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Biblical Hospitality

Shirley Young (1938-2014)
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Many years ago during World War I, my grandfather who was with the Royal Engineers, was sent to Palestine to help build a bridge over the River Jordan. During his time there he lived with a family in Jordan (then known as Trans Jordan). He mentioned that they were so hospitable that they treated him as though he were their own son.

Hospitality was one of the most highly praised virtues in the ancient nomadic societies of the Middle East, and that standard has largely persisted into the modern era. Long ago, hospitality was greatly esteemed since it was so necessary in a time of difficult travel and few inns. Some inns that were available had a somewhat unsavory reputation. Joshua 2 describes Rahab as both an innkeeper and a harlot, although we later learn that Rahab, with her simple faith in the God of Israel, was blessed and later became a part of the Israelite community. She is even mentioned in the genealogy of Jesus Christ (Matthew 1:5).

Abraham, the father of the faithful, was a nomad and is an example of one who was blessed because of the hospitality he extended to strangers (Genesis 18:1–8). One day when Abraham was sitting by his tent in the heat of the day he looked up and saw three strangers standing nearby. His immediate reaction was not: “Oh no! Here come visitors!” Rather he got up and eagerly hurried to meet them.

Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary defines hospitality as “receiving and entertaining guests generously and kindly.” Abraham certainly did this. He hastened to have food prepared and then stood by ready to wait upon his guests as they ate. In his day a person’s reputation was often connected to the kind of hospitality rendered. Even strangers were expected to be treated as highly honoured guests.

Lot in Genesis 19 demonstrated this to the two “strangers” who came to Sodom and actually turned out to be angels (Hebrews 13:2). Lot insisted that they came into his house for the night, have their feet washed and receive food, and shelter. He was also particularly concerned for their protection as he was well aware of the decadent night life of Sodom.

Another good example was that of the Shunammite woman in 2 Kings 4:8–10, who noticed how often Elisha passed that way and desired to serve the man of God. She said to her husband: “Please, let us make a small upper room on the wall; and let us put a bed for him there, and a table and a chair and a lampstand; so it will be, whenever he comes to us, he can turn in there.”

As a result of her thoughtfulness God blessed her with a son. God greatly regards hospitality as a demonstration of our willingness to care for others.

In Apostolic times hospitality was still encouraged for the followers of Christ, even although there were a few inns extant as mentioned in the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:30–37; 1 Peter 4:9; Romans 12:13).

When Jesus Christ sent out the twelve disciples He encouraged them to stay in the houses of those who responded to their message. He, Himself, also demonstrated hospitality when a huge crowd followed Him. He said: “Now Jesus called His disciples to Himself and said, ‘I have compassion on the multitude, because they have now continued with Me three days and have nothing to eat. And I do not want to send them away hungry, lest they faint on the way’” (Matthew 15:32). And as we know Jesus Christ fed four thousand men besides women and children by the miracle of the seven loaves and a few fish.

Today we would not actually wash our guests’ feet as they did in those days when they wore sandals and walked on dusty roads, but we should nevertheless demonstrate the same spirit of humble service by looking after the needs of guests, providing them with food, warmth and a place to sleep, if necessary.

When hospitality turns into ritualistic entertaining and it’s done simply because it is expected, it loses its true meaning. But whether the host is rich or poor the best kind of hospitality is when there is a genuine welcome, warmth, love, service and a feeling of togetherness. That is hospitality!