Many of us are preparing to open our homes and/or schedules for others in the coming weeks. This is a good thing, a biblical thing! We’re entreated in the Scriptures to be eager in both our practice and acceptance of hospitality. But as with all church words, we may need a refresher on what hospitality actually is.
I fear the word “hospitality” has been overused to the point that it’s meaning has been obscured. We’ve collectively settled on a small, superficial, ultimately disappointing version of something thoughtfully crafted by God. Before we explore what gospel hospitality is, let’s dissect what it isn’t.
Consider this phrase: the hospitality industry. Included are businesses like hotels, restaurants, and bars. If you’re in the business of hospitality, your job is to make other people comfortable and then get out of the way. They have their life to live, you have your job to do. Your paths cross only when your guest needs something.
On a smaller scale, personal hospitality is synonymous with “entertaining.” Chances are, when we think of personal hospitality, we think of trappings: decorations, food, a table set, music playing at the perfect volume, a candle in the half bath. This new definition is primarily concerned with the behaviors of the host.
While these expressions of hospitality do hold traces of the real thing, they have one gaping hole: there is no relationship. This type of hospitality happens merely on the surface level, and it’s not the ideal hospitality of the Bible.
In Luke 10:38-42, we read the famed story of Mary and Martha: sisters of Lazarus and friends of Jesus of Nazareth. This text provides the contrast between surface hospitality and deep, gospel hospitality.
When those of us in the West think of “hospitality,” we’re likely thinking about surface hospitality, the activity Martha is caught up in: the curation of spaces and experiences, well-designed events planned and executed by a detail-minded host. None of these elements are inherently “bad,” nor antithetical to the deeper, truer hospitality we see in Jesus. But there’s great danger in mistaking this first genre of hospitality for God’s.
Of course, deep hospitality does require some level of surface hospitality: we may need to tidy our home so it isn’t distracting to our guests; perhaps a snack and cup of coffee would make them feel extravagantly loved. Do this with great joy! It’s good to create a physical space within which intimacy can grow—however that may look. But then, the acts of service end and the deep hospitality begins: we ask good questions, we listen, we pray and laugh and cry with them. We lay down the doing of surface hospitality and pick up the being of deep hospitality.
Martha gets the first part exactly right: she does the “good Christian thing” (or, the good Jewish thing) and opens her home to others. She makes sure it’s tidy and that there are snacks for everyone. But all this service distracts her. The question to ask is: distracted from what? She’s distracted from the one thing (person) that actually matters—her guest: God incarnate.
We all know this feeling. Imagine you’re at a friend’s for dinner. There are four or five of you around the table. Conversation is flowing, you’ve just refilled your glass, when your host stands up and takes a round of dishes to the sink and begins to rinse them and put them in the dishwasher. Suddenly you’re very aware of the time and of the unspoken readiness of your host for you to leave their house. You wrap up the conversation and politely see yourself out. The service of surface hospitality (clearing dirty dishes) has ended the opportunity for deep hospitality (connecting with others at the table).
The hospitality of God transcends plans and aesthetics. The original Greek word translated as “hospitality” in Romans 12:13 is philoxenia, which can refer to “love for strangers.” Love, by definition, requires some work. To love another is to make space in your heart, mind, plans, and home for them. Consider what was required for Jesus to make a space for us in his Kingdom:
And since we have been made right in God’s sight by the blood of Christ, he will certainly save us from God’s condemnation. For since our friendship with God was restored by the death of his Son while we were still his enemies, we will certainly be saved through the life of his Son. So now we can rejoice in our wonderful new relationship with God because our Lord Jesus Christ has made us friends of God.Romans 5:9-11 NLT
The pursuit of surface hospitality actually isolates Martha from those in her home—she’s away from the group, presumably washing dishes or putting another loaf of bread in the oven. She’s “serving,” but all the while growing in resentment toward her sister for not helping and in incredulity toward Jesus for not making her sister get up and make herself useful. Her “faithful service” prevented her from receiving what/who the gathering was actually about.
Jesus is not concerned with the state of her home or if there were enough snacks. He is concerned with her heart. And he feels the same way toward us today.
How does this look in our everyday lives?
- It begins in our heart
- Scripture invites us to “cheerfully share our home with those who need a meal or a place to stay.” We cannot be cheerful if we’re “anxious with much serving.” As you prepare to host guests or to be a guest of another, examine your heart with the Holy Spirit. Confess any anxious thoughts and ask his perfect peace to flood your heart, that deep connection might be found in the time you’ll share.
- It’ll often occur spontaneously—our plans must be held loosely if we’re going to “always be ready to help God’s people.” This may stir up your nerves if you’re a planner. That’s okay! Examine these feelings in prayer and ask that God would lead you in his way.
- It will serve others
- Consider whether your acts of surface hospitality will actually serve others. Will your decor make them feel welcome and at ease? Or will it cause them to feel inferior? Surface hospitality runs the risk of turning in on itself, widening the gap between host and guest due to things as silly as napkin rings. By all means, create a beautiful space to welcome others into, but don’t let your hospitality be your space. They’re not the same thing.
- Remember that your presence is the most valuable gift you have to give. Let the dirty plates sit. When you feel the nagging to do more, kindly let it pass, lean in, and keep listening to your guest.
- It leaves space for the Holy Spirit
- Please forgive this middle school youth group reference—I don’t mean that to leave room for the Holy Spirit between you and your crush while you slow dance. I mean that there’s space for the other person to share their heart, and space for you to receive it. There’s room for connection and relational intimacy. Hold your plans and expectations for time with others loosely. The Spirit will guide you.
This year, as we enter the homes of others and open our own to friends and family, let’s do our best not to hide behind the service of surface hospitality, but sit down and partake in the feast of community, intimacy with others, and intimacy with Jesus.
Photo credit: Emilee Carpenter
Katie Noble is the founder and lead writer of Goodness Co. and the author of Pray Like This: Christ’s Guide to Praying the Scriptures, a devotional on the Lord’s Prayer published by Hosanna Revival. She lives and writes in central Ohio with her husband, David, and two sons.