead he described a traveler in need. The “righteous” and “godly” religious leaders felt it was too costly or dangerous to help, but a stranger (whom they would consider a heretic and enemy) served this traveler sacrificially. This person, Jesus said, not the one with right beliefs and doctrines, is the one who loves and pleases God. The person willing to show hospitality to a stranger, even when it was costly and dangerous.
Does this essential Christian practice carry forward today?
I’m not confident we even think about this sort of hospitality, much less consider guest-friendship and stranger-love a foundational practice for Christians. When we worry that Christian values are being eroded in society, is our willingness to care personally and generously for strangers a significant part of what we believe is in jeopardy? Do we consider strangers and anyone in need so sacred that we see them as essentially God standing before us?
Granted, it will look different for us to practice Christian hospitality in a world set up to accommodate global travelers with one click of a phone app. But there is much we could do if we took this virtue as seriously as Jesus (and the prophets and apostles) told us to. Consider our words, tone, and conversation when the topic of immigration comes up. Is our ethic and ideology formed by Jesus’ teaching on hospitality? Consider the under resourced in our communities, those without access to healthcare, or men and women in prison. Is providing for them and fellowshipping with them a central practice in our churches and personal devotion?
I wonder what it would look like if Jesus showed up at our door, our town, or even our church for a Xenia spot check. Would we recognize the opportunity to welcome and care for him? The Scriptures closely link stranger-welcome with loving and obeying God, such as Leviticus 19:34: 'The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt.' Click To Tweet
Catherine McNiel writes about the creative and redemptive work of God in our real, ordinary lives. She is the author of Fearing Bravely: Risking Love for Our Neighbors, Strangers, and Enemies; Long Days of Small Things: Motherhood as a Spiritual Discipline; and All Shall Be Well: Awakening to God’s Presence in His Messy, Abundant World. Catherine studies theology while caring for three kids, two jobs, and one enormous garden. Find Catherine on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.
1 *Editorial Note: Jesus speaks in Matthew 25 of the ‘Son of Man’ being seated on the throne in heavenly glory, judging our actions in this manner. Catherine has (wonderfully!) used poetic license here in the spirit of the folk tales she is referencing to call the ‘Son of Man’ the ‘Great King.’ ~CK
2 Catherine McNiel, Fearing Bravely, pp. 113-114.
3 Didache III: Life in the Community.