Today we start exploring the 2-part series called “There is no Them” by exploring the biblical mandate for hospitality. The word itself sounds trivial, like something out of a Miss Manners article, but what we are talking about is much deeper than that and is a deeply biblical concept.
In Rom 12:13 We are told “Share with the Lord’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality.” Here, Paul uses the Greek word for hospitality, Philioxenia. Philio means to love, “xenas” is someone who is an other, a foreigner. This same root is where the word xenophobia comes from (which is the fear of people different from you). Xenophobia toward other cultures is in the rise right in our culture right now, but to some extent it’s always been this way, because there is an Us/Them dynamic to all social groups. We do things this way, talk this way, believe this way– and so by definition “they” do not. It’s part of our fallen nature that we gravitate to those that are like us but not “others.”
But the call we are given by God is to have a genuine love of the other — And it’s not just an abstract love or appreciation, but a concrete love. An outreaching, so that others don’t feel like a stranger, and are embraced as members of your group. What we are called to is the complete opposite of xenophobia: Philioxenia.
One place we can see this call is in Deuteronomy 10:16-19. “Circumcise your hearts, therefore, and do not be stiff-necked any longer. For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who shows no partiality and accepts no bribes. He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the foreigner residing among you, giving them food and clothing. And you are to love those who are foreigners, for you yourselves were foreigners in Egypt.” God loves the strangers and feeds them, he defends orphans and widows. And he says that because you yourselves used to be strangers when you were in Egypt, you should also love the stranger.
And secondly we see this same thing in Leviticus 19:33-34. “When a foreigner resides among you in your land, do not mistreat them. The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the Lord your God.”
Now, having a cultural emphasis on hospitality was not uncommon in the OT or in the ancient world as a whole. There were no hotels, so when traveling, you had no choice but to rely on strangers for lodging and food. You did the same thing when you traveled. Everyone did this, but it was not unlike doing so for your next door neighbor, who was still part of your community. But Israel was given a categorical command toward OTHER. Take care of the “other”, the foreigner — in a culture, no less, which was highly suspect of foreign nations. The command to love aliens and foreigners as yourself, this was unprecedented. Nobody else did this, in Israel or otherwise.
God gives two essential reasons for this command: First, it is because this is what God is like. God is hospitable to all strangers, shows no favoritism, doesn’t take bribes [and don’t forget in the ancient near eastern world, “bribes” also known as sacrifices & burnt offerings, is how you gained favor from your gods!] and loves the widow and the fatherless. Part of the meaning of being the people of God is to be like him. So because God is like this, so you should be like this. The second reason God gives is because remember you yourself were an alien in the land of Egypt. And it was terrible. So because you had it so bad when you were foreigners, you should do the opposite.
The New Testament gives the same calling and gives the same two essential reasons: Ephesians 2:1-2, 4-6 “As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient. …But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved. And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus,” and a little later in Ephesians 2:13, 19-30, “But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ. … Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit.”
We were dead in our sin, total strangers to God, like the way that a corpse relates to the living (I.e. Not at all!) We’re as far away as we could possibly be. We were aliens to God and in bondage to darkness and sin, as “xenus” to God as we could possibly be. But despite this, God welcomed us in. He had extravagant hospitality toward us, canceled our debts, took us in as members of his own family. We were outsiders, but now have been brought near, and not just near but inside of Christ, his son. This is as near as one can possibly be. This is Philioxenia on steroids!
That is why we are called to do the same to others. As Paul says in Romans 15:7, God accepted us. So do the same to others. We are called to reflect God’s character, be imitators of God. Mimic him. (Ephesians 5:1-2) Jesus says the same thing. Luke 14:12-14. When you have a party, don’t just invite your friends or your rich neighbor. Invite the poor the lame and the blind. Because they can’t repay you. When you invite your friends and family, they’ll likely just reciprocate. There is nothing new about that, that’s just quid pro quo, and reinforces the “us” aspect of a community. It’s not a sin, it’s just not distinctly kingdom. What is distinctively kingdom is to go out of your way to invite outsiders. Like the poor. They were xenus (different from or “other”) to everyone.
And indeed we see, Jesus partied with tax collectors and prostitutes, outsiders, rejects, and invisible people. He intentionally broke down social walls. This is what the Hospitality of God looks like. Jesus swam upstream against the culture, and shared with everyone.
Early Christians were similarly known for how they adopted this mindset, it’s part of how the religion spread so fast in the beginning (when it was against the law). When a plague would hit a town they would stay behind and serve the sick. They were known for their hospitality. When God reigns over a people, his hospitality will be evident. Of course this doesn’t mean we can’t have special relationships that we have boundaries around. It just means can’t live our entire life inside those comfortable boundaries. We have to make space, and welcome outsiders into our comfort zone.
This calling is not going to be easy or to be taken lightly. We have to be serious about this, because everything in our culture pushes back against it. Our culture conditions us to be self absorbed, and protective of our identity group against “others” entering our cities and communities. It’s natural and it’s everywhere. So countering this is going to be very much swimming upstream. You will need to think long term, and start with baby steps. (More of these baby steps will be presented in part two of this series next week.)
The first baby step is to change your thinking. We aren’t ever going to do this unless we create space for strangers, and not just physical space but mental space. As it is, we all tend to think about our own welfare, and that of our family and friends. On a day to day basis, our routine does not include space for strangers. Matt 5:47 acknowledges this, saying even Gentiles do this. So the first step is to notice this about yourself and pray about it. Ask God to help free you from this cultural self-absorption. It’s not a sin to care about your own people, but let’s stretch ourselves. Make a point to notice Others, and show concern for them. Talk to them, strike up a conversation. Start this process with creating mental space for others. Make this part of your conversation with God this week. Pray God’s blessing on “others” and agree with their unsurpassable worth.
And ask the Holy Spirit to show you something else you can do– or just be creative. For example, there is a gas station near Greg’s house owned by an Arab family. So he learned how to say hello in Arabic. He goes in each time and greets them in Arabic! Of course they smiled and got a good kick out of it but one day the owner genuinely thanked him for the gesture, and said it makes him feel a little more welcome here. Exactly! Philioxenia at work!
The second baby step to put this into practice is to get involved in a ministry at church. That’s a great way to show hospitality, meet people, serve people, and put this lesson into real, concrete practice. Because it’s not just about saying hello to the person sitting next to you at church, it’s ultimately about action, and serving those others, and ideally, forming relationships.
Also consider joining a growth group. We facilitated the formation of small groups here at WH for a while, but found that they all became closed to outsiders. So now we are encouraging people to join growth groups, which are intended to stay open to outsiders. They meet Tuesdays and you can find more info on them here.
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