The author of the book of Hebrews says to “not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares” (13:2). Why is it easy to neglect hospitality? One primary reason is because we misunderstand what it is.
The phrase translated “show hospitality to strangers” is all one word in the original, the Greek word philoxenia, literally love of strangers. It could be rendered “Don’t forget the love of strangers.” This is the heart of hospitality. Although the word “entertained” is used, the idea is not to entertain in the sense of wine and dine your friends in your contemporary salon. There is also a word play going on this passage. “Entertain”, xenizo, also means to surprise or astonish. What is more surprising to a stranger than to get invited in to warm company? And yet who was ultimately more astonished, Abraham or the angels? In biblical hospitality, both the giver and recipient, host and guest, are in for a surprise. This is a wonderful adventure in every suburb of the kingdom of God.
If you love the stranger, you invite them in. The spontaneity is inescapable, which means it’s not a question of convenience. By definition it is inconvenient. Now, for entertaining, it’s all about preparation, comfort, cleanliness. Everything has to be just so. Entertaining takes lots of forethought–and quick, before they get here, make sure everyone is in fellowship. Hospitality is both more and less and in all the right places. The home cannot be a total wreck because who wants to come into that, so people in the home have to be loving one another, picking up after themselves and each other joyfully. And the same habit of confession of sin and forgiveness has to take place if the home is to be one worth bringing someone into. The food is normal food, what the family would eat otherwise, perhaps made slightly more special in honor of the guests (e.g. the paper napkins are folded). But it’s not a different kind of meal, so the cost shouldn’t be dramatically different beyond the extra number of people at the table.
This is the critical difference of hospitality versus entertainment. Entertaining generally tries to have an event with a delectable table, sparkling house, festive beverages and the like. These occasions are wonderful and not to be lost. In my house we celebrate the Lord’s Day in a unique way every week, and high feasts with even more fare. But hospitality as described in Hebrews is different. It’s normal and common. The gift is your table and your family, the gospel life at work (not perfected!) and overflowing to others. This means that what you would do normally at the table need not change a whole lot unless it needs to already. If people are thankful for a hard day’s work put in and interested in others, if conversation and stories flow in love just like the food and drink, then this is where strangers will be welcomed and delighted. Friendships grow here just like the love and loyalty of family has for years. Hospitality doesn’t mean you create a new environment and spectacle for the guest, but rather bring him into your typical grace-filled home.
If this is to take place, husbands will have to make sure the main burden falls on them and then to their wives only as it is welcomed and embraced. They will have to help their wives lower the squeaky clean bar, and be willing to call an event off if other crazy last minute things come off. If this normal hospitality is to be a blessing to the guests, it has to be a blessing to the host. Time with kids and with one another can’t be neglected, so all kinds of creative opportunities will have to be explored. Women must embrace the chaos. Ask yourself, would you rather come into a home with some dust in the corner and less fancy food where there is laughter and love, or not come in at all? This is really the alternative. Unless someone has expansive wealth, a cleaning crew and a hired chef, the house and the food are not going to win every award. They’re not supposed to, and the stranger/guest will not feel neglected if this is the case. Abraham and Sarah didn’t hesitate when they saw the three unknown men, and neither should we.