On hospitality

Been thinking lately about how a theology of divine hospitality might better inform – and be informed by – pastoral practice, and then I came across this statement in Wolfgang Vondey’s fascinating book, People of Bread: Rediscovering Ecclesiology (New York: Paulist Press, 2008):

‘The Old Testament presents a harsh condemnation of inhospitable behavior. God’s judgment of Sodom shows that hospitality is not simply a social obligation but also an expression of the personal, moral responsibility of God’s people to others as well as to God. Jerusalem’s unflattering comparison with Sodom reveals not only the consequences of neglecting to offer one’s bread to strangers; it also underlines the effort necessary to engage in deliberate interaction and fellowship with those who are not from among us. Abraham is commissioned to teach his descendents the way of God’s justice and righteousness exhibited in the offer of hospitality and the sharing of companionship with those in need. As descendants of Abraham, the Israelites are called to be a people of bread who extend their companionship to the world.

The repeated emphasis on the “alien” is a fundamental element of the sharing of bread in the Hebrew scriptures. The memory of God’s hospitality in Israel’s experience of the exodus, when the Israelites were aliens in the land of Egypt, proves to be the motivation for Israel’s own extension of hospitality. God showed hospitality to Israel when the people were strangers, aliens, and outcasts. Marginalized and reduced to slavery, the Israelites found that they were no strangers to God. Companionship with God did not remove Israel’s alien status in the land of Egypt. However, God’s display of hospitality provided an environment in which the Israelites could experience companionship with one another and with God in the fellowship of bread.

God’s extension of hospitality allowed Israel to understand the moral failures of their past in a new light. God’s provision of bread invited Israel to participate in the sharing of stories from their past, enjoying the unexpected solidarity and impartiality of the present, and anticipating an unprecedented opportunity for freedom in the future. God’s provision of bread accompanied an even more daring display of hospitality: the deliverance of Israel from a life of exploitation and oppression. The people of bread experienced their God as the ultimate host who delivered them from a life of alienation and elevated them to be God’s chosen nation.

The sharing of bread with the stranger introduces the fellowship (koinonia) of God’s people to the notion of hospitality, a community-building practice performed on the basis of what Alasdair MacIntyre calls the “virtues of acknowledged dependence.” This dependence comes in the form of both the freedom and the responsibilities of companionship. Those who are liberated from their alien existence through God’s companionship are set free to extend God’s hospitality to all those who have remained strangers in the world. The Old Testament makes the experience of marginality and alienation normative for an understanding of hospitality. The extension of hospitality forms a bridge between the host and the guest by removing from their relationship the boundaries that inhibit solidarity and equality. Companionship with the stranger becomes an instrument of liberation, solidarity, and transformation.

Hospitality as a liberating and transforming practice of companionship is always particular, never generic. The relationship between host and guest stands at the forefront of the particular challenge of hospitality. Abraham’s and Lot’s displays of humility to their guests illustrate the attitude and behavior characteristic of the host’s role. Standing at the threshold of his own community, the host rushes out to meet the strangers, extending the realm of his companionship to those he does not know and breaking the sphere of alienation. In honest humility, the host identifies himself as the servant of his guests, offering not a favor but a service to those who are now no longer strangers but masters. In turn, the guests accept the invitation and are liberated from their alien status to participate in the fellowship of bread with those who likewise do not remain strangers but have become companions. Both host and guest forsake their position in their own communities for the sake of companionship. Put differently, the primary motivation for hospitality is the vision to live in a world without strangers.

The ambiguity about the identity of host and guest is a particularly important element in an ethic of hospitality. As John Koenig states, hospitality refers “not to a love of strangers per se but to a delight in the whole host-guest relationship, in the mysterious reversals and gains for all parties that may take place.” The willingness to forsake one’s position in the community for the sake of strangers comes with an uncertain risk attached. This risk lies neither in the host nor the guests themselves but in the community in which the act of hospitality takes place. Defending one’s hospitality to strangers, in the midst of a community that does not participate in the companionship, can make the host a stranger as well. At that point, hospitality comes at a greater cost than companionship. The preservation of hospitality at all costs requires from the very beginning a willingness to forsake one’s social status, community, or class by identifying one’s whole life and being with the fate of the stranger. As Scott H. Moore remarks, “To invite the stranger into one’s home is to make that which is private public and to introduce what is public into the private.” The sharing of bread with the stranger remains the most tangible expression of the commitment to companionship and the execution of righteousness and justice beyond the realm of one’s own community.

The challenge of hospitality as a surrender of oneself is well illustrated in the example of God’s hospitality at the exodus. In the biblical texts, hospitality to strangers is portrayed from the very beginning as a theological relationship mirroring the human companionship with God: hospitality to others is hospitality to God. The bread shared with the stranger is a service directed ultimately to God. John Chrysostom placed particular emphasis on this aspect:

This is hospitality, this is truly to do it for God’s sake. But if you give orders with pride, though you bid him take the first place, it is not hospitality, it is not done for God’s sake. The stranger requires much attendance, much encouragement, and with all this it is difficult for him not to feel abashed; for so delicate is his position, that whilst he receives the favor, he is ashamed. That shame we ought to remove by the most attentive service, and to show by words and actions, that we do not think we are conferring a favor, but receiving one, that we are obliging less than we are obliged.

Chrysostom stressed the idea that the motivation for hospitality among God’s people is born not only out of an identification of oneself with the stranger but also out of an identification of the stranger with God. Hospitality is the challenge to see in the stranger also the presence of God. In other words, the Israelites are asked to share their bread with strangers not because they are a people of bread but because they are the people of God. The freedom of extending one’s companionship to the marginalized and outcasts of society is a gift from God that establishes a testing ground for hospitality in commemoration and imitation of God’s companionship with the world. Hospitality thus becomes a means of both service to the world and worship of God, as we are reminded in this third-century homily:

For if you really wish to worship the image of God, you would do good to humans, and so worship the true image of God in them … If therefore you wish truly to honor the image of God, we declare to you what is true; that you should do good to and pay honor and reverence to everyone, who is made in the image of God. You should minister food to the hungry, drink to the thirsty, clothing to the naked, hospitality to the stranger, and necessary things to the prisoner. That is what will be regarded as truly bestowed upon God.

For the people of God, the primary challenge of hospitality is not only to abide by the rules of social and economic equality and solidarity but also to acknowledge God as the recipient of their moral actions. The bread shared with the stranger is companionship with God extended to the world as a reflection of God’s justice and righteousness.

From an ecclesiological perspective, hospitality is an extension of the covenant relationship with God into the world. In the covenant, the people of bread acknowledge God as the God of hospitality. The premise and goal of all hospitality is God’s companionship with humankind. The bread shared with the stranger is God’s bread. More precisely, however, the biblical texts portray the people of God as a catalyst for the extension of God’s invitation to the world. Israel is singled out as a chosen nation based not on their own achievement but on God’s love (see Deut 7:7–8). Hospitality to the stranger is a reflection of God’s hospitality in Israel’s past, particularly the commemoration of the Passover as a celebration of the final and eternal liberation of God’s people. In this sense, Israel’s call to companionship is also a prophetic sign of God’s extended hospitality to the world in the future.” The promise of God’s eschatological hospitality remains connected to the image of bread: Israel’s bread will not fail, the produce of the ground will be rich and plenteous (see Isa 30:25; 51:14; 55:10–11). The people of God are commissioned “to share their bread” not only with one another but with the stranger, the Gentiles, the foreign nations who one day will partake in God’s fellowship of bread (see Isa 58:7; 60:10–13; Ezek 47:21–23). The sharing of God’s companionship makes God’s hospitality available to those who are still outside of God’s covenant and invites them to share in the eternal fellowship at God’s table.

The sharing of God’s bread introduces to the world the story of God’s people, redirecting the world to an experience of God’s hospitality, and opening up possibilities for companionship with God. The fourth-century bishop Ambrose of Milan reminds us that the hospitality of God’s people is seen as a recommendation of God and approval of God’s people in the eyes of the world. The biblical texts portray hospitality as a call to keep the doors open for the stranger and for God in order to share in solidarity, equality, and unity in the fellowship of bread. This invitation is an indication that God’s covenant ultimately extends beyond the nation of Israel to all of humankind. The God of hospitality asks the people of bread to forsake a life of indifference, self-centeredness, and isolation for the sake of companionship with those who are not of the same nation, race, gender, culture, or faith.

Significantly, God’s call to show hospitality to the world takes place in an environment of sin, violence, isolation, and hostility. The free and selfless display of hospitality provides a key for the establishment of God’s justice and righteousness in the world. God’s challenge to invite the alien and outsider is accompanied by the equally challenging command to remain distant from the transgression and wickedness of the world.

Do not intermarry with them, giving your daughters to their sons or taking their daughters for your sons, for that would turn away your children from following me, to serve other gods. Then the anger of the LORD would be kindled against you, and he would destroy you quickly. But this is how you must deal with them: break down their altars, smash their pillars, hew down their sacred poles, and burn their idols with fire. For you are a people holy to the LORD your God; the LORD your God has chosen you out of all the peoples on earth to be his people, his treasured possession. (Deut 7:3–6)

The concrete display of hospitality shows clear elements of both invitation and separation. The message of the Old Testament is to invite the stranger but to separate from Sodom. Hospitality is an invitation directed to the unprivileged and outcasts of society. The host exercises “the option or love of preference for the poor” by inviting them to find refuge and shelter among the people of God. On the other hand, hospitality provides an environment in which God’s justice and righteousness are established in the world. Host and guest are liberated to enter into companionship with one another and with a holy God. In this way, they become companions to each other but strangers to the world. Ultimately, the display of hospitality serves an act of separation of both host and guest from unrighteousness and sin.

Finally, the notion of hospitality reveals that the execution of God’s justice and righteousness is not restricted to a sinful world but is equally directed at God’s people. Those who were once strangers are called to forsake but not to forget their alienation and oppression. God’s people are motivated to companionship with the oppressed, the poor, and the stranger because they have experienced oppression, poverty, alienation, and sin but no longer participate in them. For those who were once persecuted it is a moral imperative to display hospitality to those who continue to suffer persecution. Morality, then, is the function of life in which the self-centered person extends an invitation to include others in his or her life. Together, host and guest enter a realm of hospitality in which shared moral action can be established on the basis of companionship with God. The call of God’s people to show hospitality is not simply a call to still the hunger of the world but to invite a divided world into a holy and consecrated companionship with God. God’s provision of bread thus remains a testing ground for the solidarity of God’s people with the fate of the world.

The New Testament emphasizes the social and moral responsibility of God’s people with particular force and infuses the challenge of hospitality with further meaning. In the community of the first Christians, the significance of companionship with God and the world is emphasized and transformed by the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The image of bread in the Gospels hearkens back to the meaning of bread as a representation of the human relationship with God and with one another and finds its climax in the identification of the bread with the body of Christ. In the celebration of the Lord’s Supper, the human and divine extension of hospitality merge into one gracious invitation to participate in the sharing of the bread of life’. (pp. 97–104)

2 comments

  1. Helpful reflections. Worth reflecting too on the hospitality of the ‘Marriage Supper of Lamb’ which has juxtaposed the hospitality of the ‘Great Supper of God’.

    Rev 19:17-21 (ESV)
    Then I saw an angel standing in the sun, and with a loud voice he called to all the birds that fly directly overhead, “Come, gather for the great supper of God, to eat the flesh of kings, the flesh of captains, the flesh of mighty men, the flesh of horses and their riders, and the flesh of all men, both free and slave, both small and great.” And I saw the beast and the kings of the earth with their armies gathered to make war against him who was sitting on the horse and against his army. And the beast was captured, and with it the false prophet who in its presence had done the signs by which he deceived those who had received the mark of the beast and those who worshiped its image. These two were thrown alive into the lake of fire that burns with sulfur. And the rest were slain by the sword that came from the mouth of him who was sitting on the horse, and all the birds were gorged with their flesh.

    The hospitality of ch22 is also salutory

    Rev 22:14-15 (ESV)
    Blessed are those who wash their robes, so that they may have the right to the tree of life and that they may enter the city by the gates. Outside are the dogs and sorcerers and the sexually immoral and murderers and idolaters, and everyone who loves and practices falsehood.

    Only the ‘clean’ can eat of the tree of life.

    God’s hospitality is only possible in a context of exlusion and violence in a sinful world. You make this point well. Often those keen to emphasize hospitality have little place for divine violence.

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  2. Thank you for your reflections on my book. May I add that these words are both descriptive and prescriptive. The book describes what I see as the biblical reality of hospitality and companionship and suggests that this is the way things should be done in the churches today. In fact, to be church is to be hospitable. The sharing and fellowship of bread is the most practical representation of this companionship. At the same time, the reality looks otherwise. It is one thing to say this is the way to be church and quite another to say this is the way church really is. The framework of the book is a call to the churches to become a people of bread. We are far from it!

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