Friends are coming to stay with us this weekend, so my mind has been buzzing with to-do’s, grocery lists and plans.
For my husband, Jason, and I, the buzz is a sign of excitement more than stress. We love hosting people at our house and have always sort of run with the assumption that hospitality is one of our main gifts. After all, we love to cook, we love to talk and we’re pretty laid back—it’s the hospitality trifecta! What more could we possibly need?
But somewhere in the back of my mind lies a nagging sense that my ideas about hospitality are muddled and confused—stuck in a no-man’s-land between the Bible and Pinterest. I might think of hospitality as rooted in my faith, but I have to admit, the first image that comes to mind is of the ultimate hostess. She might not be wearing heels and a ruffled apron, using matching potholders to pull a roast out of an avocado-green oven, but she is still more concerned with style than substance.
When I mention this tension to my husband, he says, “Oh, yeah. You should read this.” He hands me a copy of A People’s History of Christianity by Diana Butler Bass, pointing out a chapter called “The Love of Neighbor.” I’m just a few paragraphs in when I read this: “To us, hospitality is an industry, not a practice, one that summons Martha Stewart to mind more quickly than Jesus Christ.”
Bingo. That’s it—exactly. Besides being starkly spot-on, the contrast between Martha Stewart and Jesus strikes me as bizarrely comic. My mind keeps assembling ridiculous images: one of Jesus in Martha’s kitchen, trying to attain her mastery with cupcake frosting; another of Martha Stewart covertly dressing up the Last Supper table, just a bit. (It was, after all, a special occasion—one that would be iconic for centuries.)
Outrageous scenarios aside, I decide the topic is worth exploring further. Hospitality today might fall within a fairly clear social framework (one that’s nicely packaged for us by thousands of websites and magazines), but for Christians living within that framework, it’s easy to get confused.
What are the right motivations, expectations and goals for inviting a person into our home? How do we measure “success” if it can’t be photographed and posted on Facebook, ready to receive many “likes”? What version of hospitality does God call us to practice, and are we missing the mark when we try to meet standards set by online images?
Of course, Martha Stewart isn’t the only one who sets standards. Jesus sets the bar really high, too. Although He wasn’t usually in charge of cooking (unless you count the miracles of fish, bread and wine), Jesus was all about gathering people around the table and making them feel like they mattered. And by “people,” I mean everyone, from His closest friends to the last people anyone expected Him to sit down with, like tax collectors, hypocrites and Gentiles, who were considered unclean. (See Matthew 9:9-13, and Luke 19:1-10.)
As I read these passages, I wonder, Who am I willing to welcome to my dining table?
In the parable of the prodigal son, we see hospitality from another important angle. While the banquet prepared by the father for his long-lost son is elaborate (I’m sure Martha Stewart would approve), the true hospitality isn’t rooted in what is given, but rather the father’s acceptance of where his son had been and what he had done. The father is willing to take him in, as he is, and forgive with open arms.
This story prompts me to ask, Who am I willing to forgive?
And yet, what we offer and how we offer it do seem to matter. Think about the meal Martha busily prepares for Jesus (Luke 10:38-42), growing increasingly bitter as her sister Mary sits at Jesus’ feet. Jesus says to Martha, “You are worried and upset about many things, but few things are needed—or indeed only one.” Martha’s focus on making everything perfect for her guest distracts her from what her guest really desires: her presence.
In the story about the woman who washes Jesus’ feet with her tears (Luke 7:36-50), we see another simple, humble act of hospitality. Even though she wasn’t invited to the meal at Simon the Pharisee’s house, her caring acts meet Jesus’ needs in a way Simon, the true host, doesn’t. From a societal perspective, Simon had so much to offer Jesus, but he couldn’t be truly giving because his sense of hospitality wasn’t rooted in honor, humility and love.
As I think of these stories, I wonder, What am I willing to give? And what prompts me to give it?
So, what does true hospitality entail? I think it’s twofold: receiving someone as they are and generously extending whatever it is you have to share. It might be a banquet, or it might be your tears. Either way, the Apostle Paul says it should be offered in love, without grumbling (1 Peter 4:8-9).
Just as I begin to think I have my work cut out for me, this question pops into my head: Is hospitality optional for us as Christians? Is it OK to say, “That’s just not my gift,” or to only show hospitality to our closest family and friends, when it’s convenient?
Diana Butler Bass, again in A People’s History of Christianity, writes that for the first few centuries of Christianity—starting with the church in Acts—”hospitality was the primary Christian virtue.” It was “fundamental to being a person of the way,” and it was the “main motivator for conversions” (italics mine).
I’m thinking that, as Christians, we’ve drifted pretty far from that view of hospitality. Maybe it isn’t optional. If that’s the case, we need to broaden our understanding of what hospitality looks like. In other words, there’s no single “right” way to go about it. Your version might look different from mine, and my version might look different today, as I interact with people at the café, than it will this weekend, when our friends come to stay with us.
But either way it can be hospitable, whether it’s a simple act in a moment or a series of acts planned days in advance. The crucial elements will be the same: receiving others exactly as they are and sharing what I have to give. If it’s done right, it will perfectly blend the spiritual and social aspects of who I am, and it will meet both the spiritual and social needs of the people I’m serving.
In this world, such an approach to hospitality just might seem a bit radical. Maybe even the Martha Stewarts among us will pick up an idea or two.
Kristin Tennant has been making a living as a freelance writer for 10 years. She lives with her husband Jason and their three daughters in Urbana, Illinois, where she leads a weekly Bible & Beer discussion, plays her viola at church, and loves sharing meals and conversation with friends. She blogs at Halfway to Normal, and you can connect with her on Twitter and Facebook.