The word “hospitality” today is often used to mean professional catering. But of course it generally refers to the welcoming of strangers and the sharing of food and comforts.
In Scripture and in Christian tradition, hospitality is a powerful injunction. Old and New Testaments abound with mentions of hospitality, from the Midian priest who takes in Moses (Gen 2), to the Samaritan woman who invites Jesus to stay with her community (Jn 4).
Often hospitality produces encounters that transform relationships, or subvert the structures of injustice. By accepting the hospitality of Samaritans, Jesus breaks down the barriers of tribalism, gender, exclusivity and status. When Paul is taken in by the Apostles (Acts 9), he is not just a stranger but someone who has been a persecuting enemy of the followers of Jesus.
For many Australians, Christmas is the prime season of hospitality, the time of generosity and sharing. Because our Christmas falls in summer, and for many an extended break from business as usual, the season of sharing may extend for some time.
Recently in a media interview I was asked if sharing was a universal value or culturally specific. Reflecting, I thought of the community in Uganda where I have been blessed to spend time this summer. Sharing is universal, but it looks different in different times and places. In poor societies people have limited ability to donate money, but they have a strong emphasis on social solidarity, mutual support, and a culture of sharing.
Sharing enriches everyone, both those who give and those who receive. Hospitality, though, is not an unequal relationship of a donor to a beneficiary. It is in fact the erasing of that distinction, a voluntary act of putting ourselves and others in the common light of God’s presence, regardless of earthly status.
The gospels make it clear that with the coming of Jesus, the coming of the kingdom has begun. Through all the gospel narratives we see kingdom events taking place through hospitality experiences – the wedding at Cana, the woman at the well, through to Jesus’ washing the disciples’ feet and the last supper.
The fulfilment of God’s purpose and the building of the kingdom is described as a banquet, a feast at which there is room for everyone at the table. Paul enjoins us to “share with the Lord’s people who are in need, practice hospitality”. (Rom 12:13) Hospitality should be thought of not just as a duty but as a joy, a chance to live fully and love without limits.
As February marks the beginning of “business as usual”, back to work and back to school, let’s remember that hospitality is for all seasons, and not just for Christmas.