Back in January, I was walking the dog a couple of blocks from my home when I overheard a conversation between two neighbors. One neighbor was yelling to another over the noise of a snowblower, “Hey, guess what! I bought 800 more rounds of ammunition yesterday!”
“No kidding!” the other replied. “Where do you pick that up?” I didn’t hear any more after that. The snowblower turned off, and the conversation got quieter.
I’m no expert, but I’m pretty sure you don’t need that much ammunition simply for hunting. I’m guessing it was purchased for protection. My neighbor’s purchase is part of a larger societal trend that has seen gun and ammunition sales increase to record levels in 2020. According to data from the National Shooting Sports Foundation, background checks tied to the sale of firearms increased 60% over 2019 levels. People are stocking up.
In writing this, I’m not making a judgment on my neighbor’s right to own a gun and buy ammunition. I’m more interested in what his purchase says about the spirit of our communities. I’m more interested in what these statistics say about the state of neighborly relations. Walls of mistrust seem to be thickening.
Over the past few years, Western societies also have been plagued by increasing loneliness. Institutions that used to bring people together (such as churches and community sports leagues) are in decline, leaving people increasingly isolated. A recent article published through the University of British Columbia called loneliness an “epidemic” and a “silent killer.” Things are so bad in the United Kingdom that in 2018 they created a new cabinet position within the government: the minister of loneliness.
All that was before the pandemic. Since then, not only has loneliness has increased, it seems to have developed a sharp edge. In the grind of social and political unrest, loneliness has been sharpened by fear. Now we’re not just lonely. We’re looking at our neighbor with suspicion. We’re locking our doors and buying ammo.
This is not the way it is supposed to be. “It is not good for the man to be alone,” God said in Genesis 2:18. We human beings are made in the image of the triune God. We are made for connection, for fellowship, for shalom. We are meant for lives of love, lives of trust, lives of joy.
What do we do about the loneliness and mistrust? How do we find our way back to connection? The church can lead the way. Jesus calls us to love one another, and stories such as the parable of the Good Samaritan teach us that our love is meant to overflow the boundaries of the church and water the lives of all our neighbors. Loneliness is an enemy of the gospel. How do we fight this enemy?
There are multiple scriptural practices that can help us here, but one of the best is the practice of hospitality. As we emerge from this pandemic and venture out into a sharp-edged world, may I suggest that we arm ourselves with hospitality? This small, intimate, deeply personal practice might be just what the world needs. Let me offer five reasons why this practice suggests itself to us.
1. Hospitality Is a Deeply Biblical Practice
The Old and New Testaments call us to hospitality.
In Leviticus 19:9-10, God tells Israel that when its farmers bring in the harvest, they are to leave the edges of their fields untouched and not go over the middle of their fields more than once. God reserves the margins of the field and the gleanings in the center as a place where the poor and foreigners can gather food. In effect, this command opens up hospitable space in the backyard of every Israelite. This harvest hospitality shows its fruitfulness in the story of Ruth. Boaz allows Ruth to glean in his field. That hospitality doesn’t just save her life; Boaz, too, is blessed. Ruth becomes his wife and gives him a child. If you look at the big picture, God uses the hospitality of Boaz to preserve God’s covenant. Ruth and Boaz’s child is an ancestor of Jesus.
The New Testament also exhorts God’s people to welcome others. “Practice hospitality,” Paul says in Romans 12:13. That call is echoed in 1 Peter 4:9 and 3 John 1:8. Jesus himself practiced hospitality when he ate with sinners and made time for children in the middle of his busy schedule.
2. Hospitality Builds a Hospital
In Luke 14, a prominent Pharisee invites Jesus to an exclusive dinner. It turns out to be a high-stakes game of musical chairs—the guests compete with one another for the places of honor at the table. Jesus calls out their selfish spirits and then says to the host, “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends, your brothers or sisters, your relatives or your rich neighbors; if you do they may invite you back and so you will be repaid.” Instead, “invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind” (Luke 14:12-14). He goes on to tell them the familiar parable of the wedding banquet.
Christian hospitality is not a networking strategy. Christian hospitality builds a hospital, a place of healing, for wounded neighbors. True hospitality opens up space in your home, in your time, in your life where your neighbor can heal. When Jesus sat at the Pharisee’s table, he encountered a power struggle. When a person comes into the circle of Christian hospitality, they discover a place of acceptance and grace. At a table like the Pharisee’s, you feel pressure to show your strength and your worth. At a truly hospitable table, you feel safe enough to show your wounds and your needs. That means hospitality does not need filet mignon and good silver; a take-out pizza can do the trick. In fact, the formal dining room with the good silver often feels less hospitable than the kitchen table with the dishes in the sink. If you are willing to show your messy side to your guest, she’ll probably feel free to open up about the messes in her life, which will create real intimacy.
3. Hospitality Breaks Barriers with Kindness
Much biblical hospitality aims at people who are different from us. It’s fine to have dinner with friends and family, but the hospitality modeled by Jesus and pushed by Paul moves us toward people outside our usual circles. That’s a truth hidden in the word itself. The Greek word for hospitality is philoxenia. It literally means “love of strangers.” The etymology of the word signals the true intention of the practice. Hospitality doesn’t just aim at what is broken in other people; it wants to connect with people who are outside our usual spheres.
Let’s go back to Boaz’s welcome of Ruth. Ruth isn’t just poor. She’s also an outsider. She is a Moabite, from one of Israel’s most-hated enemies. But Boaz welcomes Ruth into his field, lets her drink from the worker’s water jar, and tells his men not to harass her. It’s classic hospitality. Not only does he make her feel safe and welcome, his welcome is a healing balm applied to an ancient hatred. How well does the healing balm work? It works so well that they end up married!
Scripture is full of hospitable welcomes specifically aimed at breaking down barriers: The party the father throws when he welcomes home the prodigal son. The welcome Jesus gives to the sinful woman who washes his feet in Luke 7. The evening Jesus spends with Zacchaeus, the head tax collector. The money paid to the innkeeper by the Good Samaritan for the care of the man he rescued on the way to Jerusalem. These hospitable acts all break barriers.
4. Hospitality Has Grit
Real hospitality is not easy or convenient. Real hospitality is not safe. Real hospitality invites complications. Of course, relationships are always somewhat inconvenient, but when you practice hospitality, when you get involved with people’s weariness and hurt, you are taking inconvenience to a whole new level.
This plays out in the most ordinary places. Imagine it’s 5:30 p.m. and you are stopping at the grocery store after work to pick up a couple of things. It’s been a long day, and you are in a hurry. As you zip up and down the aisles, you spot someone from your neighborhood. You know she’s just been through a divorce, you know she’s hurting, and you know that she likes to talk. What do you do?
You have three options: 1. You could pretend you didn’t see her and spend the rest of the trip sneaking around the store, making sure you don’t encounter her. 2. You could put on your “don’t talk to me; I’m very busy and important” face and blow by her in the aisle with a brisk “hello.” 3. You could open up space in your time and in your heart. You could come up to her, stop, greet her warmly, and ask her how she’s doing. The third way is the most inconvenient. It’s also the best picture of Christian hospitality.
Here is where modern social media devices don’t help much with our loneliness. A lot of the time, we use our devices to take the grit out of our relationships. But when we lose the grit, we lose the connection!
Here’s just one example of how that can happen: 20 years ago, if a group of your child’s friends came over to pick up your kid to go to a football game, how did that pickup go? The friends would come up to the door and knock. “Hi, Mr. Jonker! Is Patrick here? We’re ready to go!” You’d call your son, and he’d come down, but in the meantime you’d have a short conversation with these teenage boys. You’d connect. “Hi, Jacob, how are you doing? Have you made your college decision yet? How are your parents?” These conversations could be awkward, but they made for real connection.
That was 20 years ago. How do young people pick each other up today? They text from the driveway. Is it more convenient to text from the driveway? Sure. When you text, you avoid Patrick’s dad and his awkward questions. But something important is lost. You’ve lost one more small way we build community.
5. Hospitality Points to the Heart of God
Our God does not text from the driveway. Our God wants personal connection.
When Adam and Eve hide from God in the garden, God does not leave them alone. He moves toward them. He seeks them out. When God’s Old Testament people turned away from him, God did not leave them alone. He sent them prophets. And, most striking of all, when we continue to move away from him, when we push him away, God is so determined to reconnect with us that he sends his son, Jesus. When Jesus moves toward us, he doesn’t just move close in general. He gets close to our weakness, he gets close to our sin, and he comes near to the most broken parts of us.
Is that inconvenient for Jesus? Is it gritty? Does it prove to be dangerous? Yes. It costs him his life.
But Jesus is willing to endure all these things so that he can make room for us in the heart of God. Jesus is willing to do these things so that our sins and miseries can be overcome and we can be reunited with the Father. Jesus is willing to do all these things so that we can enjoy the hospitality of his house and find a seat at his table, where he feeds us with his body and his blood. No more are we strangers or guests, but like children at home.
- Do you agree that loneliness has become an epidemic in our societies? Why or why not?
- How have you understood the biblical practice of hospitality prior to now?
- “Christian hospitality builds a hospital, a place of healing, for wounded neighbors.” How does this reinforce or change your current view and practice of hospitality?
- The original Greek word for hospitality in the Bible literally means “love of strangers.” How much of our current practice of hospitality are acts of kindness toward those different from us?