How often do you invite others into your home? Are they any potential guests you’re overlooking?
ON MY second Sunday in the U.S., newly arrived from Great Britain, I decided to go to a church nearby that friends had recommended.
In the middle of the service people were asked to greet each other. An elderly lady next to me introduced herself and we chatted happily until the service resumed. After the service she introduced me to a couple who asked if I had plans for lunch. Glad for a chance to make friends, I accepted their gracious invitation. That afternoon is one of my happiest memories of living in the United States. Their openness was a tremendous example of hospitality.
What is hospitality? According to the Oxford English Dictionary it is the “friendly and generous reception of guests or strangers.” Often it is having people you do not know, or barely know, into your home. Hospitality is not only inviting one’s friends over to dinner, for Jesus says, “…if you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? Even ‘sinners’ do that” (Luke 6:33).
The Old Testament provides many examples of hospitality to strangers as a spontaneous event. After Moses had killed an Egyptian and fled from Pharaoh to Midian, he came to the rescue of the daughters of Midian who were trying to water their flock. When the girls returned to their father Reuel and told him the story, he was amazed that they had not invited Moses back to their house for a meal:
“‘And where is he?’ he asked his daughters. ‘Why did you leave him? Invite him to have something to eat’” (Exodus 2:20).
Job, who was “blameless and upright, a man who fears God and shuns evil” (Job 1:8), answered his friends’ accusations of sin by reviewing his life. Among the chief acts he presented as signs of his righteousness was hospitality:
“…no stranger had to spend the night in the street, for my door was always open to the traveler” (Job 31:32).
Elisha went to Shunem, where he met a well-to-do woman, “who urged him to stay for a meal. So whenever he came by, he stopped there to eat.” Though nothing in the text indicates that Elisha ever asked for their hospitality, the woman “said to her husband, ‘I know that this man who often comes our way is a holy man of God. Let’s make a small room on the roof and put in it a bed and a table, a chair and a lamp for him. Then he can stay there whenever he comes to us’” (2 Kings 4:8-10). The woman took the initiative in ministering to Elisha.
Elisha himself demonstrated hospitality when upon returning to Gilgal he found a famine in the region. Then, “while the company of the prophets was meeting with him, he said to his servant, ‘Put on the large pot and cook some stew for these men’” (2 Kings 4:38). He knew what they needed and served them.
These are practical examples of what Isaiah called proper humility before God:
“Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter … Then your light will break forth like the dawn, and your healing will quickly appear; then your righteousness will go before you, and the glory of the LORD will be your rear guard. Then you will call, and the LORD will answer; you will cry for help, and He will say: Here am I” (Isaiah 58:7-9).
In contrast, a Levite and his concubine, traveling through Gibeah, expected to receive hospitality. But instead, “They went and sat in the city square, but no one took them into his home for the night” (Judges 19:15). The inhospitable spiritual and moral condition of Gibeah engendered one of the most ghastly episodes in the history of Israel, eventually leading to a war that almost annihilated the whole tribe of Benjamin.
A Christian’s level of hospitality is a good indicator of his spiritual maturity. Are you like Reuel, Job, the Shunammite woman, and Elisha? Or, are you like the people of Gibeah? What about your church? Does it vibrate with hospitality, or is it indifferent to strangers’ needs?
In the New Testament, Paul mentions hospitality as one of the qualifications of an elder (1 Timothy 3:2; Titus 1:8). He writes, “Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers” (Galatians 6:10).
Paul often received hospitality during his missionary journeys. In Philippi, after Lydia and her household were baptized, “…she invited [Paul and his companions] to her home. ‘If you consider me a believer in the Lord,’ she said, ‘come and stay at my house’” (Acts 16:15).
The Apostle John urged Gaius … to show hospitality to [traveling evangelists] “so that we may be fellow workers with the truth” (3 John 1:8).
Jesus, not long before His death, gave one of the most powerful lessons about hospitality when He described the last Judgment. At that time, Christ will say to His people:
Come, you who are blessed by My Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave Me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave Me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited Me in, I needed clothes and you clothed Me, I was sick and you looked after Me, I was in prison and you came to visit Me.
How did they do that, when they never saw Jesus Himself?
I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of Mine, you did for Me (Matthew 25:34-36, 40).
But to the lost He will say:
Depart from Me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave Me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave Me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite Me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe Me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after Me (Matthew 25:41-43).
When they ask, “Lord, when did we see You hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help You?” He will respond:
I tell you the truth, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for Me (Matthew 25:44-45).
Surely our salvation is by grace alone through faith alone. But as Martin Luther is reputed to have said, “Faith alone saves, but faith that saves is never alone.” One of the most important signs of the presence of faith is hospitality – care for those in need of food, drink, shelter, clothing, or companionship.
Paul exhorted Christians, “Share with God’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality” (Romans 12:13). The writer to the Hebrews urged us, “Keep on loving each other as brothers. Do not forget to entertain strangers, for by so doing some people have entertained angels without knowing it” (Hebrews 13:1-2).
Hospitality is not an option for Christians. It is one of the basic expectations of those who are members of the Body of Christ. It should reach not only to people in our own church but also to those we don’t even know.
IS HOSPITALITY ONLY A GIFT?
“But I don’t have the gift of hospitality!” While hospitality is never mentioned as one of the gifts of the Spirit (cf. Romans 12:6-8; 1 Corinthians 12:4-11, 28-30; Ephesians 4:7-12), it could logically fit under the gift of service (Romans 12:7). Hospitality, then, could be seen as a gift of the Spirit.
Are those without the gift excused from exercising hospitality? Only if those without the special gift of evangelism (Ephesians 4:11) are excused from preaching the gospel as all Christians are commanded to do (Matthew 28:19; Mark 16:15); and only if those without the gift of faith (1 Corinthians 12:9) are excused from having any faith at all, without which it is impossible to please God (Hebrews 11:6).
The difference between hospitality as a command. and hospitality as a gift of the Spirit, like the difference between the faith we are commanded to have (Acts 16:31) and faith as a gift of the Spirit, is one of degree and frequency rather than of presence or absence. Someone with the gift of faith is enabled by the Holy Spirit to believe God for provisions far beyond the ordinary, while all Christians have the basic faith in Christ’s saving Death and Resurrection.
Just so with hospitality. God expects all Christians to exercise hospitality as a regular part of their Christian lives. Some He equips – by personality, circumstances, and other factors – to exercise hospitality far beyond the ordinary.
But we must not excuse our lack of hospitality by mislabeling a command as a gift. When we do that, we only rationalize our disobedience.
DINNER FOR EIGHT
Churches can do many things to encourage and facilitate the practice of hospitality among their members. Since people’s needs normally surface most easily in one-to-one or small group relationships, it seems essential to foster such relationships among members.
Yet Scripture often portrays hospitality as spontaneous, serving people who are new acquaintances or strangers. Since small group members soon get to know each other well, it hardly seems to fulfill the biblical example for them to limit their invitations to each other. What can a church do to help members open their homes to strangers?
The church I attend recently introduced a “Dinner for Eight” program to help people in the church get to know one another. I held one of these dinners at my apartment. One of the couples I invited had visited our church twice but didn’t really feel a part of it. After getting to know some of the other people at the meal they felt more at home with them and began to attend the church regularly.
I sometimes hold an open house where I provide a meat dish and ask visitors to bring some other dish. The informal arrangement allows me to accommodate more people than I could handle at a sit-down dinner.
Such hospitality isn’t limited to group events. Some of the most special occasions involve having just one or two others over for a meal. If you’ re constrained by a tight budget, you can make the affair a pot-luck, or have someone over just for coffee and conversation.
Practicing hospitality among the people at your church requires learning about their needs and keeping abreast of them – they change with time. Talk with different people during coffee time after the service. Meet new people and ask questions that help you learn something more about them. Be brave and ask visitors to join you for Sunday dinner.
Hospitality is an exciting challenge that can bring openness, warmth, and a real sense of caring to our fellowships. If we intend to make an impact on the world, we must show that we love one another (John 13:35), and love expresses itself in service. As we practice hospitality – through God’s grace – it will be a step toward fulfilling the Great Commission by reaching out to people seeking Him.
David Mason, Discipleship Journal