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And You Welcomed Me
A Sourcebook on Hospitality in Early Christianity
By Amy G. Oden
Abingdon PressCopyright © 2001 Abingdon Press
All rights reserved.
Hospitality and the Early Christian World
They had come to listen. Time had gotten on, and the people were hungry. Rather than sending them away, five fish and two loaves were passed around. Everyone ate. All were filled. There was food left over to fill twelve baskets.
In the oft retold story of the feeding of the five thousand, there is no mention of the term hospitality, but it is amply evident. Jesus and his disciples become hosts to the thousands crowding around for a look or a touch or a word. As makeshift hosts they offer hospitality to these strangers with whatever they have on hand, and, in the end, receive more food in the twelve baskets of leftovers than they started out with.
The Christian tradition has much to say about hospitality, and among Christians today there is renewed interest in hospitality as a virtue and a practice within the Christian life. Conversations, scholarship, and conferences on hospitality in the last few years have brought attention to the ways a developed notion of hospitality might contribute to Christian community and identity, as well as to mission, spiritual growth, and even contemporary worship.
As the conversation broadens, it is important to bring historical voices to the table, listening to how our ancestors learned and lived hospitality. Like grandparents, aunts, and uncles at a family reunion, these voices remind us of who we are as the Christian family, what we have lived, and how God has moved among us. This collection contributes to the conversation, garnering the wealth and wisdom of early Christian voices on hospitality.
What Is Hospitality?
At the very least, hospitality is the welcoming of the stranger (hospes). While hospitality can include acts of welcoming family 13 and friends, its meaning within the Christian biblical and historical traditions has focused on receiving the alien and extending one's resources to them. Hospitality responds to the physical, social, and spiritual needs of the stranger, though, as we shall see, those of the host are addressed as well. Early Christian texts pay attention to each of these areas.
On the face of it, hospitality begins with basic physical needs of food and shelter, most powerfully symbolized in table fellowship, sharing food and drink at a common table. Sharing food together enables more than getting nourishment. Eating together is symbolic of partaking of life itself. Jesus' own table fellowship with sinners and socially marginal people witnesses to the power of the hospitality of the realm of God.
Hospitality might entail meeting physical needs beyond food, such as a foot washing or bath, medical treatment, shelter, clothing, supplies for the journey, and even care of animals. Jesus' final meal with the disciples (Matthew 26:17-30; Luke 22:14-28; Mark 14:12-25) illustrates several of the material features of hospitality, namely, washing feet, a servant host, food and drink.
Hospitality includes meeting social as well as physical needs. An important component of hospitality is helping the outsider or the poor feel welcome, which at times requires more than food and drink—a recasting of social relations. Including the other in one's circle of friends or business associates, sponsoring an outsider, welcoming a servant, or mentoring an apprentice can be acts of social hospitality. Acts of inclusion and respect, however small, can powerfully reframe social relations and engender welcome.
Finally, hospitality encompasses spiritual needs. Prayer features in early Christian texts about hospitality as an acknowledgment of common dependence of both host and guest on God for everything. Prayers of healing and safe travel are frequent, as are prayers of gratitude. Sometimes hospitality means including the stranger in worship, Eucharist, or other liturgical acts. Hosts also attend to the spiritual needs of guests through listening to their stories or receiving them into the larger community.
Taken as a feature of Christian life, hospitality is not so much a singular act of welcome as it is a way, an orientation that attends to otherness, listening and learning, valuing and honoring. The hospitable one looks for God's redemptive presence in the other, confident it is there, if one only has eyes to see and ears to hear. Hospitality, then, is always a spiritual discipline of opening one's own life to God's life and revelation.
Hospitality as a Moral Category
For all this, the word "hospitality" has lost its moral punch over recent centuries. Reduced to connoting refreshments at meetings or magazine covers of gracious living, the moral landscape in which it resides has all but faded into the background. Yet it is this moral and spiritual landscape that early Christian voices can help us recover.
Hospitality is characterized by a particular moral stance in the world that can best be described as readiness. Early Christian voices tell us again and again that whether we are guest or host we must be ready, ready to welcome, ready to enter another's world, ready to be vulnerable. This readiness is expectant. It may be akin to moral nerve. It exudes trust, not so much that one will succeed in some measurable way, but that participation in hospitality is participation in the life of God. Such readiness takes courage, gratitude, and radical openness. This moral orientation to life relinquishes to God both the practice of hospitality and its consequences. At the same time, the readiness that opens into hospitality also leads to repentance.
For those who participate in hospitality, a "de-centering of perspective" occurs. In the experience of hospitality both the host and the guest encounter something new, approaching the edge of the unfamiliar and crossing it. Hospitality shifts the frame of reference from self to other to relationship. This shift invariably leads to repentance, for one sees the degree to which one's own view has become the only view. The sense one has of being at home and of familiarity with the way things are is shaken up by the reframing of reference to the other, and then to relationship. One can then not be "at home" in quite the same way. When we realize how we have inflated our own frame of reference and imposed it on all of reality, we know we have committed the sin of idolatry, of taking our own particular part and making it the whole.
This de-centering and reframing that accompanies hospitality is the very movement the New Testament calls metanoia, or turning, usually translated "repentance." This turning and repentance occurs not only in the interior landscape of the individual, but also in the exterior landscape of the community. As communities become more hospitable they experience a de-centering of perspective, too: they become more aware of the structural inequalities that exist in and around them and repent.
While we may look at hospitable practices of early Christians and see them as nothing more than good deeds, hospitality was not simply a matter of private virtue. It was embedded in community and a sign of God's presence in that community, and so was an embodiment of a biblical ethic. Both the Old and New Testaments identify a duty of hospitality (Genesis 18:4, 19:7, Judges 19:20, Matthew 10:40-41, Romans 12:13). Abraham in particular is identified as embodying hospitality when he receives the strangers under the oaks of Mamre (Genesis 18:1-15), the benefits of which extend far beyond himself. Through "entertaining angels unawares" the creation of God's people begins as the birth of Isaac is promised to Sarah. The New Testament continues this theme through the frequent references to the breaking of the bread which symbolizes the presence of sacred community. While texts usually focus on a particular host and a particular guest, there is almost always a larger communal context for hospitality that orients and undergirds it.
One wonders whether early Christians would have offered hospitality to the vulnerable without these injunctions to reach out to these groups. Turning attentions to vulnerable populations entails risk. It exposes one to the possibility of illness, injury, theft, or disgrace. What incentive would anyone have to extend hospitality when little reward could be expected and danger was likely? It is precisely this circumstance that makes a population vulnerable. But we shall see that it is not the requirement to do good that moves early Christians to practice hospitality, though that must surely play a part. Rather, it is the location of hospitality within a larger spiritual economy, the oikos or household of God, that provides the rationale for hospitality.
Precedents for Hospitality in the Ancient World
Christians were not unique in the ancient world either in the practice of or the value they placed on hospitality. Hospitality was valued to varying degrees across most cultures. The ancient cultures from which Christianity drew most heavily, Hebrew, Greek, and Roman, all valued hospitality highly. These cultural precedents should briefly be noted.
Ancient Hebrews understood themselves to be outsiders in Pharaoh's Egypt, wanderers in the wilderness, and settlers in the Promised Land. Their corporate identity was deeply rooted in a sense of being strangers, even though they also understood themselves to be God's chosen people. It is no surprise, then, that Mosaic law speaks to the proper attitude to "strangers and sojourners among us," providing inclusion in the community and specific protections as well. For example, the requirement to rest on the Sabbath specifically includes slaves and resident aliens (Exodus 20:10; 23:12; Deuteronomy 5:1415). Further, the Torah prohibits the abuse or exploitation of aliens, the poor, widows and orphans (Exodus 22:21; 23:9; Deuteronomy 24:14-15).
This awareness in Hebrew culture of the vulnerability of strangers has precedents in Egyptian culture and law. The teachings of Amen-em-ope, an Egyptian who taught between 1250 and 1000 B.C.E., includes the following:
Do not steal from the poor,
Do not cheat the cripple.
Do not abuse the elderly,
Do not refuse to let the aged speak.
The Hebrew prophets follow suit, listing the poor, the sick, the aged, and the widow together as protected classes.
Hospitality in Hebrew culture, however, is more than negative commands to avoid harming certain groups. Hospitality is positively expressed through stories of welcome told in the Old Testament. Abraham and Sarah welcome the strangers under the oaks of Mamre (Genesis 18:19). Rahab welcomes and protects the stranger spies from Joshua's army (Joshua 2). The widow of Zarephath gives her all to the stranger prophet, Elijah (1 Kings 17:8-24). In all of these stories, hospitality centers in the household and the sharing of its resources with strangers. All of these acts of hospitality play a role in furthering God's movement in creating and redeeming God's people.
Greek and Roman Precedents
Ancient Greek culture had a well-developed notion of hospitality and its obligations. Because wayfarers were considered helpless and therefore under the special protection of Zeus, ancient Greeks considered hospitality a basic feature of a civilized people which distinguished them from more primitive cultures that succumbed to xenophobia, or fear of strangers. The sense that strangers warranted protection is found frequently in the most ancient Greek literature. Not only do humans seek and receive welcome, but often gods in disguise do, as well. This theme of divine visitation, or theoxenia, can be found throughout Greek literature.
So also in Roman culture, hospitality is prized as a virtue of civilization and a privilege of patrons. Early in Roman society, perhaps as soon as 399 B.C.E., hospitality to strangers was simply obedience to divine will. Both Cicero and Ovid cite the sacred duty of hospitality. The jus hospitii, or law of hospitality, regulated seven different categories of relationship and the hospitality properly accorded in each case.
New Testament Passages
The Christian New Testament, written in Greek, reflects all of these influences with regard to hospitality. First-century Judaism incorporated hospitality especially into the institutions of the Sabbath and the synagogue. The Gospels portray Jesus' notion of hospitality most vividly in Matthew 25 and Luke 14. In Matthew 25, Jesus tells of the great day of reckoning, in which those who have been hospitable to the least are welcomed into the Kingdom. Jesus identifies hospitality to these with hospitality to himself:
"Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the Kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me." Then the righteous will answer him, "Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?" And the king will answer them, "Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me."
We shall see that receiving the "least of these" is a recurrent theme throughout early Christian literature on hospitality.
Similarly, in Luke, Jesus recasts the conventional notions of hospitality in his instructions about who is to be welcomed when one gives a banquet. God's household does not rest on the usual family and social ties that reinforced status and brought mutual benefit. Instead, God's household extends much further:
When you give a dinner or a banquet, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your kinsmen or rich neighbors, lest they also invite you in return, and you be repaid. But when you give a feast, invite the poor, the maimed, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you. You will be repaid at the resurrection of the just.
It is significant that, in the last days of his life, Jesus proclaims the new covenant while gathered together with friends to share the Passover meal. In fact, the food and drink are themselves the signs of the new covenant (Matthew 26:28, Mark 14:24; Luke 22:20; John 6:51). Jesus' presence in the bread and the wine signals the hospitality of Christ himself welcoming all who would come into the table fellowship of the Kingdom. This correlation of incarnated presence with hospitality will be made explicitly in early Christian texts.
Warrants for Hospitality
If hospitality is welcoming the stranger, this begs the question: who is the stranger? In this collection of early Christian texts, descriptions of hospitality and its constituents cover quite a scope. Early Christians talk about hospitality to the sick and injured, to the widow and orphan, to the sojourner and stranger, to the aged, to the slave and imprisoned, to the poor and hungry. At times it seems there is no class of people not included within the scope of hospitality. Perhaps that is as it should be, for there are many ways to construe otherness, in terms of health, economic class, family relations, nationality, age, or social status.
If we look closely at the specific categories of people who warrant hospitality in these texts, we will see that they have one thing in common: they are all vulnerable populations. They exist on the margins, both socially and economically. They can easily be ignored and seldom bring status or financial gain to those who reach out to them.
Early Christians, along with many other ancient cultures, often group these different vulnerable populations together when enumerating their moral obligations. Jesus himself proclaims his mission to bring good news to the poor, the captives, the blind, and the oppressed, appealing to Isaiah (Isaiah 61:1-2; Luke 4:18-19). Similar lists occur in writings from early Christian communities trying to determine how to live out the gospel. For example, a letter attributed to Clement of Rome commands Christians to visit the sick, the orphans and widows, the poor, the hungry, and those harassed by evil spirits. Similarly, a text reminding Christians to honor the image of God in every person lists the hungry, thirsty, naked, the stranger, and the prisoner, groups of people whose imago dei might not typically be presumed. Their mutual vulnerability is recognized following Christ's pattern in Matthew 25:37-40 where the same list of groups constitutes the "least of these who are members of my family."
What follows is a brief look at the vulnerability of each of these populations in the ancient world, roughly the first five centuries of Christianity, with occasional excerpts that provide the warrant for hospitality.
Excerpted from And You Welcomed Me by Amy G. Oden. Copyright © 2001 Abingdon Press. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
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