Travel to any community in the country and you will likely find motels, hotels and restaurants that are happy to provide you – for a price – a room for the night or a hot meal. So extensive is the modern hospitality industry that some schools even offer degrees in managing these services. It is all a very convenient and useful social good.
Traditionally, however, the concept of hospitality has had a rather different meaning, one that did not involve the payment of money in return. This older concept of hospitality, observed in many cultures, more resembled the gratuitous reception that is given now to family, friends, neighbors, co-workers and other guests.
On this smaller, more personal level, it is an almost ingrained ethic today to ask a visitor – whether in the home or the office – “Welcome. Would you like something to drink? Something to eat?” A good host wants his or her guest to be comfortable. We open our homes also for holidays, parties, graduations, funerals, and we host wedding receptions, offering food, drink, sometimes entertainment or a place to stay, and just as important, camaraderie.
Mothers and grandmothers are especially renowned for their hospitality, not only to their own family members, but to others as well. How many of us remember going to a friend’s house when we were growing up and being asked if we were staying for dinner?
This hospitality extends outside the home as well, expressed in etiquette and social conventions of holding the door for others, giving up your seat to a pregnant woman or older person, offering a portion of your lunch to someone who has none. Our parishes too should be places of warm welcome and sustenance. In these small ways, these small mercies, we help make the world a little bit better.
This attitude of hospitality and warm welcome, sometimes expressed as, “Mi casa es su casa – My house is your house,” was in older times even freely extended to complete strangers and travelers, rich and poor alike, including foreigners. Before the age of interstate highways and pervasive hotels and restaurants, it was understood to be a vital social virtue, religious ethic and moral duty for both the elite and common people to open their doors and show generosity and courtesy to those away from home and widows and orphans too. Of course, the clergy and monasteries of the Church opened their spiritual homes as well to provide hospitality to people in need.
The roots of this hospitality go back to the ancient world. Particularly in places like the desert regions of the Middle East, access to water, food and shelter was a matter of life and death for a traveler. God in his mercy had provided these necessities to his chosen people and so he instructs them, “You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Leviticus 19:34). The Lord commands this kindness be shown to even foreigner travelers despite foreign domination being a constant prime concern of Israel.
Holy Scripture provides an example of the hospitality we should practice when the Lord appeared to Abraham in the form of three men. Abraham waited on this manifestation of the Trinity, providing food, shelter from the hot sun, and water for the three visitors to wash their feet. The Lord then blesses Abraham and his wife Sarah with a son in their old age (Genesis 18:1-16). In the First Book of Kings, we read how the widow Zarephath received the prophet Elijah and, even though she was in dire straits with her food nearly gone, she gave him a portion. Again God gives his blessing – Zarephath is given enough food to survive and when her son dies, the Lord restores him to life (1 Kings 17:8-24).
“Do not neglect hospitality, for through it some have unknowingly entertained angels,” we are told (Hebrews 13:2). Having been received in mercy by the Lord, hospitality is among the essential qualities that he expects of his good and faithful people, including concern not only for family and friends, but for those we do not know, for domestic travelers, foreign immigrants and refugees, and for all who are downtrodden, vulnerable and marginalized.
Whether it is in the home, at work, in the Church, or in our nation, as a matter of justice and gratitude for what we have been given, we are called to be welcoming and hospitable to others. By these acts of gratuitousness, we help build up the kingdom of God.