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The hospitable God

An extract from a piece written for Celebrating Community (ed Emma Ineson and Chris Edmondson, pub DLT) – a book commissioned by the Lee Abbey Movement to celebrate 60 years of Christian witness through shared life.

At the heart of Christian faith is a God who is hospitable.  

In the creation story at the beginning of the Bible he gives his new humanity a beautiful garden to live in (Genesis 2.8 – probably inspired by ancient Near Eastern ‘pleasure gardens’). In the book of Revelation, at the other end of the scriptures, brief glimpses into the life of heaven reveal a community gathered around the throne of God of bewildering size and diversity, ‘that no one could count, from every nation, tribe and language’ (Revelation 7.9). This is a place of extraordinary welcome. So hospitality lies at the heart of the life of God’s people. Hospitality and community reveal the character of God like no other activity.

The open door

The ancient world in which the scriptures originate observed very strict social codes of welcome and hospitality that were honoured across cultural and racial boundaries. To neglect them was to inflict deep insult with very serious consequences.  Our Western world has no contemporary equivalent to these. It is very hard for us to imagine the demanding kind of hospitality that was an accepted way of life in the ancient world. The stylised verbal rituals with which Abraham pressed hospitality upon the three strangers who arrived at his tents near Mamre, for example, sound very foreign to our ears (Genesis 18.3ff).

There was practical wisdom in these codes. These were nomadic people’s wandering in a region of harsh and often dangerous terrain. The mutual obligation of hospitality ensured the possibility of refuge, food and refreshment for needy travellers.  Next time it could be you.

In today’s world the nearest expression of that ancient culture is found among the Bedouin of the Middle East and the Mongolians of central Asia. The Mongolian name for tent is  ‘Ger’ , the same word as the Hebrew word for ‘ stranger’ or ‘alien’.

There is a Mongolian saying that their tents have ‘wide doors’. They are places of open welcome. It appals them to learn that a stranger in London has to pay for a cup of tea! The obligation is laid upon host and guest alike. A traveller must not pass the tent without stopping to receive its hospitality.

The other fruit of this hospitality was that it provided a way for strangers to meet. In this way communities crossed boundaries and forged new relationships across racial, cultural and religious divides.

Welcoming the stranger

In its teaching on community and hospitality the Bible builds upon the social expectations of its time. But it also interprets the significance of hospitality in strikingly new ways. It was not

just a matter of whether you are hospitable or not. The question is who you are hospitable to. The test of a hospitable community is how they welcome strangers and the most vulnerable in society. There are a number of reasons for this.

Firstly, God wills it to be so. Hospitality and shared life is the heart of God’s vision for humanity made in his image. To be a hospitable community is most truly to reflect God’s likeness and so (incidentally) to be most truly ourselves. 

Secondly, God has a special love for the outsider and the disadvantaged. He has compassion on the needy, vulnerable and powerless. God seeks justice for the orphan and the widow and wants them clothed, fed and cared for. ‘If a stranger lives with you in your land, do not molest him. You must count him as one of your own countrymen and love him as yourself’ (Lev 19.33). There are profound issues here in the way our society treats asylum seekers and refugees.

Thirdly, God’s people, once established in the land, are to love the stranger because that is what they themselves were once. ‘Love the stranger then, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt’ (Deut 10.18-19).  One of the less attractive features of human nature is that experiences of struggle and suffering provide no guarantee that we will respond with compassion to others in the same plight. It can be the reverse. We do not like to be reminded.  So we tend to reject in others what remains unreconciled within us.

Fourthly, the stranger and wanderer among us is a reminder of our true nature on earth. We too are passing through. We are mortal beings. So the psalmist prays, ‘hear my prayer, O Lord and give ear to my cry …. For I am a passing guest, an alien (the word is ‘Ger’), like all my forebears’. (Psalm 39.12)  In the letter to the Hebrews the great ancestors of the faith are held up as examples of this. Abraham, Sarah and Jacob ‘confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth’. They were ‘seeking a homeland’ that was yet to be revealed (Hebrews 11.13-16).

The door is always open.

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