Hospitality versus Entertaining

In the Pastorals, ‘hospitality’ is a key qualification for pastoral office: Paul tells Timothy (1 Tim 3.2) that a ‘bishop’ (NRSV) or ‘church leader’ (GNB) must be ‘hospitable’ (NRSV); ‘he must welcome strangers to his home’ (GNB). Similarly Paul tells Titus (Titus 1.8) that an elder must be ‘hospitable’.

But hospitality (the Greek word is ‘philoxenia’, love of strangers; as distinct from ‘xenophobia’, fear of, and hence aversion to, strangers) is not simply an obligation for all those in pastoral leadership. As three different contributors to the New Testament make clear, it is also incumbent on all God’s people. ‘Extend hospitality’ declares Paul in Rom 12.13 (NRSV); or as the GNB puts it, ‘Open your homes to strangers’. ‘Be hospitable to one another without complaining’, wrote Peter (1Peter 4.9) in a context which makes it evident that hospitality is not a gift of some, but rather a duty of all. That hospitality can prove a blessing is developed by the author of the Letter to the Hebrews: ‘Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained [or as the GNB better puts it, ‘welcomed’] angels without knowing it’ (Hebs 13.2).

Strictly speaking hospitality should be a way of life. However, the reality is that life is so busy for many people, that it has to be diarised. As a result I sometimes say to couples about to be married, see if you can set aside one Sunday a month for hospitality.

Again, to encourage people to open their homes, I designate one Sunday a term as ‘Hospitality Sunday’. At first I simply encouraged people to open their homes to others on that particular Sunday. However, we have become much more organised. Three weeks or so before ‘Hospitality Sunday’ we encourage people to sign up as to whether or not they are prepared to give hospitality on that day, or whether they would like to receive hospitality. This year we have taken a further step: recognising that some people can be at work on a Sunday or that Sunday can be a particularly busy day for church leaders, we have not just a ‘Hospitality Sunday/’, but also a ‘Hospitality Week’.

Yet sadly, for all this effort, we don’t seem to have more than a hundred people involved in giving or receiving hospitality. I have found this phenomenon puzzling – for I love eating with others, and not least when it gives me the opportunity to develop new friendships. Why, I wonder is this so? In part it may have something to do with the kind of town in which we live: Chelmsford is not an Islington or a Kensington – dinner parties are not the norm for most people. But, on reflection, that should not be a problem. Let me explain.

There is a very real difference between hospitality and entertaining. Entertaining may well involve dinner parties, with the best china and Cordon Bleu cooking. But hospitality involves simply opening our homes and being ourselves. Extravagance and perfection may go hand-in-hand with entertaining, whereas warmth and simplicity tend to go hand-in-hand with hospitality.

It has been said, ‘When you entertain, you bring honour and glory to yourself. Showing hospitality brings honour and glory to God’. In the New Testament hospitality is not about impressing others, but rather is a form of loving others.

One other thing, in the New Testament hospitality was not about having a good time with our friends – it was about welcoming the stranger. Yes, of course there is a place for having friends round – but let’s not confuse that with hospitality!

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