In Luke 2 and Matthew 2, Joseph and a very pregnant Mary journey to Bethlehem, their ancestral home town, in order to register for the census decreed by Caesar Augustus. If you have ever been to Bethlehem, you know that the people of Bethlehem scoff at the idea that Mary and Joseph had to apply to an inn for shelter. Their sense of hospitality is so strong they affirm categorically that Joseph and Mary were housed by relatives in their stable. Stables were usually beneath the living quarters of a family household and immensely preferable to an inn. They were filled with the warmth of the animals and provided good protective shelter for humans.
The code of hospitality plays a key role in the ethics of the Abrahamic faiths: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Historically, hospitality functions as a core value for all of the cultures of the Mediterranean dating back far before the era of Abraham and the advent of Semitic spirituality.
The code of hospitality applies to your kin, your neighbor, and the stranger. The hospitality given to Joseph and Mary is based in blood or family kinship. The parable of the good Samaritan (Luke 10: 29-37) demonstrates how the code of hospitality understands ‘neighbor.’ In this parable, Jesus teaches that your neighbor is the person you encounter who needs you regardless of the person’s race or religion or tribe.
The sacred scriptures of all three Abrahamic religions teach philoxenia ‘love of the stranger’ in opposition to xenophobia ‘fear of the stranger.’ For all three traditions, the classic paradigmatic example of hospitality toward the stranger is in Genesis 18 which celebrates how generously Abraham embraces the three strangers who pass by his tent. Not waiting for the strangers to ask for water and bread, Abraham rushes toward them to invite them to rest and refresh themselves. He gives them not just ‘a morsel of bread’ but clean water to wash their feet and a feast of freshly prepared foods. As it turns out the three strangers are angels sent by God to announce that Sarah (who had been thought to be barren) was with child and would give birth to a son.
The stranger who crosses our paths or who enters our homes presents the opportunity for us to see ourselves and our world in profoundly new ways. The strangeness of the stranger has many forms; it is not just about being a foreigner or a person from another culture or religion. The stranger can be found in a friend, a family member, a condition, or a situation.
Joseph shows hospitality to Mary by accepting the strangeness of her pregnancy; he shows hospitality to Jesus by accepting him as his son. On the feast of St. Joseph ( 19 March ) Sicilians honor the hospitality of Joseph by offering a fabled array of delicious foods called a St. Joseph’s Table open to all who come to their door.
Luke 24: 13 -35 narrates my favorite example of hospitality: the Emmaus story. Two men are walking from Jerusalem to Emmaus. They are followers of Jesus. They have just seen the crucifixion and death of the Messiah, the person they believed would usher in the reign of God and bring justice and peace into the world. Full of bitter disappointment, they walk the road in silence. But, even though these disciples are consumed with despair and preoccupied with the failure of Jesus, they are conscious enough and generous enough to invite a traveler on the road to eat with them. As they share their bread with the stranger, they tell him about their lost hope. The stranger asks them to tell him about the teachings of Jesus. As the disciples seek to explain the message of Jesus to the stranger, they come to understand that the reign of God is not an earthly kingdom but the reign of love in our hearts. In conversation with the stranger, the despairing disciples find hope in a new understanding of the message of Jesus.
In the early years of Gay Liberation, my friend Rick Paul asked me to write an article on Gay Spirituality. Rick suggested that our experience of being ‘other’ or of being ‘rejected’ might positively affect our consciousness, might make our consciences more sensitive to injustice in our society. My article, ‘Our Universe Is Our Home: We Are Always Welcome,’ did not answer Rick’s questions. But, the writing of this article did make me understand the meaning of the Emmaus story. It made me understand that no matter what befalls me I must remain conscious of the other next to me and in me.
04 December 2013 Hospitality: Welcoming the Stranger WCTimes
Nick Patricca is professor emeritus at Loyola University Chicago, president of Chicago Network and playwright emeritus at Victory Gardens Theater.