True Hospitality

I recently purchased a plane ticket online, and I’d like to tell you a little about my experience. The anxiety began as soon as I entered the dates of my trip and the flight options starting appearing on my computer screen. It is not cheap to fly. And it only got worse from there. I selected the flight that best fit my budget and time constraints, but then I was alerted that the price I’d been shown was only the base price. I would have to pay an additional fee to be eligible for any available upgrades and to not board the plane in the very last group.

That additional fee also qualified me to pay another fee to select my own seat and yet another fee to change my flight in case of emergency. Finally, I had the option to purchase insurance for my trip. Without it, I may be responsible for any cancellation fees - not my cancellation, the airline’s. And of course, the whole process was riddled with opportunities to pay for extra luxuries like internet access, early boarding, and fancy cocktails for my one hour flight.

It seems to me that in the airline industry, money doesn’t just buy me better amenities, it can also buy me better treatment. The more money I fork over, the more kind and accommodating the airline will be, but if I simply choose to pay what is necessary to get from point A to point B, I can expect to be treated like a sardine, which seems ironic in the hospitality industry. Or does it? Hospitality is an industry after all, with bills and employees to pay, and financial goals to meet in order to stay competitive and in business.

Essentially, hospitality in our world is transactional, it carries a monetary value, it has been commodified. Now, as a long time member of the food service industry, I don’t begrudge anyone in the hospitality world the opportunity to make a living doing something they love. But I also have to admit, hospitality the way we experience it today and hospitality as Jesus and our Scriptures describe it, could not look more different.

In our passage from Luke today, Jesus says, “when you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind.” There’s a lot of really lovely nuance here. Jesus doesn’t mention having your in-laws over for dinner, or your weekly girl’s night, or any other normal social interaction. He’s talking about a banquet, a big to-do, an opportunity to honor your special occasion by a show of hospitality. On these occasions, Jesus argues that we should not invite our friends or family, or anyone who might invite us to their banquet. Because, if they can afford their own feast, is it really an act of hospitality to show them ours?

And then there’s the element of the stranger. While it may be our instinct to celebrate special occasions with the people we love most, Jesus seems to think it would be a better idea to shower our excess joy and wealth on people we’ve never met. He’s telling us that providing shelter to strangers in a strange land, whether physically, emotionally, or spiritually, is not just something we should do when a crisis arrives at our doorstep. It’s something we should seek out as a natural response to our own comfort and good fortune.

The kind of hospitality that Jesus is describing might feel a little extreme at first, and we typically refer to it as “radical hospitality.” But according to Jesus, there’s only one kind of hospitality in the Kingdom of God, and this is it. Kindness, generosity, reciprocity in relationships, these are all wonderful qualities that have their place in the Kingdom, but they will not do as substitutes for hospitality, which must also have its place, however elusive it may seem. Chances are, my running mental list of good deeds probably includes very few instances of true hospitality, no matter how self-righteous it makes me feel.

Now, I think that hospitality is not just a struggle for individual Christians, it’s a struggle for the Body of Christ as a whole. This idea came up in a conversation I had this week with a clergy colleague I knew in seminary. He told me that the practice of preaching has had a profound effect on his relationship with Scripture, and has opened his eyes to the ways that we, as a Church, miss the message sometimes. He reminded me that Jesus had a habit of picking random, undeserving people out of a crowd to bless and cure and celebrate, as a way of showcasing the abundant hospitality of the kingdom.

Meanwhile, whom do we make a habit of picking out to bless and celebrate? In the church world, it’s often folks who have given significant time, talent and money to our parish, or folks who have achieved something admirable like retirement or ordination, or folks being baptized or confirmed, committing their lives to Christ. Of course these are all wonderful occasions to bless and celebrate, but what about those in our community who we don’t actually know very well, who might not be able to offer money, regular attendance, or anything else in return? Where are we neglecting to show hospitality? Which angels are we neglecting to entertain?

I wonder what our world would look like if we practiced showing hospitality to others with no regard for whether or not that hospitality will be reciprocated. Is there an airline business model where this is feasible? Perhaps not. But is there a model for how you and I can better interact with the people we meet every day? Absolutely. In our story from the pharisee’s house today, Christ is calling us to give thanks and celebrate our good fortune by giving glory to God through acts of hospitality. Put another way, if we are to offer the first fruits of our labor to God, then we offer the second fruits to the stranger who doesn’t have any. That’s true hospitality.

So, what joy are you particularly thankful for this week? What special occasion do you have to celebrate? How will you honor God by sharing your good fortune with the stranger? Which angels will you entertain? Amen.

Hannah Hooker