In a new book titled Next Door As It Is In Heaven, I write on the importance of understanding biblical hospitality in our pursuit of loving our neighbors. I like to use the adjective biblical to help differentiate this particular form of hospitality from what usually comes to mind. Most often we imagine that being hospitable revolves around entertaining; inviting family and friends into our homes for a meal or a night of fun and games.
Let’s be clear. There is certainly nothing wrong with sharing a meal with friends and family. However, this “entertaining” form of hospitality falls short of the depth and richness of the meaning of hospitality in Scripture. In the New Testament, the Greek word for “hospitality” is philoxenia, which is a combination of two words: phileo (love) and xenos (stranger). It literally means “love of stranger.” There are several implications to this definition.
First, in order to love the stranger and open our homes effectively, we need to expand our view of hospitality. Jesus challenges us to extend our circle beyond friends and relatives to include those in need:
When you give a luncheon or dinner, do not invite your friends, your brothers or sisters, your relatives, or your rich neighbors; if you do, they may invite you back and so you will be repaid. But when you give a banquet invite the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind, and you will be blessed, because they can not repay you (Luke 14:12).
Notice that the practice of genuine, biblical hospitality is distinct from entertaining because it reaches out to those who cannot reciprocate. Jesus tells us to invite those who can’t pay us back. In other words, invite those who are in need. Often when we invite friends into our homes for dinner there is an expectation that next time they will return the favor and have us over to their house. But the point of this passage is that customary “payback” hospitality is of no merit to God. As Darrell Bock puts it, “The best hospitality is that which is given, not exchange.”
A second important aspect of biblical hospitality is the understanding that strangers are not only people we don’t know. In a strict sense, strangers are those who are disconnected from basic relationships. So hospitality is not only about creating physical environments that are welcoming to others; it is also about the posture we take toward human relationships in general.
How many people in our neighborhood are living lives severed from basic relationships? Hospitality involves cultivating connections with those disconnected people. It encompasses a willingness to listen well to those who rarely have a voice. It is about turning our lives toward the other, welcoming them into a relationship with us and also inviting them into our network of relationships.
Here’s a personal example of being included relationally from my own life. During my senior year of high school I worked part time on a large farm just outside of town. During the fall there were so many acres needing to be plowed that for several days tractors would operate late into the evening. Being the youngest worker and the only non-family member, I usually drew the shortest straw and was stuck with the late-night shift.
One evening I didn’t finish plowing until around one in the morning. As I drove the tractor back to the barn I noticed a light on in farmhouse. When I reached the barn, Betty a wonderful Christian wife and mother in that farming family, came out to tell me that she’d kept a dinner warm and invited me to eat before traveling home. I sat at one end of the large kitchen table, enjoying a huge plate of chicken, potatoes, green beans and homemade dinner rolls, while Betty asked me questions about my life and family.
I had never had an adult outside of my own family welcome me in such a way. Betty not only opened her home to me, she welcomed me into her family. More than thirty years later I still vividly remember what it felt like to be included. I experienced true biblical hospitality that evening. As a young man who was experiencing the standard feelings of teenage rebellion and confusion, I felt loved, honored and welcomed that night. And I remember, as someone who didn’t know Jesus, wondering what on earth made this woman different. Why did she care to know who I was? Why did she want to hear my story? And why was I more than simply a boy who was hired to drive a tractor? In that simple act of hospitality, Betty gave me a glimpse into an alternative way of living.
Hospitality is a practice that “asks us to do what in the world’s eyes might seem inconsequential but from the perspective of the gospel is a manifestation of God’s kingdom.”(1) Looking back I can now see that is exactly what I experienced around that kitchen table that evening—a manifestation of God’s kingdom. I was being invited into another family.
1. Elizabeth Newman, Untamed Hospitality, (Grand Rapids: Brazo, 2007), 174