So many of the locations for Jesus’ teaching are at the dinner table, and usually with the “wrong” people. There, Jesus turns the roles of guest and host on their head. We see this in the stories of Zacchaeus (Luke 19:1-10), the last supper with Jesus washing the disciples’ feet (John 13:1-17), and on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-35). There is always an element of surprise, some kind of disturbance to Jesus’ hospitality. He de-centers the usual players and brings to the fore those whose voices are usually unheard and whose lives are usually ignored.
But not all of Jesus’ teaching on hospitality is about table fellowship. In the early church the primary gospel text that referenced hospitality was Matthew 25:31-46, the parable of the sheep and goats. There we find some of Jesus’ most shocking words.
35for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me….” 43I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.” 44Then they also will answer, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?” 45Then he will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.” 46And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.
What becomes immediately apparent in this parable is that Jesus identifies with the stranger in distress. To offer love and kindness to anyone in distress is to offer it to Jesus. To neglect “the least of these” is to neglect Jesus. To oppress, exploit, or in any way harm the “least of these” is to directly violate Jesus. As a sister in the Missionaries of Charity explained to me one day, “Wherever our neighbors thirst, Jesus thirsts.”
This means that the gospel practice of hospitality is oriented more toward strangers than friends. Hospitality in the way of Jesus costs us time, money, attention, and all the other resources that we have. This practice de-centers us and disorients us, which means that being truly hospitable often does not feel warm and pleasant. It often causes us to feel awkward, uncertain, and with too steep a learning curve. This is why the disciples often gathered in small groups to whisper about what Jesus was doing and to wonder what he meant. He turned their categories of what is socially “normal” and “acceptable” upside down.
Gospel hospitality is political, therefore controversial and messy. We cannot participate in divine hospitality without plunging into the sin-infested systems of the world. The practice of hospitality ultimately leads us to take a prophetic stance against injustice, for in opening our hearts and lives to Jesus in the “other” we enter into the suffering of the world. There is great risk involved, and we cannot be certain of the outcome. Yet we cannot follow Jesus without taking up this way.
Excerpted from “Prayer, Hospitality, and Justice: Spiritual Formation for the Academy and the Church,” a festschrift honoring the late Dr. Luke Keefer, Brethren in Christ Publishing Co., 2014.