A. BIBLE FAVOURITES
As I have moved around, I have been constantly amazed at the number of people who are able to quote passages from the bible. Of course, not all would have a clue where to find their particular passage, many of the renditions are not totally accurate, and some have no idea that they are actually quoting the bible. Nevertheless, it is a remarkable reflection of the influence that the bible has had on our culture.
It could be a passage that was taught at school or Sunday school. For example, I particularly remember having to learn off by heart John 3:16: “For God so loved the world, etc”. On the other hand, it could be a passage that was made famous in song, like the Pete Seager classic Turn, Turn, Turn—based on the passage from Ecclesiastes (3:1-8)—stating that there is a time for everything. Then again, it could be something that appealed to someone’s sense of humour. Like Jesus’s biting comment to the Pharisees, who had the practice of straining their water to get rid of insects, before they drank it, “You blind leaders! You strain a gnat, then swallow a camel.” (Mt 23:24). Or it might be a passage that has a lot of spiritual meaning. For example, Paul’s exhortation to the church at Rome: “There is, then, no penalty for those who belong Christ Jesus,” (Romans 8:1).
As a consequence, this has set me thinking, “What is my favourite verse, and why do I like it?”
And the first one I came up with was this one—the verse from Hebrews 13:2— “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing so some have unknowingly entertained angels.” Now this verse has always intrigued and challenged me.
Firstly, because it appears to fly in the face of modern attitudes towards strangers. It reminds me that Christian values are often quite distinct, quite different from worldly values. I am therefore constantly challenged to decide which code of rules I am going to live by—God’s rules or the worlds?
And secondly, because it’s a reminder, that some of the people I meet day by day, could actually be sent my way by God. And not knowing who they are in advance means that I always need to be on my toes.
But that’s me… that’s my favourite. But what does it really mean to entertain strangers?
Well these days, some might consider sitting someone down in front of the TV or putting on a video as providing entertainment. But that’s not what is meant here. Hospitality in biblical times was prized as a virtue by Jews, Gentiles and Christians alike. It referred to the friendly and generous reception of guests (and strangers) under all sorts of circumstances.
1. Abraham (Genesis 18:1-8)
For example, in the Old Testament it was a practice epitomised by Abraham. Here he was sitting outside his tent at Mamre, in the heat of the day, when he looked up and saw three men standing nearby. Three total strangers he’d never seen before. It was the hottest and most inconvenient part of the day. And yet, he immediately he got up, rushed over to the men, and offered them hospitality. He offered to bathe their feet and provide food for their needs. And in what has been described as almost royal honours, he killed his choicest calf to provide what would have been a lavish meal. Typical Bedouin hospitality.
2. Rebekah (Genesis 24:15-28)
Similarly, with Rebekah, coming out of the town of Nahor to fill her jar with water at the spring. Now she saw Abraham’s servant coming to meet her—and didn’t have a clue who he was. But she probably guessed from his state that he’d been travelling for miles. He was obviously tired and thirsty. So, she not only provided water for him to drink, but she drew enough water from the spring for his camels, and provided food and lodgings for the night as well.
3. Zacchaeus, Mary and Martha
And turning to the New Testament, there are the examples of Zacchaeus, and Mary and Martha. In both cases Jesus finding himself on the receiving end of hospitality. Zacchaeus, the tax collector, who gladly accepted Jesus into his home (Luke 19:9). And Mary and Martha giving a dinner in Jesus’ honour, in which about a pint of perfume was poured on Jesus’ feet (John 12:1-8).
However, Jesus was not only on the receiving end of hospitality. For he may not have had a home to invite people to, but that didn’t stop him feeding the multitudes on more than one occasion. 5,000 in one case (Mk 6:30-44), and 4,000 in another (Mk 8:1-13). And that was just the number of men, let alone the women and children.
Jesus also talked about the importance of hospitality. He told the parable of the Good Samaritan (Lk 10:30-37), demonstrating the need to care for one another—even strangers, even people of different beliefs and cultures. And then, Jesus told the disciples about judgement day. He told the story of dividing the sheep from the goats (Matthew 25:31-46). And in that story, he concluded that those who fed the hungry, gave drink to the thirsty, invited strangers into their homes, gave clothes to those who need them, and who had visited those who were sick or in prison, had effectively done those things to him.
So, in the bible hospitality is prized highly. And so much so that the Apostle Paul, who himself must have been at the receiving end of people’s hospitality many times, exhorted the people of the Roman church to “Contribute to the needs of the saints. Pursue hospitality to strangers” (Romans 12:13).
He also wrote to Timothy (1 Tim 3:2) and Titus (Tit 1:8), stating that the practice of hospitality was an essential role for the elders of a church.
C. THE ALTERNATIVES
So, where does that leave us today? Well obviously, providing hospitality, with all its variety of meaning, is something that as Christians we should prize highly. However, as I said at the outset, it rather does conflict with modern attitudes towards strangers. And it may mean that we have much to unlearn.
1. The Dangers
Because, in our society today, the idea of not talking to strangers, or the (older) attitude of only talking to strangers after having been introduced, may make sense to some degree. But is this the Christian way? The stories that we hear about people ripping one another off, and even our own personal experiences, may mean that there’s a tendency to withdraw into ourselves for our own protection, and not to offer hospitality at all. But is this what we are supposed to be like?
These days it seems lack of trust and suspicion is the order of the day—not an open heart to help those in need. People seem more concerned about the protection of self and the protection of property. But then, these days, maybe we have so much more to lose.
2. The Blessings
The other side of the coin, however, is that even though some people may have got their fingers burnt, what about the blessings that others have received because of the hospitality they have given to passing strangers.
After all, in the story of Abraham, the three strangers, Abraham later discovered, were two angels, and God himself. And because of his hospitality Abraham received great blessings from his encounter. He received the promise of a son, Isaac (Gen 18:10), the promise that he would become the father of a great and powerful nation (Gen 18:18), the right to plead for the saving of the righteous people of Sodom (Gen 18:23), and the rescue of Lot and his daughters from Sodom (Gen 19:29-30). And all that from that one encounter. Rebekah was also blessed, by returning with Abraham’s servant and becoming Isaac’s wife. And the number of strangers blessed by Jesus in his earthly ministry, would have phenomenal too.
3. Not Being Naïve (The Didache)
Having said all that, we shouldn’t be naïve. Because, when the church was probably less than a hundred years old, a handbook was written on morals and church order. It claimed to be based on the teaching of Jesus to the disciples. And the book, called the Didache, included some advice about hospitality.
So, for example, travellers who professed to be Christians were deemed to be frauds if they stayed more than two nights. When they left, you were supposed to give them food to take with them. But if they asked for money, they were deemed not to be genuine.
Nevertheless, the general philosophy was that people were given the benefit of the doubt, until they proved themselves otherwise.
Now as Christians, the way we treat people, is not only a response to faith, but is seen by others as a measure of our beliefs. And our faith is something we need to jealously protect.
The dilemma for us today, then, is that our faith teaches us that hospitality (particularly to strangers) is something that is highly prized, and yet, we live in a world where lack of trust is the order of the day. We have the example of the early church not to be totally naïve. But we also have the problem that if we take that too far, and protect ourselves too well, then we risk losing being hospitable altogether.
That favourite verse of mine again: “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing so some have unknowingly entertained angels.”
Now that verse is quite a challenge, particularly in this day and age. Because, if we practice hospitality, there’s a risk we might get used and taken for a ride. But if we don’t then we risk missing out on any blessings that might otherwise come our way.
That verse from Hebrews is one of my favourite verses. And is quite a challenge. But what is your favourite verse? And why does it appeal to you?
Posted: 21st July 2018
© 2018, Brian A Curtis