Saturday, October 6, 2007

Love For Strangers?!!!

Xenophilius is a very colorful character in the Harry Potter series. Ironically, his name is not very fitting for him. It comes from a Greek word which literally means “love of strangers!” But, when Harry visits our eccentric Xenophilius Lovegood, he is met with lies and a friendly call to law enforcement to come and pick up their #1 most wanted: Harry.

When we encounter this word in the NT it refers to the practice of hospitality. However, our idea of hospitality is completely different from an ancient one. We offer some refreshment and a comfortable chair, but at the same time we have our fingers crossed that they don’t get mud on our carpet and that they leave soon.

In the ancient world, however, the “love of strangers” was universally regarded as a virtue. Something that everyone should practice. The Greeks viewed it as a basic aspect of civilized behavior, and the Jews regarded it as having deep roots in the character of God. Hospitality is commanded by God 24 times in the Torah alone!!! Deuteronomy 10:17-18 says, “For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God and awesome warrior who is unbiased and takes no bribe, who acts justly toward the orphan and widow, and who loves resident foreigners, giving them food and clothes” (Deut. 10:17-18). Hospitality is just part of who God is, and as his people, it should characterize us as well.

The end times are often pictured in the Bible as a great banquet with God as the ideal host. Isaiah 25:6-8 says, “On this mountain the Lord of Hosts will make for all people a feast of fat things, a feast of wine on the lees . . . He will swallow up death forever, and the Lord God will wipe away tears from all faces” (Is. 25:6-8).

Even Jewish literature of the Second and Third centuries CE takes an interest in biblical hospitality. We see Abraham, the father of the Jewish nation, as the inventor of the inn (Gen. Rab. 39:14), the originator of saying grace before meals (B. Sota 10a-b), and the host who insists that his guests either praise the God of Israel or kindly pay for their meal (Gen. Rab. 49:4). This idea makes its way into our New Testament as well. In Luke 16, the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, we see Abraham as the ideal host in the heavenly realms. Also in Matthew 8:11 Abraham is the host of God’s great eschatological banquet, “Many will come from the east and the west and sit at the table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the Kingdom of God.”

Just like the Torah, the New Testament is replete with explicit and implicit calls to be hospitable. Jesus gave a positive reception to women, children, the poor, and the sick. He fed the multitudes, and he opposed fasting while the he, the bridegroom, was present. Paul encourages the churches to contribute to the needs of the saints (Rom. 12:13). The early church shared all things in common and broke bread in each other’s homes with glad hearts (Acts 2:44-47). Also, the author of Hebrews encourages us to entertain strangers, because just like Abraham, we might be entertaining angels without knowing it.

When we read passages like this, what type of images of hospitality come to our mind. Of course ideas that are conditioned by our culture. Our culture teaches us that hospitality needs to be reciprocated. If I have you over for dinner, then there is an expectation that you will have me over at some point as well. In the ancient world hospitality was seen as a duty with honor at stake. We think of hospitality as a “secular” idea, but in the ancient world hospitality was a “sacred” duty that came straight from God. In our world WHO I eat with has no consequence. In antiquity being welcomed at a table was symbolic of friendship, intimacy, and unity. That is why John urges us to show hospitality to traveling missionaries as if they were God himself, and to not even say “Hi!” to those who carry a false doctrine (2nd John). When we are hospitable to missionaries we share in their noble work. When we show hospitality to false teachers we share in their evil deeds. That is why the Pharisees were so concerned with Jesus eating with “tax collectors” and so-called “sinners.” How could Jesus be intimate with such riff-raff?!! What a slap in the face it was when Jesus told the Pharisees through parable that it is not them that would be invited to the eschatological banquet, but that God would go out into the streets and bring in the poor, the blind, and the naked!!!

So, we need to change our perception on what it means to be hospitable. It should never be an inconvenience for us, nor seen as something that should be reciprocated. It should flow out of our relationship with God, when we realize that being a good host is part of who he is. As a consequence, it should be part of who we are as God’s children. So, the next time someone has their feet on your coffee table, drinks one to many sodas, or stays an hour longer than you think they should, remember that “loving strangers” no matter what is VERY pleasing to God!!!