What do you think of when you think of hospitality? A cup of tea with a neighbour, dinner parties, barbecues in the garden? Do you think of something planned with invitations or something spontaneous? Just for family and friends? The idea of hospitality has fallen on hard times. Busy lives, families with both parents working, communities where neighbours don’t know each other well enough to drop in for a cup of coffee.
For the people of Old Testament times, hospitality was a moral obligation, a holy duty. The harshness of desert life made nomadic people sensitive to the needs of those who appeared at their tents for food and shelter. In the life of the early church providing hospitality was identified as a gift of the Holy Spirit. Hospitality is a sign of people and God living together in harmony, a means of sharing the good things we have received from God with others who are not so fortunate. All through scripture we read that it’s most important to give hospitality to a stranger. And through showing kindness to those in need, Jesus said, we are showing care for him.
In his science fiction book ‘Fahrenheit 451’ Ray Bradbury describes people escaping from one another into living rooms where the walls are TV screens. When they’re together they avoid conversation by plugging their ears with transistor radios. The narrator hero begins to realise that this lifestyle is making him ‘a silly empty man’ living with ‘a silly empty woman’. This isn’t science fiction today as people walk past each other on the street without even exchanging a ‘hello’. Or wait at a bus stop or on the train station or in a doctors’ surgery without sharing a word, wrapped up in texting or ears plugged into music or just in their own world. We live in a hostile society avoiding relationship with those we don’t know.
In a Bible story about the risen Jesus, two people on a journey home are joined by a stranger. They fall into deep and intimate conversation with him almost immediately, sharing their hopes and their disappointments, their joys and their pain. At the journey’s end they press the stranger to join them for a meal, an act of kindness to a hungry and weary traveller and an act of friendship, communion. Instead of waiting for his hosts to serve him, as would have been customary, the guest takes the bread and breaks it to serve them, turning custom upside down.
Jesus was always the one for turning customs upside down, eating with outcasts, the master, yet the one who served. It was the fact that it was the stranger, the one in need, who took the bread and broke it that made the two companions see that the stranger was in fact Jesus with them - the one who wanted to serve them.
Perhaps as the people of God we need to be turning modern customs upside down, talking with strangers on the street, at the bus stop or outside the school gates, being ready to hear their stories and share their joys and sorrows, inviting our neighbours into our homes for food and fellowship. We may then find ourselves in the company of Jesus. Christine