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Hospitality—Is it Just Coffee and Cake?

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Hospitality—Is it Just Coffee and Cake?

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Dictionary.com defines hospitality as “the friendly reception and treatment of guests or strangers; the quality or disposition of receiving and treating guests and strangers in a warm, friendly, generous way.” Harper’s Bible Dictionary (1985) similarly defines it as “the act of friendship shown a visitor.”

According to etymonline.com, hospitality comes from the Old French word ospitalite, meaning “hospitality, hospital” and from the Latin hospitalitem, meaning “friendliness to guests.” When we reflect on the concept of a hospital we see that it is not generally a planned event and is for the unexpected arrival of the sick. Similarly, while the hospitality industry itself is not focused on the sick, it is centered on entertaining “strangers or guests.”

The Bible references hospitality in a number of scriptures. Romans 12:12-13 says, “Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer. Share with the Lord’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality” (New International Version). The Greek word for hospitality here is philoxenia, which means “love of strangers.”

A bishop must be hospitable as instructed in 1 Timothy 3:2, “A bishop then must be blameless, the husband of one wife, temperate, sober-minded, of good behavior, hospitable, able to teach.” The Greek word for hospitable is philoxenos, meaning “loving strangers.”

When we read other scriptures a similar theme emerges and as future kings and priests we are encouraged to see that being hospitable is a role that each of us has.

Biblical customs of hospitality

According to customs in the biblical world, hospitality related to two distinct classes of people: the “traveler” and the “resident alien.” In Israel, the law protected the “resident alien,” a foreigner who had settled permanently in the land. For us today it would be like the term “immigrant.” The “traveler,” however, was extremely vulnerable. Only God’s Law (when it was applied—see Exodus 22:21 and Jeremiah 7:6) and practicing of the customs of hospitality protected him.

The traveler had few legal or political rights in the ancient world and was largely at the mercy of local residents. By accepting the traveler, especially in providing them food, the host also took the responsibility of protecting them and followed rituals that accompanied the practice of hospitality. This meant the guests were:

  • greeted with bowing and kissing.
  • offered water for washing their feet.
  • given water (the act of doing this recognized them as being worthy of a peaceful reception).
  • provided food and a place to rest.
  • accompanied out of town a distance when leaving.

Abraham's example of hospitality

The example of Abraham in Genesis 18 shows he followed the customs of hospitality. He:

  • hurried to meet the travelers and bowed down.
  • provided water so they could wash their feet.
  • selected a choice calf for the guests and the household and provided a meal of the best meat, curds and milk.
  • stood while his guests ate their meal (another indication of respect and honor given to strangers in the ancient world).
  • walked with them for a while when they left for Sodom.

There are other examples throughout the Bible where such hospitality is practiced. 1 Peter 4:9-10 also mentions it as one of the spiritual gifts we are encouraged to develop and use to serve others.

How we can be hospitable

In our society today we may not follow all the hospitality customs of the ancient world, but we can look to integrate the principles into our life, keeping in mind the underlying key principle of hospitality is to move a stranger to a guest.

We can:

  • Look out for the vulnerable—the widows, strangers and orphans.
  • Consider stepping outside our comfort zone and entertaining people we don’t know. Luke 14:12-14 encourages us to invite and entertain those we don’t know.
  • Pray that God uses us according to His purpose (1 Peter 4:11).

In most congregations there are some who excel in hospitality and it enriches the bonds of friendship and brotherhood immensely. We can all be grateful for those who practice this important virtue. But just imagine—what would happen if we all embraced the call to biblical hospitality?