A Friend of Strangers

Just mention the word "hospitality" and Christians experience stabs of guilt. Like with our prayer life and personal evangelism, we seem to have an unspoken gentlemen's agreement not to ask each other how we're growing in this area. The thought of welcoming people we don't know (or people we don't know very well, or even people we do know) into our homes and sharing with them a meal and a measure of our lives is too uncomfortable, too much an invasion of personal privacy.

Yet we also know the Bible places a high value on hospitality. The Apostle Paul is the recipient of it over and over in the book of Acts (Acts 16:15, 34; 17:5-7; 18:3, 7), and he includes it in the list of virtues which must be present in potential elders (1 Tim 3:2; Tit 1:8). Of course, this isn't just something for elder candidates to practice; the whole church is admonished to be hospitable (Acts 2:46; Heb 13:2; 1 Pet 4:9). But we still don't practice it. Why not?

I think part of the problem lies in a misunderstanding of what hospitality is. Hospitality is not "entertaining." The Bible isn't commanding us to throw lots of dinner parties, be great cooks, have consistently clean houses, or be exceptional at small-talk. Most of us aren't gifted in those areas (if you are, kudos), and some of us (such as our youth) aren't able to entertain at all! 

The Greek word for hospitality is a compound word, much like "mailman" or "mockingbird" in English. Translated as woodenly as possible, it could be rendered something like "friend of strangers" or "stranger-lover". That's right. There's nothing there about dinner parties or chit-chat. There's not even anything about homes and meals (though those are biblical ways of showing love to strangers [see Gen 18:1-5]). But the essence of hospitality is even harder. It requires getting out of your bubble (just like John Travolta) and taking a risk, going out on a limb to be a friend to someone you don't know who may hurt you somehow. It means refusing to take "stranger danger" to an extreme.

How then should we (especially youth) show love to strangers? First off, hospitality requires a new set of eyes. You're always looking for the newcomer, the unfriended, the outcast. It means not ignoring the awkward kid, the new kid, the unpopular kid sitting alone in the corner of the cafeteria at school. It means noticing the moving truck at the house two doors down. It means actually turning around (gasp!) and greeting the visitor in the pew behind you.

And it means more than just saying "hi" or making brief eye contact and giving a slight nod (perhaps with a hint of a smile). In the ancient world, the stranger (whether a foreigner, a traveler, or a runaway) had no rights and was often treated as an outcast. Hospitality involves putting yourself in the other person's shoes, feeling their discomfort, fear, and loneliness, and making them feel at home, loved, and accepted. So go down the street with a welcome basket for the new family. Go over and sit next to the new kid at school. Invite him or her to sit with you and your friends. Most of all, ask people questions about themselves, their personal story, their work, their dreams and ambitions and desires. By asking questions, you show that you care, that you truly want to know how they're doing, that they have dignity and value because they're made in the image of God.

But that still leaves a burning question. Why should we do this? Why should we show love to strangers? First of all, the Bible commands us to (which is reason enough), but even more fundamentally, we show love to the stranger because God showed love to us when we were strangers, outcasts, and rebels. He did this by sending Christ to become a stranger for us. Psalm 69:7-9 says, "For it is for your sake that I have borne reproach, that dishonor has covered my face. I have become a stranger to my brothers, an alien to my mother's sons. For zeal for your house has consumed me, and the reproaches of those who reproach you have fallen on me."

Jesus was despised, rejected, mocked, scorned, and ultimately was treated as a stranger by everyone, even by his own Father, so that the Father might accept us into his family. He was cast out so we might be welcomed in. That means that loving the stranger isn't a task we can ignore. If you've received this kind of love, it has to be something you pass on to others.

"Then the King will say to those on his right, 'Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.' Then the righteous will answer him, saying, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?' And the King will answer them, 'Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.'" (Matt 25:34-40).