Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the kitchen …
Lessons from Hindus and Sikhs
In yesterday’s Guardian was an article by Priya Basil, extolling the virtues of open hospitality and describing the all inclusive ‘communal kitchens’ that had blown her mind. Sounds properly Christian, doesn’t it? But Priya Basil isn’t a Christian, she’s well travelled, but traces her origins back to Indian Sikhism. The ‘communal kitchens’ weren’t church halls, but Langar kitchens in Sikh Gurdwaras.
Incidentally, if you ever find yourself down on your luck and in need of a square meal, you can try your local church if you like, but might fare better at your local Gurdwara! Hmmm.
Former Hindu priest, now a follower of Christ, Rahil Patel, compares his life before and after believing in Christ. Eating alone was, ‘something that very seldom happened before I became a follow of Jesus.’ He’s conflicted! On the one hand knowing God personally through Christ is unlike anything he ever knew before as a Hindu, but on the other hand, ‘Eating together regularly is a gaping hole that I see missing in general Western culture and the Western Church.’ Hmmm.
What are we to make of that then, are we backing the wrong religion? Or is the problem not our faith in Christ at all, but rather our culturally distorted understanding if it?
Hospitality as litmus test
As a Science teacher in the 80s and 90s, I always used to love teaching universal indicator and litmus paper tests. There was no messing about and instant colour changes, which the kids appreciated. Is it acidic or isn’t it? Dip in your paper and there’s your answer.
In the last edition of Commentary I argued that the biblical text presents hospitality as a ‘distinguishing mark of true faith.’ Far from an optional extra, or a spiritual gift for those so blessed, hospitality is the ‘ground zero of the Christian life’, to quote Rosaria Butterfield. Modelled extensively in the Old Testament and explicitly commanded numerous time in the New, there is clearly something about hospitality that many of us are missing.
Amy Ogden helpfully links hospitality to repentance and describes it as a ‘moral category’. Before knowing Christ we were self-centred, idolatrous self-worshippers. Hospitality demonstrates an internal change. The ‘de-centering and reframing that accompanies hospitality is the very movement the New Testament calls metanoi, or turning…’.
What is Ogden saying? The truly converted will necessarily be truly hospitable. This is true of individuals, yes, but also of Christians in community.
Still not convinced? OK, but let me take you to two modest locations, to meet the people there.
From Gibeah to Malta
Last time we noted the juxtaposition of Abraham and Sarah’s hospitality (Genesis 18) with the wicked and inhospitable people of Sodom (Genesis 19). The writer expects the reader to see that hospitality is indicative of internal states.
I love and hate reading the book of Judges, all at the same time. Judges 19 is the absolute pits, isn’t it?! There’s no king in the land, everyone is doing their own thing, an unnamed Levite had a concubine, whom he treats like dirt. She’s unfaithful and runs away home (vv 1-2). He follows her and enjoys hospitality in her father’s house for three days and nights (vv. 3-4), which quickly becomes four, then five and counting (vv. 5-10). They make a late start for home and only get as far as Gibeah, in Benjamin (vv. 11-15), where they sit in the town square awaiting the expected Israelite hospitality. Pointedly, we twice hear that ‘no one took them in’ (vv. 15, 18). Finally, an old man does invite them home, and treats them as honoured guests (vv. 20-21).
‘Behold!’ blurts out the shocked narrator, the wicked men of Gibeah bang on the door asking for sex with the guests, have their wicked way with the concubine and leave her for dead on the doorstep (vv. 22-26). The stunned Levite chops up her corpse and sends the 12 pieces to the 12 tribes of Israel … for reflection; ‘consider it, take counsel, and speak.’ (vv. 27-30). Civil war breaks out and tens of thousands are slaughtered (Judges 20). Israel is rocked to the core.
What was the main sin here? Family conflict? Lack of care? Unfaithfulness? Sexual rapaciousness? Sexual deviancy? Maybe. But just as in Sodom all those years before, the chief marker of internal corruption seems to be a lack of hospitality. In fact, Gibeah demonstrates the opposite of hospitality. Instead of outward movement towards the stranger, giving and filling, we find a selfish sucking dry. ‘Consider it, take counsel, and speak.’
Now jump forward with me 2,000 years.
My Ethiopian friends always used to goad me, ‘How many times does England appear in the Bible?’. It was an unfair contest, a rugby world cup score in reverse; Ethiopia 60: England 0. I’ve never had a similar argument with any Maltese, but the margin of victory would be much narrower. Malta gets one mention, but what a mention!
Luke tucks his Maltese narrative away in Paul’s journey to Rome and his shipwreck saga, Acts 27-28. Unlike the wicked people of Gibeah, the Maltese only get 10 verses.
Before hearing Luke’s description of them, let’s hear from Homer to get a feel for ancient expectation of encounters with new lands and peoples:
“Alas, to the land of what mortals have I now come? Are they insolent, wild and unjust? Or are they hospitable to strangers and fear the gods in their thoughts?’ (Odyssey, 6.119-121).
Not holding out much hope of a warm welcome for wandering Odysseus there then! Putting up with inhospitable treatment was the expected norm for travellers. John Allen Chau’s reception on the Andaman Sea island of North Sentinel, this time last year, was a possible outcome.
Joshua Jipp thinks Luke is making a deliberate point about the Maltese in their give and take with Paul. Perhaps ironically, he initially calls them barbaroi, twice (28:1, 4 – ‘natives’/’primitive islanders’/’Barbarians’/’Philistines’ … translators take your pick!). Homer’s warning seems apt. Expectation are low.
But against all the odds, Luke reports that the Maltese are really, really hospitable. He stresses this repeatedly and in different ways, as he:
- highlights the ‘unusual kindness’ of the islanders as they ‘welcomed us’ (28:2),
- stresses that the chief man, Publius ‘entertained us hospitably for three days’ (28:7),
- lingers on the detail of how Paul’s party are ‘honoured greatly’ and finally sent on their way with ‘whatever we needed’ (28:10).
Last time, with Andrew Artebury, we saw that one of the five keys to good hospitality in the ancient world was to give a really good send off; escorting the guest on their onward journey and providing for their needs on the road.
Our Ethiopian friends always used to walk home with us after having us in their homes. I initially wondered if it was to make sure we didn’t overstay our welcome, but quickly grew to receive it as a very gracious and loving action. A humbling and hospitable kind of love. Compare John’s instructions to receive itinerate gospel preachers hospitably and ‘send them on their way in a manner worthy of God’ (3 John 6).
It’s the icing on the cake. Luke is telling us in no uncertain terms that these Maltese are truly transformed. And just in case we missed it, Luke includes a healing scene similar to Luke’s account of Jesus healing first Peter’s mother in law and then many more, as God’s kingdom arrives among them (28:8-9, cf. Luke 4:38-41).
What’s Luke’s point, without him needing to make it explicit? Hospitality is evidence of gospel transformation.
Hospitality in freeze frame
So what’s the big deal? What’s so special about a bit of shared food and all the other bells and whistles?
We’ve just covered 2,000 years in a few short minutes, so to finish let’s slow the camera right down and see what’s going on, or should be.
I don’t know who said it first, probably Henri Nouwen, maybe even Jacques Derrida, but some pretty strange things happen in a hospitable encounter and one of the strangest is role reversal.
The host becomes the guest and the guest becomes the host.
English doesn’t help us here, with a clear distinction between ‘host’ and ‘guest’. The host is the provider, the one with the power to dispense largesse. The guest is the humble, powerless recipient.
But other languages shed a little light on the weakness of this distinction. They retain a delightful ambiguity. Hospes (Proto-Italic), hostis/ghostis (Proto-Indo-European), xenos (Greek), hôte (French) and ospite (Italian) are far less clear about who is host and who is guest or stranger. Who cares!?
As a host sincerely opens up their home and their life to the guest, the guest starts to assume the prominent position ceded by the host. ‘My house is your home’ and ‘You are family here’ articulate something of the transaction as the host freely relinquishes proprietorial rights and lays all at the feet of the guest. The guest, in turn, begins to play host, as their stories are drawn out of them and life is shared.
As Nouwen puts it, ‘when hostility is converted into hospitality then fearful strangers can become guests revealing to their hosts the promise they are carrying with them. Then, in fact, the distinction between host and guest proves to be artificial and evaporates in the recognition of the new-found unity.’
Drawing on Malawian concepts of umunthu, Harvey Kwiyai describes how ‘both the host and the stranger need each other, if not for anything else, than just for the sake of their personhood…. Hospitality … becomes a constant negotiation between two strangers playing host and guest to each other simultaneously.’ Once the guest is completely comfortable, Kwiyani continues, only then can he or she be ‘liberated to be himself or herself among the hosts – to be comfortable enough to unpack the gifts that he or she has brought.’
This ‘radically shifts the power dynamics to a point where both the host and the guest are equally powerful – or powerless, leaving room for God to be the powerful one in their midst.’
Actually, this is especially good news for those of us who find being hospitable difficult and shrink towards the introverted end of the scale. As host, there is absolutely no need to be a great entertainer, which is probably even counterproductive. You are merely to be a space creator, making a little room in your life and in your home for somebody else to come in and play host to you. Waiting for the Spirit to work.
‘Off the map’ hospitality
Coming back to yesterday’s Guardian article, Priya Basil might not be a Christian, but in God’s common and good graces she understands something of this, ‘Stories enact a form of mutual hospitality. … You are invited in, but right away you must reciprocate and host the story back, through concentration – you need to listen to really understand. Granting complete attention is like giving a silent ovation. Story and listener open, unfold into and harbour each other.’
Longingly she glimpses and reaches for a hospitality that is, unlike human hospitality, completely unconditional. ‘Hospitality, were I to draw it, would be a series of potentially endless concentric circles extending outwards from each of us. … Yet, however far those circles spread, unconditional hospitality remains outside their furthest perimeter. It lies, for the most part, in unknown territory, off the map.’
What lies ‘off the map’ for Priya has been made known to us through the hospitality of the Father, in the Son, through the power of the Holy Spirit. Now there’s something that needs to be shared … over food if possible.
 Priya Basil, “Make Yourselves at Home: the meaning of hospitality in a divided world” The Long Read, Guardian Online, 29th October, 2019.
 Manoj Raithatha et all, Simply Eat: Everyday Stories of friendship, food and faith (Watford: Instant Apostle, 2018), 13.
 “Hospitality and the gospel,” Commentary (Oak Hill College, Summer 2019), 15. Online: oakhill.ac.uk/commentary.
 Rosaria Butterfield, The Gospel Comes with a House Key: Practicing Radically Ordinary Hospitality in our Post-Christian World (Wheaton: Crossway, 2018), 115.
 Amy G. Ogden, ed. And You Welcomed Me: A Sourcebook on Hospitality in Early Christianity (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2001), 15-16.
 Jipp, Joshua, W. Saved by Faith and Hospitality (Grand Rapids: Eerdmanns, 2017), 104-105.
 Andrew Artebury Entertaining Angels: Early Christian Hospitality in its Mediterranean Setting (Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press, New Testament Monographs, 8: 2005), 152-153.
 Henri J. M. Nouwen, Reaching Out (London: Fount, 1996, first published 1976), 43-53.
Jacques Derrida, “Hospitality” in Acts of Religion (New York: Routledge, 2010), 360-365.
 Harvey C. Kwiyani, Sent Forth: African Missionary Work in the West (New York: Orbis, 2014), 188-189.