By Jack Rigert, Director of JPll RC
Because I spent the early part of my professional life operating restaurants, I have always been fascinated with “hospitality.” In fact, it was this fascination that enabled my success. I genuinely saw every customer that came to the door of one of our restaurants as a guest arriving at my home for dinner. The food was going to look and taste great, the service warm and efficient, the music and the lights just right. Yet, in a way, all of this only set the stage for the most important part of the night. This part could be magical, and it happened when guests began to share their stories and experiences with one another and at times with us.
This is “hospitality” at its finest, setting the stage for “connection” so basic to the deepest desire of the human heart to share life and love with others. As such it should come as no surprise that the theme of “hospitality” runs throughout the Bible, as well.
Let me begin with a definition. “Hospitality customs in the biblical world relate to two distinct classes of people: the traveler and the resident alien. In most translations of the Bible, there is little attempt to try and separate the two.” The word most associated with hospitality in the Old Testament is xenos, which literally means foreigner, strangers, or even enemy. The verb used to describe the extending of hospitality is xenizen “lover of strangers.”
In ancient times, travel was perilous. The environment of the desert and arid land in most of the middle east is harsh. For a traveler, access to food and water was a matter of life and death. Most settlements were built near available water or wells. The traveler needed to have access to this water, and it was also important for the settled community to have protection. As a result, strict codes of conduct developed to govern such encounters. “Hospitality then developed as a practice for receiving a guest or stranger graciously and was common to many social groups throughout the period in which the Bible was written. In the Bible special nuances of hospitality, particularly with regards to the guest and host roles played by God or Christ, serve to distinguish the notions of the biblical writers from their contemporaries.”
In the Old Testament (OT) the act of extending or accepting hospitality sets the stage for God’s Grace/Love to manifest itself in the lives of His people and into the world at large. The importance of hospitality to those whose stories are told in the OT goes far beyond the mere act of being hospitable. Nevertheless, the act is an important one, for it opens one up to a “connection”, a union, a circle of being with God where one finds “home” wherever they physically happen to be.
Examples of this are evident throughout the OT. Let me give you one. In Genesis 18 we find the Lord and two messengers visiting Abraham in the form of three men standing outside of his tent. Following the tradition of his time he did what would be expected and invited them to come and refresh themselves. Abraham’s hospitality puts him in a position to receive God, which provides a setting for a unique dialog between them. It is in this context then that Abraham is told that Sarah will have a son in her advanced age.
Here we have a very important biblical theme played out – hospitality shown others as a way of meeting God. In the book of Deuteronomy 8:1-5, God reminds the people that He has directed them as they journeyed through the desert and used this position as “host” to teach them trust and discipleship. That as their host God has freely given but does not want to be taken advantage of. In essence God says, “Do not forget what I have shared with you lest I take away all which has been given.” The idea of hospitality as a basis of trust emerges. God will take care of us, but we must appreciate this gift and in return show hospitality to those who are sent to us. We are God’s agents, doing the work of God and allowing grace to come upon us and through us into the world.
In the New Testament we hear Jesus speak directly to this theme in Luke 14:15-24:
One of those at table with Jesus said to Him, “Blessed is the one who will dine in the Kingdom of God.” Jesus replied to him, “A man gave a great dinner to which he invited many. When the time for the dinner came, he dispatched his servant to say to those invited, ‘Come, everything is now ready.’ But one by one, they all began to excuse themselves. The first said to him, ‘I have purchased a field and must go to examine it; I ask you, consider me excused.’ And another said, ‘I have purchased five yoke of oxen and am on my way to evaluate them, ‘I ask you, consider me excused.’ And another said, ‘I have just married a woman, and therefore I cannot come.’ The servant went and reported this to his master. Then the master of the house in a rage commanded his servant, ‘Go out quickly into the streets and alleys of the town and bring in here the poor and the crippled, the blind and the lame.’ The servant reported, ‘Sir, your orders have been carried out and still there is more room.’ The master then ordered the servant, ‘Go out to the highways and hedgerows and make people come in that my home may be filled. For, I tell you, none of those men who were invited will taste my dinner.’”
The Magnificat (Nov. 5, 2019 pg. 78) presents a wonderful meditation on this Gospel Passage:
“Come, everything is now ready”:
The man who makes the supper is God; the great supper is his Kingdom where souls will find full abundance of spiritual blessings while on earth, and eternal happiness in the next life. This is the real meaning of the parable, but we can also interpret it more specifically, seeing in the supper and in the man who prepares it a figure of the Eucharistic banquet and of Jesus, inviting us to partake of his Flesh and Blood. “The table of the Lord is set for us,” sings the Church, “Wisdom, the Incarnate Word, has prepared the wine and laid the table.” Jesus himself, when announcing the Eucharist, addressed his invitation to all: I am the Bread of life! He that comes to me shall not hunger, and he that believes in me shall never thirst…. Your fathers did eat manna in the desert, and are dead. This is the bread which comes down from heaven; that if any man eat of it, he may not die.
Jesus does not limit himself, like other men, to preparing the table for a supper, inviting many, and serving delicious food; his is an unheard-of procedure, which no man, however rich and powerful he might be, could ever imitate. Jesus offers himself as food. Saint John Chrysostom said to those who wanted to see Christ in the Eucharist with their bodily eyes, “Behold, you do see him; you touch him, you eat him. You would like to see his garments; he not only permits you to see him, but also to eat him, to touch him, and to receive him into your heart…. He whom the angels look upon with fear, and dare not gaze upon steadfastly because of his dazzling splendor, becomes our food; we are united to him, and are made one body and one flesh with Christ.”– Father Gabriel of Saint Mary Magdalen († 1952) was a Belgian Carmelite priest, teacher, and spiritual director.
To conclude, I pause to reflect on the theme of hospitality in my own life. It is a circle of God’s grace/gift of life and love flowing to me from so many great friends, priests, family members and acquaintances. I, in turn, have the privilege of sharing this grace/gift of life and love with others. It is the power of “connection” – reaching out and opening up to others and allowing God’s Love and mercy to flow through us and manifest itself in those we come into contact with. I think of the joy and happiness this has brought to my life. Life can be cruel and hard. Through the goodness of each other God continues to work in the midst of those who would disrupt it. In being hospitable to others we allow God, working through us, to fight against the greed and selfishness which so often permeates the core of the human heart. A small act of hospitality can give God the opening He needs to fill the world with Love.
 Dennis Bratcher, “Travelers and Strangers: Hospitality in the ancient middle east.”
 Anchor Bible Dictionary, Volume 3. Doubleday 1992 “Hospitality”