“Keep on loving each other as brothers. Do not forget to entertain strangers, for by so doing some people have entertained angels without knowing it. Remember those in prison as if you were their fellow prisoners, and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering.“
“[Hospitality] is one of the richest biblical terms that can deepen and broaden our insight in our relationships to our fellow human beings. . . . [I]n the context of hospitality guest and host can reveal their most precious gifts and bring new life to each other.”
Nouwen says that hospitality should be a “fundamental attitude toward our fellow human being.” Now, I like to think of myself as a friendly fellow and I hope I’m always ready to welcome someone into my life. That’s not always easy as an introverted person but I also take that as a biblical command. I can honestly tell you, however, that I have often failed.
I remember taking a bus trip from Rochester to Binghamton in New York one time. I was attending college in Rochester and I had extended family in the Binghamton area that I could spend holidays and breaks with. Coming from Nebraska I had often found many uncomfortable moments in New York. Attitudes were different and crime rates were much much higher. I found a basic level of distrust as the norm for strangers. I remember this particular bus trip for two things that made me suspicious and uncomfortable (translate this to less hospitable than I normally was). The first was stopping at the bus station in Syracuse. It was a dank and old building with lots of dark corners and rough characters walking around. This was the first time I ever reached around to the wallet in my back pocket and moved it a front pocket. I was suspicious and I didn’t want some pick-pocket to come along and take what little I had. The second thing was on the bus where I could hear the conversation of two men who had just met sitting in the seat behind me. They bonded quickly as they discovered that they had both just gotten out of prison for armed robbery. They had a lot in common and you can be sure I wasn’t joining in that conversation any time soon. I felt like a foreigner in a strange land that spoke the same language as I – but where they constantly spoke of things that made me suspicious of them. These two men never made any gestures of hostility towards me but their conversation made me nervous. In both these instances my mind was far from the concept of hospitality. I was suspicious and fearful. I was guarded and careful how I interacted with the world around me.
Nouwen says, “Our society seems to be increasingly full of fearful, defensive, aggressive people anxiously clinging to their property and inclined to look at their surrounding world with suspicion, always expecting an enemy to suddenly appear, intrude and do harm.” He’s right. Even here in Nebraska we experience a level of distrust for our neighbors and we keep closing our bubble ever tighter around our world. It’s harder to let people in than it used to be. I hope that’s just me but I don’t think it is.
The problem is that in drawing our personal space too tight around us, we are closing ourselves off to the gifts God wishes to give to us. Nouwen brings out several biblical examples of this. Abraham received the gift of the promised child Isaac when he received the strangers at Mamre (Genesis 18). The widow Zeraphath (I Kings 17) gave food and shelter to the stranger Elijah and received back her son. Don’t forget the traveling disciples on the Emmaus road who invited a stranger in only to discover it was Jesus Himself. Who knows but when we have entertained angels unaware.
In my suspicion and fear am I missing the precious gifts of God? Nouwen goes on to say, “That is our vocation: to convert the hostis into hospes, the enemy into a guest and to create the free and fearless space where brotherhood and sisterhood can be formed and fully experienced.” It is in this context that hospitality is meant to create a place “where strangers can cast off their strangeness and become our fellow human beings.”
Can this happen if we don’t open ourselves up to the possibility? Maybe I’m just getting older and more cynical. Maybe I’m just realistic about the world around me. Maybe I’m just a distrustful jerk who is clinging onto his possessions, well-being and emotions too tightly to experience the grace of God as he could. Do I trust God or not?
Welcome home, stranger.