Proper 9C / Ordinary 14C / Pentecost +7
July 7, 2013
2 Kings 5:1-14
Christian hospitality, as it was practiced in the early Church, is a fundamentally foreign concept in today’s world of Neighborhood Watches and “Stand Your Ground” laws. Today, it seems that it is a challenge for people to simply refrain from shooting strangers, much less to welcome them into our homes. Xenia, or hospitality as it was practiced in the First Century, was the polar opposite of the gun-toting xenophobia of today. Not only were traveling strangers welcomed into peoples’ homes, but “Upon their guests’ arrival, meritorious hosts fed strangers an initial meal and at times provided them with lodging without asking their guests questions about their identity or place of origin” (2007. Andrew Arterbury. “Entertaining Angels: Hospitality in Luke and Acts”). In the current world of online, do-it-yourself background checks, we exempt ourselves from this grade of hospitality, because we think that somehow life in the age of early Church was far safer.
In the Gospel reading for this week, Jesus instructs the Disciples to make themselves vulnerable not only by traveling on often-perilous roads (“See, I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves” (vv.3)), but also through material dependence on their hosts:Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals; and greet no one on the road. Whatever house you enter, first say, ‘Peace to this house!’ And if anyone is there who shares in peace, your peace will rest on that person; but if not, it will return to you. Remain in the same house, eating and drinking whatever they provide, for the laborer deserves to be paid. (Luke 10:4-7).
Most of us today are not called to barefoot, traveling Discipleship (although I have met one – Brother Elijah Alfred Alexander, Jr. – who did so literally for over 30 years). Consequently, the Gospel reading has more relevance to those of us on the other end of the hospitality equation – as potential hosts.
Being a hospitable host, in reality, is stressful. It means making room in your routine and your personal space for someone who is, on some level, an outsider. It means readjusting your expectations about privacy and sovereignty over your own household. And, of course, it means an additional financial burden (sometimes substantial) in an anemic economy. However, these stressors were present in the ancient world as well. In fact, in the subsistence economy of Luke’s day, taking in strangers was even more of a risk and imposition, as taking in a potential robber would mean complete economic disaster for a household, whereas we can at least rely on home insurance today.
The early manual for Christian converts , the Didache [pronounced “DID-a-kay”], admonished Christians to “Welcome anyone coming in the name of the Lord” (Didache 12:1). So a Christian welcome was mandated (although reserved for people with at least a spiritual mindset – as opposed to someone who just wants a place to crash). However, the manual also provided guidelines and limits for potential hosts in consideration of the risks they were taking:If he who comes is a transient, assist him as far as you are able; but he should not remain with you more than two or three days, if need be. If he wants to stay with you, and is a craftsman, let him work for his living. But if he has no trade, use your judgment in providing for him; for a Christian should not live idle in your midst. If he is dissatisfied with this sort of an arrangement, he is a Christ peddler. Watch that you keep away from such people (Didache 12:2-5).
So there should be a welcome for the transient, but the stay is not necessarily open-ended. Being a host means positively engaging with guests, inquiring about their means of support (after an initial welcome), and helping/urging them get that support, using all available resources. Being a hospitable host did not mean being a doormat, even in the First Century.
Nonetheless, the imperative to extend Christian welcome still was emphasized, particularly in Luke’s Gospel. Jesus instructs His Disciples that, if a household or town should reject them, they should go out into the streets and wipe the dust off their sandals in protest (Luke 10:11). Jesus also foretells the punishment these towns will receive for their outright rejection of hospitality:I tell you, on that day it will be more tolerable for Sodom than for that town. “Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the deeds of power done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago, sitting in sackcloth and ashes. But at the judgment it will be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon than for you” (vv.12-14).
Note that the cities of Tyre and Sidon were prosperous Roman port cities in a predominantly pagan part of the region (in present-day Lebanon). Jesus was saying that status as religious insiders for the Jewish towns of Chorazin and Bethsaida would not shield them from wrath for their inhospitality. Such a warning should be taken to heart for modern churches who believe that their status as “born-again” insiders justifies inhospitable treatment of outsiders (whether faithful LGBT people or people who do not pass a church’s political/theological “litmus test”).
Being welcoming is hard. It goes counter to everything we have been taught about independence and being “king (or queen) of your castle”. It’s stressful and involves taking significant risks. But without welcome, Christian life will devolve (and in many places has already done so) into a series of patrolled country clubs with no relevance to the world outside its walls. If the church wants to remain alive and growing into the next century, we cannot afford this option.