Hospitality is often identified as a spiritual gift with the emphasis on receiving or having the gift. But as much as any other gift, the biblical reference emphasizes that a person receives it from God to winsomely bless others.
In the Bible, hospitality is a universal command, a divine expectation. It is rooted in attitude, and it reflects something of Christ in its joyful application.
Too often, references to hospitality as a spiritual gift are expressed in the negative, i.e., “I wish I had the gift of hospitality, but I don’t.” Or, “I don’t have a nice enough house.” Or, “I simply can’t afford to offer hospitality.”
To choose not to show hospitality — for whatever reason — is to be inhospitable. And there is no such thing as the spiritual gift of “inhospitality.”
The hospitality stereotype envisions a person hosting guests and serving a scrumptious meal to them whether they be family, friends, dignitaries or strangers. Or at least offering up a slice of fresh-baked pie and a cup of piping hot coffee or a refreshing cool drink. Or offering a clean, comfortable bed to an overnight visitor.
Obviously, some hosts and hostesses can do such things with panache — or flamboyantly. Who would not want to experience such hospitality?!
However, at its heart, hospitality is not an extension of wealth; it is the extension of self, regardless of means.
Many a church mission team member has extended ministry to a person in need — sometimes desperate need — only to be offered in return a drink or a light snack, fully aware that it is coming from a person who may be offering such refreshments sacrificially.
To exercise hospitality is to extend loving care and acceptance to another. To some, this exercise is almost automatic. Over time it becomes the natural response of some people.
To others, frankly, the thought of extending kindness in such a way simply does not register. In such a setting, a person moves on her way perhaps wondering whether she was even welcome in the first place.
The absence of the “h” word — hospitality — communicates just as strongly or even more strongly — than its presence. Both of these polar-opposite experiences leave a lasting effect.
Likely most people have experienced both hospitality and inhospitality. We remember the caring, even loving experience and anticipate returning to experience it again. We also remember being treated less than kindly.
In the Bible, both the Old and New Testaments commend hospitality, especially to strangers. That notion likely sounds a bit foreign to modern Americans. We’ve grown wary and even fearful of most “foreigners” and other strangers. Many of us have been raised to avoid people we do not already know.
We can love and show care for relatives — at least most of them — and friends, but we would rather run background checks on strangers before even slightly extending ourselves to them.
To be sure, most of us are not nomadic like Holy Land types in Jesus’ day (and many today). For many travelers back then, the next tent or other home was considered an outpost for rest and nourishment. Hospitality was expected and rarely denied.
Traditionally, the inhabitants of these homes anticipated guests and gladly offered a night’s rest and food to satisfy a tired and hungry traveler. Travelers benefited from hospitality, and hosts enjoyed conversing with their traveling guests, learning more about them and perhaps combating loneliness in isolated places. This is still a characteristic of people in that part of the world.
Sensitive international travelers today realize that risking illness by accepting a cup of local water is hardly the worst thing that can happen in an encounter. Many agree that turning down sincere hospitality can be far more hurtful to the generous host and damaging to the relationship.
I recall visiting a Christian couple in a picturesque forested area of Ecuador. They were people of limited means. The hostess worked hard to prepare a meal for us, and the menu included at least a couple of items that were strange to some of us. Nevertheless, we ate heartily and, as it turned out, enjoyed the meal.
The hostess commented after we had eaten that — unlike some previous guests of our nationality — we did not shy away from the meal or particular foods. On the contrary, we even took “seconds” when offered. She was pleased that her food was enjoyed and her hard work was appreciated. Her hungry guests had honored her effort.
To state the obvious, hospitality should always be extended and, when offered, should always be received with gratitude.
Bill Webb is editor of Word & Way.