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Practicing Biblical Hospitality In Hard Times: Are You Ready For 2011?

WILLIE:      I can’t eat this.

INDIANA:  That’s more food than these people eat in a week.  They’re starving…You’re insulting them, and you’re embarrassing me.  Eat it.  Eat it.

The Temple of Doom (1984)

The stranger did not lodge in the street; but I opened my doors to the traveler.  —Job 31:32

Before Indiana Jones…

Austen Henry Layard “accidentally discovered” the ruins of Nineveh in 1845 when he was only twenty-eight.  His excavations created, and pretty much filled up, the Assyrian section of the British Museum.  Layard was by turns an adventurer, secret agent, diplomat, archaeologist, teacher, politician, art historian, and writer.  He was good with a horse and a gun, and had to regularly think and act quickly when he found himself in tight situations.  The chronicles of his adventures and discoveries fill several books.  (There is no record that he hated snakes.)

Like Indiana Jones, Layard understood the practical importance of Eastern hospitality.  For example, as he describes his first visit to the Rose-Red City of Petra, he writes, “I was determined to undertake the journey alone, trusting to my own resources, and fully believing all the romantic stories that I had read of Arab hospitality and their respect for a guest.”  And along the way, Layard did enjoy the hospitality of more than one desert sheik.  What he knew from books he saw played out in the most practical and generous ways.  Layard found this Eastern custom could be put to peculiar uses.

For example, when he and his party were attacked and robbed by Bedouin raiders, Layard grabbed hold of the Bedouin chieftain, put a rifle to his head, and threatened to blow it off unless his men withdrew.  They did, and Layard marched his captive to the next friendly Arab encampment.  There, in the morning, Layard offered his hungry captive a share of his breakfast.  When the Bedouin chieftain accepted and ate, Layard insisted on the rule of hospitality and calmly asked for the stolen goods to be returned.  The surrounding Arabs backed him up:  “You have eaten bread with this man!”  Sheepishly, the Bedouin leader agreed to restore all that his men had taken from Layard and his friends.

On another occasion, as a blinding fog lifted, Layard and his company found themselves on the outskirts of a Bedouin encampment that stood between themselves and the ruins of the Parthian city of Hatra, their intended destination.  Layard walked boldly into the Bedouin camp, and presented himself and his friends as guests.  The nonplussed Bedouins extended a suspicious hospitality and watched without understanding as Layard began his archaeological survey of the ruins.  Eventually they slipped away, believing that Layard’s boldness meant that he was the advanced agent of a great army.

Abraham and Lot

Middle Eastern hospitality has an ancient history.  Genesis tells how both Abraham and his nephew Lot both entertained unusual guests, strangers who appeared out of nowhere.

Abraham was sitting in his tent door in the heat of the day.  Suddenly, three strangers appeared within his camp.  Abraham ran to meet them.  He bowed himself to the ground and offered these men the hospitality of his hearth.  He sat them under the large tree that overshadowed his tent and ordered a servant to wash the dust from their feet.  He hurried into the tent and had Sarah, his wife, start a fresh batch of bread.  He ran to the herd and picked out a tender calf; he handed it off to a servant to be slaughtered and readied for the spit or fire.  When the calf was ready, Abraham took the veal and the bread with some butter and milk and presented it to his visitors.  Abraham stood by, waiting attendance, while they began to eat.

Now Abraham was almost a hundred years old. He was also an important man, the ruler of a large and prosperous sheikdom who had hundreds of servants who could have done these chores for him.  There is nothing to suggest that Abraham initially suspected the heavenly nature of his guests.  Yet Abraham took time to see to his guests himself.  Only when the Spokesman of the three strangers opened His mouth in promise did Abraham know with certainty just who his guests really were.

Lot was sitting in the city gate when two of these strangers made their way into Sodom that same evening.  The city gate was the ancient equivalent of city hall so it would seem Lot had apparently acquired some sort of civil office in Sodom.  When he saw the two strangers, he rose to meet them and, bowing to the ground, asked them to accept his hospitality.  When they politely refused in favor of the city street, Lot was insistent.  And so they went with him.  It was late, but Lot did what he could.  He prepared his guests a feast of unleavened bread.  Then things went bad.  Before the strangers could retire for the night, a large group of men from all over the city besieged Lot’s house and demanded that these handsome strangers be brought out so “that we may know them.”

Lot knew that the rules of hospitality required him to protect his guests.  Having no armed support at hand, Lot foolishly countered the men’s demand with an offer of his own.  The men could have Lot’s virgin daughters to abuse.  The offer, of course, was ungodly.  The men of Sodom were not interested and would not be deterred.  They threatened violence against Lot and surged forward to break down the door.  At this point, the strangers revealed themselves.  They stepped forward, pulled Lot back inside, shut the door, and blinded all those outside.  Then they told Lot their purpose in Sodom:  “The LORD hath sent us to destroy it.” (Genesis 19:13)

The men of Sodom were “wicked and sinners before the LORD exceedingly,” (Genesis 13:13) and they left their city’s name as a label for a particularly wicked sexual sin.  Yet Sodom’s first recorded sin was a lack of hospitality.  Apparently Lot had the only hospitable hearth in the whole town.

Hospitality and the Gospel

The writer of Hebrews tells us, “Be not forgetful to entertain strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.” (Hebrews 13:2)  Of course, we are to think of Abraham and Lot and their examples.  But the meaning is larger.  Hospitality is a privilege and an opportunity.  We can never know what blessings our guests may bring us.  But hospitality is also a duty.  Our Lord and His apostles commend it to us and require it of us throughout the New Testament (e.g., Rom. 12:13; 1 Pet. 4:9; 1 Tim. 3:2).

The reason is simple.  In the gospel, God invites us to His home to eat at His table.  Jesus’ own words about the coming Kingdom are full of the language of shared meals, lordly hospitality, and marriage banquets (e.g., Matt. 22:2ff; Luke 12:37; 13:29; 14:16ff; 22:30).  The Lord’s Supper, too, points to the same offer and promise, and the Supper is, for those who come in faith, a present participation in the Marriage Supper of the Lamb (cf. Rev. 19).  In short, God is hospitable, and His people are to behave like their heavenly Father.

Hospitality Evangelism

Jesus set forth hospitality as a way of better displaying and communicating the love of God for sinners.  When we take in and help those in need, we not only imitate our God; we also advance His healing work in this world.

Then said he also to him that bade him, When thou makest a dinner or a supper, call not thy friends, nor thy brethren, neither thy kinsmen, nor thy rich neighbours; lest they also bid thee again, and a recompence be made thee.  But when thou makest a feast, call the poor, the maimed, the lame, the blind: and thou shalt be blessed; for they cannot recompense thee: for thou shalt be recompensed at the resurrection of the just. (Luke 14:12-14)

“The poor, maimed, halt, and blind”—exactly the sort of people, spiritually speaking, whom God invites to His supper. (Luke 14:21)  In The Church at the End of the 20th Century (Inter-Varsity, 1970), Francis Schaeffer reminds us that this sort of hospitality isn’t easy and isn’t cheap.  Inconvenience and monetary cost are only the beginning. Schaffer asks:

How many times have you risked an unantiseptic situation by having a girl who might easily have a sexual disease sleep between your sheets?  We have girls come to our homes who have three or four abortions by the time they are 17.  Is it possible they have venereal disease?  Of course.  But they sleep between our sheets…  How many times have you had a drug-taker come into your home?  Sure it is a danger to your family, and you must be careful.  But have you ever risked it?  (110)

Jesus ate with publicans and sinners, and the religious leaders of His day roundly criticized His choice of dinner companions (Matt. 9:10-13).  But the Great Physician sought out those who were sick.  We are to do the same.

Hospitality for Evangelists

Hospitality can also provide a launching pad for missionary work.  In the early years of Christianity, traveling evangelists and teachers were both a life-support system for small congregations and front-line missionaries to a pagan world.  In 3 John, the apostle commends Gaius for his hospitality:  Gaius had received traveling missionaries into his home and helped them on their way. (vv. 5-8)  But John criticizes Diotrephes for not receiving these teachers and excommunicating those who did. (vv. 9-10)  The Didache, an early Christian manual for life and worship, likewise encourages hospitality to the traveling teacher, but with this warning:  “if he asks for money, he is a false prophet.” (11:3)

The City of God Revisited In 2011?

Abraham looked for a heavenly City.  That much-focused search did not keep him from welcoming strangers to his table and hearth.  Just the opposite is true.  Abraham understood that godly hospitality is an extension of the eschatological City of God into our present experience.  For God invited strangers into His future City then, just as He does now.  And as each godly home, each Christ-centered church, learns to practice hospitality, that eternal City becomes a little more visible on earth and apparent in history.  Strangers can see something of the Kingdom of God.

As the economy sinks deeper in 2011 and we enter the next phase of the greater depression, Christians in the U.S. are going to have plenty of opportunities to demonstrate what we really believe in our hearts about hospitality and evangelism (as opposed to what we give lip-service to on Sunday) . Many are buying gold, seeds and freeze-dried food as they should. It’s biblically sound to prepare for hard times.  But how many Christians are ready for what’s coming? How many are preparing to show kindness and hospitality during 2011?

Start by rereading the hospitality stories mentioned above. But then actually do something. Anything. Start small and build, but practice hospitality just like you would practice for a race. Do everything you can to get ready for the tremendous opportunities God is preparing for you, your family and your church to show His love in 2011.

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