“Distributing to the necessity of saints; given to hospitality.” (Romans 12:13)
In one of the New Testament’s “general epistles,” the book of Hebrews (13:2), first-century believers are exhorted to remember to entertain strangers because in so doing they just might be entertaining “angels unawares.” Many believers, due to intense persecution of the early church, were through no choice of their own “strangers,” dependent upon the goodness of God’s people to help them and to even at times house them. Gaius, the recipient of John’s third epistle, was commended for faithfully and charitably succoring brethren who were displaced and in so doing he was labeled by “the elder” a “fellow helper” of the truth.
In this 21st century, with both modest and marvelous accommodations available to travelers at reasonable prices, hospitality is almost a lost art. The word Paul employed in Romans 12:13 when he exhorted his readers to be “given” to hospitality means literally to “pursue” hospitality. Who has known in recent times a person or family that ardently engages others in hospitable ways?
In her book Open Heart, Open Home Karen Mains says that “Entertaining says ‘I want to impress you with my home, my clever decorating, my cooking.’ Hospitality, seeking to minister, says ‘This home is a gift from my Master. I use it as He desires.’ Hospitality aims to serve. Entertaining puts things before people. ‘As soon as I get the house finished, the living room decorated, my house cleaning done—then I will start inviting people.’ Hospitality puts people first. ‘No furniture—we’ll eat on the floor!’ ‘The decorating may never get done—you come anyway.’ ‘The house is a mess—but you are friends—come home with us.’ Entertaining subtly declares ‘This house is mine, an expression of my personality. Look, please, admire.’ Hospitality whispers, ‘What is mine is yours.’”
As a young, ministerial student, I was the recipient of both generous and humorous expressions of hospitality. On many occasions as a traveler on our way to minister to youth on Roan Mountain in western North Carolina, an old couple, Ed and Vina Hipkins, took a buddy of mine and myself into their home and treated us as their own sons with delicious food and overnight lodging on our weary way from Greenville, SC, to Bakersville, NC. Many years (almost 60!) have come and gone since those sweet mountain folks took a couple of “Yankees” in to smother us with old-fashioned, southern hospitality, but I could never forget it!
When in seminary in Dallas, Texas, in the early 70’s, I would leave Ellen at home with three small children and head out early Sunday mornings to drive the 175 miles to minister to a church that was temporarily without a pastor, preaching both morning and evening services and getting back home late Sunday night for a few hours sleep before Monday morning classes followed by my regular 3-11 p.m. shift job at the Dallas County Detention Center. On one Sunday, the wife of one of the deacons, a man who filled a prominent position in the small town, invited us over for a “bologna” sandwich. We were delighted, secretly imagining some delicious Sunday dinner was in store for us and not really a bologna sandwich. After fifteen minutes or so visiting with the husband in their living room, the hostess invited us into the dining room, showing each of us where to sit. Wouldn’t you know it: She and her husband had juicy steaks on their plates while my friend and I had bologna sandwiches on ours! I tried my best not to show any surprise or emotion so as not to give the hostess any pleasure in witnessing my disappointment, but inside I am sure I was “grinding!” Now, looking back, that was one of the humorous incidents, but at the time I can’t remember my friend and I laughing too much as we talked about that on our three-hour trip back to Dallas.
At any rate, I have been privileged through these years to have enjoyed so much generous hospitality and have also been blessed to have been married to a wonderful woman who has only known how to be hospitable all her life. It has proven to be so joyous. I do believe, though, in our present day, it would be a fair assessment of “the Church” at large to say that we have lost the art of genuine hospitality and we have missed the opportunity of entertaining “angels unawares.”
“Use hospitality one to another without grudging.” (I Peter 4:10)