On special occasions, my mother makes Five Cup Salad, setting it out in the same bowl her mother always used. That bowl has served decades of miniature marshmallows, canned mandarin orange segments, crushed pineapple, flaked coconut, and sour cream. When it comes to celebrations, most of us tend to gravitate toward the familiar and traditional, whether that means Five Cup Salad, jollof rice, diri kole, or bacalao.
This very human inclination toward the familiar extends to hospitality. We invite others to share our home, our family, and our traditions. We nestle into comfort and then clear a little space for others. The COVID-19 pandemic showed many of us how much we treasure sharing our celebrations with family members and friends.
Hospitality in the Bible radically differs from this. The word “hospitality” occurs a handful of times in the New Testament, including Titus 1:8, Hebrews 13:2, 1 Timothy 3:2, Romans 12:13, and here:
“Be hospitable to one another without complaining” (1 Peter 4:9).
The Greek word in each instance is a version of philoxenos, from philos and xenos. You can likely think of words with similar origins: Philadelphia, the city of brotherly love. Philosophy, the love of wisdom. Xenophobia, fear or hatred of foreigners.
While we might think of hospitality as a friendly invitation to a church potluck, the challenging original meaning is closer to “love of foreigners.” Xenos can also be (and often is) translated “strangers,” but it carries a sense not simply of “someone like me that I haven’t yet met” but rather “someone very different from me”: someone from another city or country, someone who speaks a different language, someone with different ideals or values, someone who makes choices that are hard for me to understand.
This kind of hospitality challenges us, rather than simply to dish up comfort foods, to step outside of our comfort zone, to venture into the awkward, even scary world of interacting with people who don’t share a common framework for life.
Jesus reinforces this idea by saying, at a dinner party: “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors. . . . But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind” (Luke 14:12-13). At first glance, it seems that Jesus might consider his followers the hosts, painstakingly preparing and sitting down to eat with people outside of their usual circles.
What does this mean two thousand years later? The poverty rate in the US varies by state from 7 to 19 percent. Adults with disabilities comprise 26 percent of the population; 13.7 percent have mobility issues, and 4.6 percent are blind or have serious difficulty seeing. There are plenty of people to bring Jesus’ words to life. What actions and attitudes could expand accessibility and inclusion?
Exploring the Greek words can fuel our imaginations further. The poor, ptóchos, literally means one who crouches and cowers, as in begging—but who else might be crouching or cowering, in body or spirit? Who is attacked or belittled by society?
The ancient word for blind, tuphlos, comes from “to raise a smoke” or “darkened by smoke.” What burns today? Who suffers harm and cannot see a way of escape?
Then again, what if we are not the hosts of Jesus’ feast at all? Throughout the Bible, all the way to the marriage supper in Revelation, God is the one giving the feast. That makes us the crouching and cowering, the movement-impaired, those unable to see past the smoke—and not despised, pitied, or tolerated but loved.
This year, where and how will the dinner be held? Who will be invited—and who will be considered hosts? What will be on the table next to the Five Cup Salad?
The Bible challenges us to reach beyond the familiar and traditional, exploring new ways to welcome, all without complaint.
Jan Fischer Bachman is web editor for Messenger and web producer for the Church of the Brethren.