My ninety-two-year-old mother is my living example of hospitality. She lives in a condo and manages to connect with all of her neighbors. A common query when we drop her off after an excursion of some kind is, “Won’t you come in?” If we take her up on the invitation, she typically offers us a beverage of some kind, or possibly a meal.
Mom is also very aware of others’ needs and tries to address them in her endearing graceful way, which ranges from sharing coupons, to placing daily newspapers outside her neighbor’s door, to making phone calls, to taking snacks to church. She is, plain and simply, a people person.
Over the years I have met others, some of my mother’s generation but not all, who share stories of feeding the less fortunate who come to their doors—as they did especially during the depression years—and on some occasions letting strangers who have no place to go spend the night in their homes or on their property.
Today demonstrations or even requirements of being hospitable vary throughout the nations of the world. However, our topics for the next posts will concentrate on the common threads of hospitality woven throughout the Old and New Testaments.
In New Testament times
The Greek word for hospitality is philoxenia (Strong’s NT:5381), “love of strangers” (philos, “loving,” xenos, “a stranger”). Adam Clarke comments with regard to Paul’s exhortation not to forget to entertain strangers found in Hebrews 13:2: “In those early times, when there were scarcely any public inns or houses of entertainment, it was an office of charity and mercy to receive, lodge, and entertain travelers; and this is what the apostle particularly recommends.”
The other New Testament references to being hospitable are: Romans 12:13; 1 Timothy 3:2; Titus 1:8; and 1 Peter 4:9.
What was the cultural backdrop to these comments? How did New Testament Christians understand Paul’s words? Following are some interesting tidbits I uncovered in my research.
You’re staying for how long?
Joseph Gift, in his Life and Customs in Jesus’ Time offers an interesting perspective. He says that three days were considered the normal extent to which one could presume on the hospitality of others. He goes on the cite H. Clay Turnbull: “In case a guest seems disposed to prolong his stay beyond the ‘three days of grace,’ his host will suggest to him, on the morning of the fourth day, that as he is now one of the family, there is such and such household work to be done, in which he can bear his part; and so he is set at work for his living” (pages 61-62).
The Lion Encyclopedia of the Bible agrees: “Among the nomadic, tent-dwelling people, a traveler was always welcome to stay—for three days and four hours!—the length of time the hosts believed their food sustained their guest. Flat loaves of bread and milk were basic to the menu. For the time of his stay the traveler became one of the clan” (“Meals,” page 187).
Gift continues that simple hospitality meant the host should provide rest and food for a guest. As meals were often taken in the open, “strangers could come and go during the progress of a meal” (page 62). Offering a stranger a cup of water (or requesting a cup of water) was a gesture of peace, trust and good will.
An invited guest could expect a welcoming kiss, and the act of having one’s feet washed. An enlightening verse with regard to the latter is found in 1 Timothy 5:9-10: “Do not let a widow under sixty years old be taken into the number, and not unless she has been the wife of one man, well reported for good works: if she has brought up children, if she has lodged strangers, if she has washed the saints’ feet, if she has relieved the afflicted, if she has diligently followed every good work.”
Women customarily served meals to the guests, and according to at least one source ate elsewhere. Guests would either kneel on cushions or mats around a low table (possibly a meal tub turned upside down), or, if in a wealthier home, recline on couches (which may be alluded to in John 13:23-25).
Fred Wight comments that the custom of anointing guests with oil “is an ancient one among nations of the East (Manners and Customs of Bible Lands, 1953, page 75), and cites Luke 7:46 where Jesus reminds Simon the Pharisee that he, Simon, had not performed traditional acts of hospitality. The Woman’s Study Bible in its note “Sinner at Simon’s House” says Jesus “reminded them [Simon the Pharisee’s guests] that this woman had performed the common courtesies due any invited guest.”
I found an entry in the International Standard Bible Encyclopedia filled in some blanks. People were not always housed in private homes as is explained by the following: “…in New Testament times, if not earlier, and even at present, a room was set apart in each village for the use of strangers, whose expenses were borne by the entire community.” It mentions some feel the manger where Jesus was born (Luke 2:7) could fall into that category.
Ramifications in the New Testament church
Additionally, with regard to the growth of New Testament churches, the encyclopedia further comments: “As the first Christian churches were founded, the exercise of hospitality took on a new aspect, especially after the break with the Jews had begun. Not only did the traveling Christian look naturally to his brethren for hospitality, but the individual church looked to the traveler for fostering the sense of unity of the church throughout the world. Hospitality became a virtue indispensable to the well-being of the church….”
Reading through new lenses
Though mine has been a very brief exploration of New Testament hospitality, I find I read the following scriptures with a new understanding of the subtleties they contain: Mark 6:8-10; Mark 9:41; Matthew 10:11, 41, 42; Matthew 25:43; Matthew 25:35; and Luke 10:7.
The next post or two will explore hospitality in the Old Testament.