On Sojourners, Walls, and Illegal Aliens, Part 5 (Hospitality in the Early Church)

walls-of-jerusalemPaige Gutacker has written a nice summary of hospitality as practiced in Greco-Roman society, the Jews, and the early Christians. I skip to her comparison of Christian hospitality to that practiced by the other groups —

While the provisions of Christian hospitality remained so similar we need not discuss them here, I will argue that Christian hospitality differentiated itself in profound ways when it came to its motive, the identity of its host, and the identity of its guest.

First, the motives behind Christian hospitality extend Jewish hospitality and transform Greco-Roman hospitality. As the church develops, various early church writers, such as Lactantius and Cyprian, and church fathers, including Augustine, Jerome, and John Chrysostom, speak to the proper motive and practice of hospitality. Augustine, for instance, contends that we are all wayfarers: “Acknowledge the duty of hospitality, thereby some have attained unto God. Thou takest in some stranger, whose companion in the way thou thyself also art; for strangers are we all.”[38] A key motive for Christian hospitality was a desire to please God, a motive shared with its Jewish forerunner.[39] But Christians expand this initially Hebraic impulse by seeing themselves as participating in God’s hospitality – not only in creation, but also in salvation through Christ and anticipation of his coming hospitality in the New Heavens and New Earth.[40] Further, Christian hospitality builds on the Abrahamic model of Jewish hospitality but now looks to Jesus—not least in the Eucharist—as the main model for hospitality.[41] Love for Jesus is the primary motivation, and, as John Chrysostom stressed, seeing him in the stranger and the poor. Chrysostom preached: “Observe, the hospitality here spoken of [in 1 Timothy 5:9] is not merely a friendly reception, but one given with zeal and alacrity, with readiness, and going about it as if one were receiving Christ Himself.”[42] Christian hospitality also transformed Greco-Roman hospitality in its motivation, which was no longer mercenary. Quite the contrary, Christian hospitality was self-sacrificial – a free gift to “the least of these” without expectation of repayment or gain. In this way Christians subverted the very foundation of Greco-Roman hospitality, wherein guests and hosts selected worthy counterparts whose reciprocity could benefit them.[43]
Second, the identity of the host in Christian hospitality extends the Jewish practice and transforms Greco-Roman practice. Whereas “Hellenistic benevolence was … paternalistic, and made little penetration into the lower classes,”[44] gender and socioeconomic status were approached differently by Christians. As began in Judaism, the socioeconomic status of the host was a minimal consideration. But Jesus’ teaching takes that a step further: “Jesus forbids his disciples from evaluating hosts by their status. Christian guests must form deep and loyal bonds with people they encounter and not be looking constantly for better offers and more advantageous hosts.”[45] And then, moving beyond Jewish and Greco-Roman practice alike, Christian hospitality featured an elevated place for women.[46] According to Arterbury, “while women sometimes played prominent roles in Jewish hospitality, they appear to play an increasingly more prominent role in early Christian hospitality.” [47] Uniquely, the duties of Christian hospitality were “largely in the hands of the ‘widows’.”[48] This was an important change from the context of pre-Christian antiquity, wherein “while the [male] host was busy with the entertainment of the guest or the slaughtering of animals, the meal was being prepared by the women of the household, who seem usually not to have participated in the feast itself.”[49]  Women are now not only invited to the feast, but, alongside bishops, women and widows “become prominent hosts” – more prominent than they were in Jewish custom and in a way that was completely counter-cultural to Greco-Roman custom.[50]

Third, just as Christianity extended Jewish hospitality and transformed Greco-Roman hospitality in the identity of the host, an equally radical pattern of extension and transformation can be seen in the identity of the guest. Christian hospitality extended Jewish hospitality by redefining who one’s primary kinspeople were and, in so doing, opened the hospitality exchange beyond those who shared one’s culture and social standing. Though Christian hospitality on first blush looks similar to Jewish hospitality in how Christian guests sought out Christian hosts, they differ notably in that Christian guests and hosts could be of different nationalities, languages, and social classes.[51] Further, Christian hospitality transformed Greco-Roman hospitality in its service to the needy rather than the rich. It was primarily the poor, widows, and traveling missionaries who received hospitality.[52] Distinctively Christian hospitality focused on those who would be unable to reciprocate – strangers who were in need. There is a radical equality to Christian hospitality, which “was not limited to one’s own class. In New Testament scripture, hospitality is an act of leveling—feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and tending the sick … in imitation of Christ (Matthew 25-34-46).”[53] Here we see a “spiritual and radical equality lacking in Homeric hospitality: no soul is less than any other in the eyes of the Lord.”[54]

From a theological standpoint, the fact that the early church saw hospitality as imitation of God and anticipation of the New Heavens and New Earth is profound — as this is the core of most of Christian ethics. It’s not just rules about how to get along or live a happy life; it’s becoming like God, who makes it rain on the just and unjust. It’s becoming like Jesus, who invites all to his table.

So hospitality was and is no small thing. It’s part of what it means to become like God and Jesus. It’s honoring the Kingdom parables taught by Jesus. It’s living in anticipation of the promises of the Second Coming. And it’s to emulate the early church. They not only engaged in various acts of worship and organized themselves a certain way, they treated each other — and total strangers — as they were taught by Jesus and the apostles. A true first century church must be hospitable — in the Abrahamic sense and in the sense of Jesus’ parables, most especially —

(Lk. 14:16-24 ESV) 16 But he said to him, “A man once gave a great banquet and invited many.  17 And at the time for the banquet he sent his servant to say to those who had been invited, ‘Come, for everything is now ready.’  18 But they all alike began to make excuses. The first said to him, ‘I have bought a field, and I must go out and see it. Please have me excused.’  19 And another said, ‘I have bought five yoke of oxen, and I go to examine them. Please have me excused.’  20 And another said, ‘I have married a wife, and therefore I cannot come.’  21 So the servant came and reported these things to his master. Then the master of the house became angry and said to his servant, ‘Go out quickly to the streets and lanes of the city, and bring in the poor and crippled and blind and lame.’  22 And the servant said, ‘Sir, what you commanded has been done, and still there is room.’  23 And the master said to the servant, ‘Go out to the highways and hedges and compel people to come in, that my house may be filled.  24 For I tell you, none of those men who were invited shall taste my banquet.'”

We are to be like the Master, inviting those living in the highways and hedges to join our banquet. Who are these people?

Only persons who are poor, crippled, blind, and lame, and those out in the roads and lanes remain without a voice. But it is those with no voice, no place, and no social standing who in the end will dine with the master.

R. Alan Culpepper, “The Gospel of Luke,” in The Gospel of Luke-The Gospel of John (vol. 9 of NIB, Accordance electronic ed. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995), 290.

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About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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One Response to On Sojourners, Walls, and Illegal Aliens, Part 5 (Hospitality in the Early Church)

  1. Price Futrell says:

    Regarding hospitality to persons already within the assembly…Paul adds a few caveats to assistance in I Tim 5 that should be acknowledged..

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