“Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels unaware.” (Hebrews 13:2)
From Halloween trick-or-treaters, to festival attendees, to holiday shoppers, to seasonal tourists, to new neighbors – community residents across America have many opportunities to show hospitality to strangers through their words and actions. We know the golden rule, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”. But what many of us don’t realize is how deeply hospitality is embedded in the Judeo-Christian tradition.
Within first-century Judaism, Abraham was heralded as the supreme practitioner of hospitality. In the Book of Genesis, he and his wife Sarah reach out in hospitality to three strangers, offering them a meal of milk, curd, calf meat, and cakes. While they are eating, one gives them the seemingly impossible news that Sarah will bear a son in her old age. These strangers are nothing less than angels in disguise, bringing with them life-changing news.
A few years prior to Jesus’ ministry, a large monument was erected by Herod the Great on the site of this meeting, not only commemorating the event, but also highlighting its centrality within the Jewish tradition. Why was hospitality so central in the life of the first-century Jew? They believed that the way they received the stranger, was how God would receive them at the great end-time banquet. If they were hospitable and welcoming, God would receive them in kind. Likewise, if they did not receive the stranger warmly, they would be received in the same way.
This gives me much to think about. What if God receives us in the same way we have received the stranger? Will we arrive only to find that walls have been erected to keep us out, or that community ordinances have been passed that make it more difficult for hospitality to be extended? Or will we find an atmosphere of welcome for all, with an empty rocking chair with our name on it that says, come sit next to me and let’s visit? On the great Main Street in the Sky will we be welcomed with open arms by those who are already comfortably in? Or will they put up one obstacle after another to make it clear we are not welcome?
Hospitality to the stranger was not only central to first-century Jewish and Christian belief; both religions are dependent on hospitality for their very existence. The Jewish faith was shared by traveling pairs of teachers, who were dependent on the hospitality of those who welcomed them into their homes.
Jesus and Paul followed in this tradition as they planted the seeds of the Christian church. Without strangers welcoming them into their homes, the gospel message may never have spread beyond the boundaries of Palestine. Without hospitality there may never have been one holy, Catholic, and apostolic church.
As we discuss reaching out to the stranger here in our community, we need to begin with one basic question. Who is the stranger?
One of my favorite stories about hospitality to the stranger is from the movie Sister Act. Whoopi Goldberg plays the role of a nightclub singer who witnesses a murder. As a result, her life is in danger. For protection, the police decide she should live in a convent, a most unlikely hideout. She is taken to a convent and directed to the Mother Superior’s study. Before the Mother Superior enters, a monsignor informs her of Whoopi’s predicament. The Mother Superior agrees to accept Whoopi as a member of the convent, until she opens the door and sees her. There sits Whoopi, wearing a gold lame coat, a purple-sequined outfit, and a profusion of jewelry. The Mother Superior gasps and shuts the door. The monsignor reminds her, in not-so-gentle tones, “You have taken a vow of hospitality to all in need.” With a straight face, the Mother Superior replies, “I lied.”
How often do we, upon seeing the strangers God sends our way, say somewhere in our heart of hearts, “I lied.” How many of us can say that, in reality, yes, there are times when we have been less than welcoming to the stranger in our midst – yes, at times bringing noise, at times trampling our bushes, at times wrecking our peaceful existence, at times challenging long held traditions and customs?
Yet, the first distinction of Christian hospitality is precisely that we welcome those who may not have been welcomed in other settings. Time and again Jesus broke with the custom of his day to reach out to the outcast, the marginalized.
When we make the decision to welcome all strangers, we become a link in the chain of hospitality that reaches back through Sarah and Abraham, through Jesus and his followers, through countless people of faith throughout the ages. And it is we who benefit in innumerable ways.
Be not forgetful to welcome the stranger, for in doing so many have entertained angels unaware. Are you entertaining angels? Is your community?