One day when Abraham was sitting at the entrance to his tent near the great trees of Mamre, he looked up and saw three men standing nearby. He hurried to meet them and then bowed low to the ground, asking them if he could wash their feet and begging them to stay. Afterward, he went on to prepare a calf and asked his wife Sarah to bake some bread. The three men, of course, would later tell him that he and Sarah would have a child of their own by this time next year—something the both of them had assumed would never happen given their old age.
Those who have a more casual approach to receiving guests may have thought that Abraham knew that God was appearing before him and had good news for him—and hence the lavish gesture. In reality, though, Abraham would have treated any other guests the same way. Hospitality in ancient Middle East was considered a virtue, and even today Middle East natives are eager to make visitors to their land feel at home. They do this not in the hope of receiving something in return, but because they strongly believe that being hospitable to strangers is the righteous thing to do.
Conversely, people in the modern Western world have a different take on hospitality. As a rule we do find it natural to be sociable with visiting family or friends, but most of us would think twice about letting complete strangers into our homes—much less take the time to serve them food and entertain them. If we do welcome people with whom we’re not eager to have a personal relationship, it’s because there’s usually a monetary reason behind it. It’s no coincidence that hospitality now is also a several billion dollar industry. And while tourists are often impressed on their visit to the United States with the service that they receive from their providers, they also leave the country feeling amused by Americans’ ability to be friendly without really being their friends.
Our general preference to not associate with strangers does have its basis in practicality. We are all busy enough as it is, and being overly friendly to strangers can complicate our lives in ways that we don’t even have the time to imagine. There are also, more importantly, the issues of safety. Most of us would probably want to help others out if we can afford to, but at the same time we have other considerations to think about. The media has led us to believe that bad things happen to people who trust others too easily, and the era we live in is one where kids are constantly reminded by concerned adults not to talk to strangers.
If everyone actually listened to this well-meaning advice, most of us would have wound up with a grand total of zero friends at this point of our lives. Everyone we now know, after all, was at one point a stranger, and they became our friends only after we took our chances and got to know them. Our distrust of strangers then isn’t as unconditional as it sounds—we selectively choose which strangers to be more hospitable to and by extension which strangers to be more hostile to, usually based on superficial characteristics that say nothing about a person’s character.
On the surface this may sound unreasonable and yet harmless enough, but in a melting pot like the United States the implications can be a bit unpleasant. A melting pot society encourages assimilation into the dominant culture, and those who are unwilling or unable to do so with ease are susceptible to discrimination. The typical American is still one who is—among other things—white, Protestant, middle-class, and heterosexual. Individuals who are close to this image are more likely to be thought of as “friends” and perceived as innocent, while those who aren’t are more likely to be thought of as “enemies” or at least viewed as potential threats. Although some may argue that some forms of discrimination are more tolerable than others, they are all based on irrational fear and hatred and can become a serious problem.
In recent years, for instance, there’s a growing number of Arabs and Muslims living in the Western hemisphere who report subtle harassment as well as direct threats. Ever since the 9/11 tragedy that stuck in 2001, Arab- and Muslim-Americans feel generally unwelcome in the part of the country they live in—sometimes even if they have lived in the same place all their lives. Even ten years later intolerance of Islam is at an all-time high, and a disturbing amount of glee was shown after Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden were executed. This is a bit surprising and disheartening considering that the majority of Americans identify themselves as Christians who grew up on sayings like “turn the other cheek.”
“While tourists are often impressed on their visit to the United States with the service that they receive from their providers, they also leave the country feeling amused by Americans’ ability to be friendly without really being their friends.”
Of course, historically speaking Christianity itself hasn’t always been on good terms with Islam. The Crusades are famously known as a series of violent wars that early Christians and early Muslims waged against each other for about two centuries. Even before the two planes crashed the Twin Towers in New York, elsewhere in the world Christians and Muslims were clashing with each other. Churches and Mosques were being destroyed, copies of the Bible and the Koran were burned, and mass murder was rampant. If Christians and Muslims were able to coexist in relative peace, it was usually because they actively avoided each other.
But in spite of what Christians have or haven’t done to Muslims throughout history, the Bible does allude to the virtue of hospitality several times. Romans 12:13 tells us to share with those who are in need and to practice hospitality. 1 Peter 4:9 tells us to offer hospitality to one another without grumbling. Hebrews 13:2 reminds us to show hospitality to strangers. The origin of the command could even be traced back to Exodus 23:9, where God explicitly commanded the Israelites not to oppress a foreigner. The reason was simple. Having been foreigners in Egypt themselves, the Israelites would know how unpleasant it was to be in a strange land and to be treated poorly while they were there—and they should never do something that they wouldn’t want be done to them.
In addition to all of the above, there is also the story Jesus himself told when he was asked what God meant by loving your neighbor- the parable of the Good Samaritan. In this story, a Jewish man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho when he fell into the hands of robbers. They stripped him off his clothes, beat him up, and basically left him to die. A couple other Jewish men saw him lying on the street from the distance, but for whatever reason they decided to cross to the other side and ignored him. It wasn’t until the Samaritan passed by was the Jewish man taken care of and nursed back to health.
The significance of Jesus’ choice of hero may be lost on modern readers who are unaware of the context of the story. At the time, the Samaritans were considered a different racial group from the Jews and the two had a hostile relationship with each other—not unlike the relationship that Christians and Muslims have had for the most part. The Samaritan here was good not just because he did the right thing and helped someone in need, but because he did the right thing and helped someone who was perceived as the enemy. Telling that parable of the Good Samaritan to the Jews back then would be akin to telling a parable of the Good Arab or the Good Muslim to the Americans post-9/11—it just wouldn’t sit well with its intended audience, most of whom would prefer to hate someone based on the little they know about him or her. Nevertheless, the parable provides an excellent insight into how Jesus viewed hospitality. Jesus may have loved everyone equally, but it was the oppressed he preferred to show more of his love to. Highlights in the Gospels include eating with tax collectors, talking to prostitutes, and standing up for adulterers—outcasts that other public figures would prefer not to associate with. Even toward the end of his life, Jesus was still willing to forgive those who crucified him and to welcome a criminal into his kingdom.
It is also clear through the Gospels that even as someone who was well-versed in the Scriptures, Jesus was less concerned about preaching what he’d read than about treating people with respect. If Jesus were to live in our society today, he no doubt would disregard social conventions and do as he thought was right. Not only would he talk to the sort of strangers who others would distance themselves from, but he would also speak up against injustice against them. He might disagree with some of their point of views, but he wouldn’t think of them as less of a person for it, let alone hate them for it.
The society we live in is a lot different from the Middle East that Abraham and Sarah or even Jesus lived in. Most of us look nothing like Abraham or Sarah, and since different cultures have different ideas on how to best receive guests probably none of us has ever dropped to the ground and offered to wash a guest’s feet. At the core of hospitality, however, is the universal concept of love and respect. All Jesus would want for us to do is to treat everyone the way we want to be treated. While Jesus is not known for giving instructions that are easy to follow, the fact that he was able to do as he preached shows that it’s definitely possible for Christians to do as Jesus had.