A Christian leader who works with international students tells the story of a Saudi Arabian student who came into his office and handed him a locked suitcase and a key. The student told the man that he was going back home to Saudi Arabia later that day and that he wanted the man to open the suitcase only after he had left. With some trepidation the man agreed to open the suitcase after the Saudi student had gone. What he found when he opened the suitcase shocked and saddened him. The suitcase was filled with gifts from Saudi Arabia that the student had brought with him to America so that he would have something to give when he was invited into an American’s home. During his five years of school he was never invited into an American home, let alone a Christian home. Sadly, the experience of this young man is the norm and not the exception for internationals who come to America.
What responsibility does the church have to care for the aliens and strangers in our midst?
Romans 12:13 tells Christians to “pursue hospitality.” Biblical hospitality goes beyond what we are comfortable with in our individualistic Western culture. It is rooted in the honor and shame culture of the East. In this culture, hospitality is not something that is approached passively. Its not something that we do “when the opportunity presents itself.” It is an honor and privilege that is to be sought out and pursued with extravagance and pomp. Additionally, the biblical idea of hospitality carries with it an emphasis on caring for foreigners and outsiders. This can be seen in the root of the greek word translated hospitality.
Spicq’s Theological Lexicon of the New Testament explains that in the Hellenistic world “philoxenia is an act of philanthropia; the stranger, received as a guest, is addressed and treated as a friend.” The centrality of radical hospitality in the early church can also be seen in Hebrews 13:1-2 where the first defining aspect of “brotherly love” (philo-delphia) is to “not neglect stranger love” (philo-xenia). Additionally the love of strangers was a necessary qualification for church leaders (1 Timothy 3:2, Titus 1:8) and in the early church it was the bishop who bore the first responsibility to offer a bed and shelter to travelers.
The Old Testament teaching on loving the alien and stranger makes it clear that the high view of hospitality in the early church was not simply a byproduct of their culture. God called Israel to a radical generosity towards outsiders that was rooted in his Divine character and in the experience of God’s people being given a home when they were formerly sojourners and slaves. In Deuteronomy 10:17–19, God says to his people, “For the LORD your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great, the mighty, and the awesome God, who is not partial and takes no bribe. He executes justice for the fatherless and the widow, and loves the sojourner, giving him food and clothing. Love the sojourner, therefore, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt” (ESV).
The cultural motivation for hospitality in the ancient world was often fear of retribution and shame. The motivation for God’s people to show hospitality was the radical experience of God’s grace that gave them a land and home when they were homeless and without hope in the world. This pattern can also be seen in Leviticus 19:33–34 where God says to His people, “When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. 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: I am the LORD your God” (ESV). How much more should Christians be quick to show hospitality?
… remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. … And he came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near. For through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father. So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord (Ephesians 2:12–13,17–21 ESV italics mine).
If we have experienced this amazing grace and if we have truly understood our state of estrangement without Christ, how can we not actively and sacrificially pursue hospitality towards the foreigners who live in our midst?