Imagine yourself as the travellers in this story from Genesis 18. You are in a desert and have been travelling for many weeks. Water is scarce. Food might be getting short. You are hot, covered in dust and sand and tired. As you travel you see someone coming toward you. This man gets closer and bows to you. He invites you to his tent. You accept and he runs ahead so that his wife and servants can prepare food.
You follow more slowly. When you arrive your host has prepared a bowl of water to wash your feet. You sit in the shade of a big tree while your feet are washed and your host brings food. The food is the best that they have to offer. The best calf—butchered and offered to you in honour of your arrival.
As you eat you speak to your host, Abraham. You exchange news, find common kin, talk about hopes and dreams, even promises from God. When you have eaten and rested you rise and continue your journey. Abraham starts out on your journey and travels a little way with you. He watches as you continue your journey and when you are out of sight he returns home.
In this particular text, the travelers are identified interchangeably as “The Lord,” “three men,” and some translations identify angels. There is ambiguity about whether the visit is from God specifically, divine messengers in the form of angels or simply human travellers. But it doesn’t really matter. What is important in the story is that the travellers were offered and accepted hospitality. Abraham didn’t stop to ask who these men were or what their business was or whether it was safe to invite them to stop. He didn’t ask whether there was enough food to feed a few extra mouths or whether washing their feet might be enough to cause a shortage of water later in the season.
Abraham and the travellers were part of a culture that practiced hospitality. Hospitality was incredibly important in the ancient world. There was almost a ritual to hospitality. Not following the ritual correctly could result in the shaming not just of an individual but of families and communities. Residents (in this case Abraham) were obligated to provide hospitality. There wasn’t a question of not providing hospitality. It was required. Hospitality included food, water and shelter. Miss any one of the three and you would be in trouble. When guests arrive, the head of the household would rush out to meet the guests, they would be invited in. Water would be brought to wash the feet and refresh the travellers. The best food that could be provided was offered even if it meant the family would not eat. Failure to do these things could be construed as hostility and in some places in scripture almost leads to war. Once someone offered hospitality it was an insult to decline and declining would identify the stranger as an enemy. Providing hospitality also implied protection to the traveller or stranger. Once someone was a guest they were given the protection of their host. This was also important in a culture where strangers or travellers had very few political or legal rights. Dennis Bratcher indicates that sharing food is a sign of friendship. Hospitality was not a one-time thing it created an on-going relationship where the obligations continued into the future.
In our own culture, we no longer practice hospitality in this way. We think of hospitality and we might think of inviting our friends over to our home for coffee or a meal. Maybe family arrives from out of town for a few days. These are examples of hospitality in our culture. In our culture hospitality is a nice thing to do but is not required and primarily relates to people that we already have relationships with.
But what if we think in terms of what happens in the world around us and the Biblical expectations of hospitality. For example, if someone comes to the door of the church looking for food what should our response be? Our culture might tell us that we are under no obligation to do anything. We don’t know them and strangers are to suspect and scary. They might be trying to take advantage of us and if we offer food once we might have to offer it the next time they come.
In terms of biblical hospitality, the response might be more along the lines of, “Please come in. Would you like to use our bathroom to wash and refresh yourself? While you do that, I will put the coffee on so we can visit and then we will find food and nourishment that you can take with you when you leave.” As we talk the person might indicate that they are having trouble getting their social assistance cheque and that it won’t be enough to cover basic expenses when it does come. The response to this might be, “let us help you advocate for enough to live on and if there isn’t enough we will help you.”
OK. I know this sounds radical but all of this fits within the realm of what is expected in terms of hospitality code. There is a request for hospitality and then an invitation. There is an offer of water and refreshment. There is an offer of protection and help and support within and political/legal arena where the individual has minimal influence. I wonder if we took scripture seriously if it might lead us to a deeper engagement with people who come, rightly I think, to church looking for help. People who seek support from the church in this way instinctively know that our scriptures teach us about hospitality. I think sometimes people outside the church see more clearly what our gospel teaches than we ourselves do.
There is another big question of hospitality around the world at the moment. Refugees—people who are fleeing their homes and communities because of violence, danger and destruction. As I listen to the news I hear comments about how welcoming refugees into Canada is opening the door to terrorists. I hear people say that we don’t have enough resources to look after more people. But if we set those concerns aside and look at refugees in terms of what scripture call us to do it might suggest a response of compassion.
When Abraham ran out to greet his visitors he didn’t ask whether or not they were safe. He didn’t consider whether or not he could afford to have them under his roof for a few days. He did what was required and invited them into his home. Biblical hospitality requires something similar of us. We find ourselves in a time where thousands of people are in need of hospitality. Our obligation—as people of faith—is to respond. To not respond is an insult. To not respond is a sign of hostility. As we watch refugees struggle to find food, water, shelter and safety will we simply allow them to continue being an issue for someone else to deal with or will we welcome them into our own communities as a practice of the hospitality which Abraham offered? It is interesting that the scriptures refer to Lord, people and angels interchangeably in a story about hospitality. Perhaps there is no difference. Perhaps in extending hospitality to people in need we are in fact extending hospitality to God.