What do you smell and taste when you look at this photo of a backyard barbecue or picnic? Remember a recent picnic with family, neighbors, and friends. What was the weather like? Who was there? Were you the host or a guest? How did you give or receive hospitality? Did the hospitality include more than the food?
Most people practice giving and receiving hospitality daily. Hospitality involves being at home with yourself and being both host and guest with others. Hospitality means reaching out and inviting in. When you are hospitable, you accept others into your life by being cordial, gracious, and generous. Hospitality is a very human action, practiced by good people everywhere.
We human beings have, since the very beginning of civilization, found hospitality (to each other–and to ourselves) to be essential for a full life. The word “hospitality” (from the Latin) means both host and guest. Hospitality is a two-way experience with both the guest and the host receiving a sincere and gracious welcome from one another. Giving and receiving hospitality is expected among friends, but the Bible asks us to share hospitality with strangers as well as friends.
Hospitality has always been a basic virtue of friendship and of helping the needy who are hungry or homeless. Such hospitality is a matter of justice. All hospitality shows a willingness to listen to the needs of others and to maintain an openness that involves attentiveness, humility, and love. A hospitable person shows a preference for the poor and the stranger. Think about the effect that Dorothy Day had (and continues to have) with the Houses of Hospitality first established in the 1930s.
Many of the psalms are prayers of hospitality. In a familiar psalm, “The Lord is my shepherd,” the psalmist prays in thanksgiving for God’s hospitality. This poem of Hebrew hospitality ends with these lovely words:
“You spread the table before me in the sight of my foes;
You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.
Only goodness and kindness follow me all the days of my life;
And I shall dwell in the house of the Lord for years to come.” (Psalm 23:5-6)
In the New Testament Jesus is identified as both guest and host. He is always solicitous for the needs of the poor, the marginalized, the sinner, the Samaritans and Gentiles. Throughout the gospels Jesus remains a wayfarer or sojourner who depends upon the hospitality of others. Hospitality to the stranger becomes hospitality to the neighbor because for Jesus everyone is neighbor.
In some stories Jesus is a guest who teaches his hosts about hospitality. In all of the synoptic gospels you can find the story of Jesus as the dinner guest of a Pharisee who is not hospitable. In Matthew’s gospel (26:6-13) Jesus is invited to the house of Simon the leper. Simon provides none of the usual courtesies of hospitality such as anointing his head or washing his feet. A woman, an onlooker, is so shocked by the host’s lack of hospitality that she takes it upon herself to anoint Jesus’ head and then his body. The disciples are indignant, saying “Why this waste?” But Jesus says, “Wherever this gospel is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be spoken of, in memory of her.” She has given much more than the hospitality Simon, the host, should have given. Jesus tells us to be hospitable out of love, not for a reward. Hospitality–thoughtfulness, kindness–first of all, involves how guests are treated.
In some stories Jesus is the host who teaches guests about hospitality. In the story of the Last Supper Jesus is supreme host when he washes the feet of his friends and breaks bread for them to eat. You may want to read the story in John’s gospel beginning with Chapter 13. At the supper Jesus’ first action is to wash his disciples’ feet, an act usually performed by servants.
Washing the feet of the traveler is an act of hospitality. Guests who traveled through on dusty roads needed this ritual which was both practical and symbolic. John’s story of the Last Supper makes no mention of the bread and wine, the actual meal. Instead the central action is the hospitality and the importance of service. Here we see the host as servant of the guests!
Think about the meals you have eaten (or will eat) today. How did they nourish you? What was your “bread”? Did you eat with others? How did your companions “nourish” you and how did you “nourish” them? Were they truly companions to you and you to them?
Take a few minutes to reflect on how you live out hospitality.
You might want to write in your journal your reflections in answer to some of these questions:
For a concluding prayer you may want to reflect on this passage from Paul’s letter to the Romans: “Rejoice in hope, endure in affliction, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the holy ones, exercise hospitality” (12:12-13).
When you are ready, move to the next part of the retreat. Part 7: Finding God through leisure.