The phrase “biblical hospitality” gets thrown around a lot, but what does it really mean? Dorothea H. Bertschmann from Durham University writes about ancient Jewish hospitality customs, helping us understand biblical stories that involve hospitality more clearly. The one word that seems to matter most is: reciprocity. There are three types of reciprocity that motivated ancient Jewish hospitality.
Do you remember the story of Abraham and the three visitors who announce Sarah will have a son in Genesis 18? Abraham wakes up from an afternoon nap in his front-porch rocking chair, sees three complete strangers traveling on the road that goes by his house, and immediately jumps up to greet them and invite—beg them, really—into his home so that he can wash their feet, give them a place to rest from their journey. Then Sarah use her best flour to bake them each a loaf of bread for the road.
Can you imagine doing that today? What if you were inviting a criminal into your house? But that was the risk Abraham was taking. And he was willing to risk it because of theoxenia— a practice of lavish generosity, not because of altruism, but because there might be angels among us. This was still a belief and custom in the time of Jesus. Welcoming the stranger in case the traveler was divine. It was a matter of sacred obligation with the hope that possible divine favor would be shown at a later date.
Then there was the less risky form of hospitality to the traveler of the same tribe or religion. Still in that case, delayed reciprocity—human or divine—was possible. Bertschmann would call it “balanced reciprocity.” It is believed this practice developed into one we have kept today. Have you ever gotten an invitation from a website like Meal Train? Your friend’s just had a baby, a coworker had to have surgery, or maybe someone you know experienced a tragedy. Someone in their community organizes a Meal Train for them. When events like these take place in a community such as a workplace or a church, it is quite possible at some point you too will need to take place in the program, so you might sign up to help in hopes that people will remember your good deed when you need help in return. It is balanced because all parties are capable of aid in normal circumstances.
In Luke, chapter 7, Jesus gets invited to share a meal at Simon’s house. But Jesus is an odd house guest. He’s a risky person to invite over for several reasons. First of all, Jesus shows up with a whole pan of nothing. He doesn’t exactly have a kitchen wherever it is he’s camping out or on the move, teaching and ministering from town to town. The Gospel of Luke is very intentional about making sure we understand that Jesus was a homeless vagabond: “Foxes have holes, birds have nests, but the son of man has nowhere to lay his head.”
So why does Simon invite a homeless man over for dinner? Well, Jesus wasn’t a typical homeless man off the street. He’s what Bertchmann describes as: not a community member, but not a complete stranger either. The Jews of Jesus’ day understood Jesus as a prophet or teacher, complete with followers and miracles and plenty of baffling parables. As such, Jesus offered immediate reciprocity. Because if I invite a prophet to my house he won’t bring a batch of freshly made cookies or invite me over to his house next week, but he just might bring a profound message.Jesus is also a risky person for Simon to invite over because when it came to the Pharisees, Jesus wasn’t exactly known for his charm. Except for that one party trick with the wine, but that was at the very beginning of his ministry. And since then? Well, Jesus wasn’t really that pleasant sometimes. He didn’t get invited to parties for his conversation skills. Not with all the “you brood of vipers” lines he kept offering up. The Pharisees didn’t tend to land on the fun end of the Jesus diatribes.
So, if Simon didn’t invite Jesus for his famous queso or his life-of-the-party spirits (maybe just the hope he could make some spirits), why did he invite Jesus over? And, since Simon does, for whatever reason, risk inviting Jesus into his home, why does he then fail at hosting? We don’t have much to go on as to what Simon was thinking. But I do know this. If we invite Jesus in, we’d better be ready to lose control.
RECIPROCITY: WHAT’S IN IT FOR US?
The question then, is this: What can we as a church learn from Simon when we invite marginalized people into our spaces and then realize it is not what we expected and we have lost control?
Luke’s Gospel is about living in the upside down. It’s the Kingdom of God that turns everything on its head. It’s about inviting the dinner guest who won’t reciprocate.
The guest who sits at your table and tells you what’s wrong with the world from the way they experience it, which just might conflict with the way you live. It’s inviting more of this upside down living into your life to experience Jesus in the way Simon missed and in the way the woman he despised deeply understood. She understood Jesus so much, she was overwhelmed by his presence and didn’t care about the way things were supposed to be. Didn’t care about social norms or niceties. She let down her hair, and she wept and at his feet, and she anointed him with her best—herself. Because she wasn’t holding back.
RADICAL HOSPITALITY: THE JESUS WAY
Jesus overturns all of the typical hospitality norms. In this story from Luke, he elevates and honors the disruptive, disreputable woman as the true host of Simon’s dinner party. She lavished Jesus with hospitality because in every encounter with Jesus, he continually offers himself to undeserving people who can’t reciprocate. And here’s the kicker: he asks his followers to do the same.
We religious folks are always trying to hedge Jesus’ radical hospitality. We was the tame it, regulate it, control it.
Jesus says, simply: “Love your neighbor.” And we’re like: “Okay. But who is my neighbor? Please define your terms.” In response, Jesus starts telling the story of the Good Samaritan—a story that says nationality doesn’t matter, ethnicity doesn’t matter, and the question of “deserve” doesn’t matter.
Or he says weird things like: “If you’re showing people my love and other people say you’re naive, or weird, or a “libtard,” you’re lucky! because your reward, or reciprocity, will come from Me.”
And he caps it all with: “Whatever you do for the least of these… the homeless man, the single mother, the mistreated immigrant… Whatever you do (or don’t do) for the lowest ones, you do (or don’t do) for me, the Highest One.”
Jesus is extremely disruptive whenever he shows us what true hospitality looks like. So don’t worry if you are too. If you’re upsetting “the establishment” and the status quo, breaking the rules of decorum and deserve with unregulated kindness, chances are you’re doing it the Jesus Way.
Welcoming the stranger and loving our neighbor shouldn’t cause us to ask What’s in it for me? or What might go wrong? but: What does Jesus ask us to do?