Blogging toward Sunday

August 27, 2007

Along my office hallway a sign has been mysteriously posted:
HOSPITALITY NOT HOSTILITY. Apart from the fact that I find capital
letters extremely inhospitable, the sentiment seems apt, and leads me
into thinking about Hebrews 13.

How often have I mistaken angels
for strangers? At what point did Mary identify her intruder as Gabriel
during the annunciation? (Gabriel is not recorded as introducing
himself to Mary). And, if an angel is an emissary from God—in both
Hebrew and Greek the term simply translates as messenger—do we need to
identify the stranger as an angel, or is the message rather about
recognizing and receiving a word of grace from God through the

Hebrews 13:1 focuses on
mutual love. As if taking for granted that strangers (or angels) will
offer love, it is readers who are here exhorted to show hospitality, to
show love, to respond mutually. I feel my normal definition of a
stranger—someone I don’t know— being redefined. I already know that a
stranger may turn out to be a gift. But here is a call for yet greater
relational receptivity. A new definition is emerging: the stranger is
anyone in whom I have yet to recognize God’s gift.

Clearly the
Pharisee with whom Jesus dines in Luke 14 is someone who identifies
himself as God’s gift. We may presume this man is well-versed in
strategic entertaining and, I dare say, fund-raising: he normally
invites those who in due time will bring a handsome return on his
investment. Sounds like a kind of mutuality?

Jesus challenges him to invite those who can never
repay: the crippled and the blind, after all, have permanent
disabilities. Mutuality, instead of being a reciprocity of means and
money, is re-focused on blessing, if he can only learn to see it. The
irony is heavy: this Pharisee has offered hospitality to “the poor,” to
the stranger—in Jesus—but it appears he cannot recognize the gift of

Jesus also addresses the other side of hospitality in his
parable: being the guest (Luke 14:7-11). We should not be presumptuous
concerning our relative place among the guests; or, at least, we should
presume to be at the bottom not the top. Put another way, we should
play the stranger. If we are a gift of God, then it is a gift for the
host to unwrap and acknowledge.

Our games of status are
revealed. In Hebrews it is assumed, when it comes to hospitality, that
I am the agent, the host, “the rich”: responsible for welcoming the
stranger and encouraged to recognize their blessing. I can handle that:
I have a house and considerable other resources from which I can offer
warmth and welcome without need for any material return. But mutuality
demands that I not simply play host; and of course it takes two to be
strangers. Perhaps I need to “play” guest so as to enable the full
mutual exchange? Isn’t this the somersault God made, when the creator
of the universe and host of the heavenly banquet became guest at the
Pharisee’s house for dinner?

I recall a student recounting the
lessons of a CPE internship. “When it comes to pastoral care my aim has
always been to bring some word from God to that person through the
encounter—whether by reading scripture directly or through conversation
or prayer. But this summer I’ve started approaching the pastoral visit
totally differently. Now I arrive seeking the presence of God which is
already there and seeking to identify something of God’s treasure in
that person. Then I sit with them to pray or read scripture together. I
don’t know how it works for them but I know it’s become a wonderful
blessing for me. I used to worry I was inadequate; now I’m more often
in awe.”

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