How to Show the Hospitality of Presence
Last week, I wrote about five broad ways to show hospitality. This week, I'll elaborate more on the first: how to show the hospitality of presence.
The Hospitality of Presence means, simply, that we rub shoulders with strangers in their own space. As I noted last week, "hospitality" means "love of the stranger" in the New Testament. To be truly hospitable, we must not only love the stranger, but we must go toward the stranger.
In a striking moment of Jesus' ministry, as he dines with social outcasts, the Pharisees exclaim: “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” (Matt. 9:11) We could dismiss this, writing it off as the Pharisees' lack of evangelistic zeal. But if we look more carefully, we could perhaps see ourselves in their reaction. After all, as Jesus' notes, the Pharisees work hard to create converts: "Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites!" Jesus says to them, later: "You travel over land and sea to win a single convert..." (Matt. 23:15).
If the Pharisees are interested in converts, why are they so scandalized by Jesus' dining with them? Put simply, the Pharisees' model of evangelism is: "First buy into our message, then we'll let you into our community." Jesus' model was different: he first offers hospitality, then he allows people to explore his message in a context of acceptance.
"But," we may say, "Dining with Jesus is an act of repentance, since he is the message." While I can sympathize with the point being made here, I think it's an overstatement. For one, all the evidence of the gospels points to the contrary: many people who ate and drank with Jesus, or witnessed his miracles, or attended to his teachings, did not repent. Second, Jesus explicitly tells us this is not true in his own parable of the Sower. We can apply it directly to his meals with sinners: some who were dining with him did not understand him or his message (Matt. 13:19). They were only there for the party and the food! Some were excited to be dining with him, but didn't change their lives as a result (Matt. 13:20). They wanted to be where the action was, but once it no longer seemed socially beneficial, they abandoned his teaching. Some did receive him and his teaching at dinner, but only for a time (13:21). They thought his message would give them instant gratification, and it didn't. Finally, some who were present received his message, understood it, and became disciples (13:22). They had more parties, and helped the church to grow.
I think it would be better, and more biblical, to say that everyone at Jesus' dinners was responsive to Jesus. The line between those who would and wouldn't eat dinner with Jesus (the Pharisees) is not between the repentant/unrepentant, but between the much grayer line of the responsive and the defiant. As we can see above, responsiveness to Jesus varies widely. We have no real biblical or exegetical reason to believe the responses to Jesus would be any different at Matthew's scandalous dinner table than anywhere else.
It seems to me that those who want to "clean up" Jesus meals with sinners are operating on the same impulse Jesus is warning against in the Pharisees, here: to make our evangelism and hospitality black and white. But hospitality of presence specifically is NOT clean cut. It is NOT black and white. It was and is messy, and it didn't always "work" the way we'd like it to work. Jesus, however, encourages us to be less concerned about whether our hospitality "works" in his comparing our work to a sower. Our concern is to be faithful to the call by being radically hospitable to the stranger in our midst.
So how can we show the kind of hospitality of presence that Jesus shows, here?
In one final parable on hospitality, Jesus gives us his radical answer:
“A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii[c] and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’
“Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?”
The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.”
Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.”
In the 21st century, a story like this can seem senseless and daunting: "Is Jesus saying I need to care for everyone on my social media feed?" Not quite. In fact, I think this overspiritualizes the parable a bit, since Jesus isn't making a point about how many neighbors you need to have, but what kind of people we need to consider our neighbors. Specifically here, Jesus highlights the need to befriend the poor, which is a short-hand category (in Luke) for the social and religious outcast. He brilliantly brings these two categories of poverty in the parable: the Samaritan is an immoral, religious outcast, and the injured man is an outcast of society. A more proper application of this passage would be to ask: "Who is the social outcast in my community?" (the man robbed) and "Who does my church see as a social outcast?" (the Samaritan) These people, specifically, are the people whom Jesus is calling to view as our neighbors, deserving of our hospitality.
We can practice this hospitality of presence with a few simple but radical shifts, beginning with some exercises which you could complete in 20 minutes, or better, 30 more prayerful and contemplative minutes, alongside others:
1. First, we need to think about our current neighbors.
I say that we over-spiritualize Jesus' parable to our own detriment, but it's also to the detriment of our immediate neighbors. In answering the man's question, Jesus includes an encounter with a man who the Samaritan stumbles upon. Whatever else we might say about the parable, it's not quite comparable to "stumbling upon" someone on a social media feed (although that could be a distant cousin application of it). There is an immediate presence, here. Jesus is not calling his disciples to take care of all needs, everywhere, but rather all types of people as they present themselves.
The real issue - especially in a globalized context - is whether we will see the people already placed before us. It is perfectly believable to me that I can use the deep-seated needs of the world "out there" as an excuse, even, to ignore the stranger sitting before me. It is much cleaner and easier that way, as it demands far less time and sacrifice. This, too, is the issue with the men who pass by the robbed man: they have important matters to attend to, big world-solving problems to speak into: sermons to write, justice to establish. But in solving the great, global issues of their age, they've missed the stranger lying before them.
The failure of the two men, then, is first of all a failure to see with hospitable eyes.
The men who passed by the robbed man didn't "see" him when he was sitting right in front of them (in the same way the Pharisees fail to see the sinful Samaritans - their alienated brethren - right next door to them, and the same way they are failing to care for the economically poor of Israel in their midst).
The first thing Jesus is calling us to do, then, is to see. To really see.
Here is a simple exercise I've given my students to begin to do this. I suggest you do it slowly and prayerfully. Ask God to open your eyes.
First, list all of the "neighborhoods" you live in already: your physical neighborhood, your work, your kid's sports clubs, your gym, grocery store. Make some circles, and label them with your "neighborhoods" at the top.
Now, take some time to write out some apartments, houses, and names (or even it's just faces that you haven't met, yet) within the circles.Who is God calling you to see?
Finally, on the outside of each circle, write the "rhythms" of each neighborhood. When do people gather? Are there local musicians that visit your normal grocery store? Neighborhood events? Regularly scheduled sports practices or games? These can be formal (the weekly meeting of your book club) or informal (a few book club members get ice-cream after).
Now that you've made these lists, you have before you the places where you can extend the hospitality of presence, and the people who God may be calling you toward, as well as the gathering times where you can be present for them.
Take some time to pray for them - you've just set foot on the path toward hospitality.
2. Second, we need to think about expanding our neighborhood.
If it's difficult for you to think of "neighborhoods" where you can meet strangers, you're stuck in a Christian enclave, and it's time to practice Jesus' incarnation by expanding your neighborhoods. Here are some things to think about:
Am I open to changing my physical neighborhood? It may sound radical, but it's no more radical than what Jesus did for us, when - as Eugene Peterson has translated - he "moved into the neighborhood". . Not everyone needs to move into a neighborhood populated with strangers - those called to farming, for example - but the more distant we place our selves from physical neighbors, the more work we need to be willing to do to engage strangers outside of our home. So...
Are there neighborhoods devoted to things I'm interested in? (Book/film clubs, drop-in sports, concert venues, etc). This has the added benefit of introducing you to people with a natural bridge.
Can I be "a regular" somewhere? Your Barber, grocery store, or - if it's possible for you to work or study somewhere - a coffee shop or work-together office?
Pray through some of these options. What neighborhoods is God calling you to adopt?
3. Third, we need to expand our definition of neighbor.
Finally, we need to remember the point of Jesus' parable itself. Look back at your lists of names, as well as the neighborhoods you've chosen to dwell in. Are these people you feel comfortable with? Are your neighborhoods filled with people who look, sound and spend like you? Do your neighbors come from the same social class? The same cultural background? Do they have the same skin color? Do they have similar political opinions? Do they have similar moral standards to you? If so, it's time to follow Jesus' urging in the parable, and expand your definition of your neighbor.
Who are you not "seeing" because you're not comfortable with them, or their spaces? These strangers are not limited to, but often include:
-The Lower Class
-Those with Different Political Views
-Those with physical/mental disabilities
-Wild Party People
-Socially Awkward People
-People with Traumatic Backgrounds
-People who dress scandalously or different
-Devout members of other religions
We could go on. So return to your lists. Who else is God calling you to see, that you didn't see at first? Is God bringing to mind any faces or names in these categories? These are the most difficult bridges to cross, and they are, for that reason, the most important imprints of Christ.
Pray about how God might stretch you toward the true stranger.
A Final Encouragement
Ultimately, Jesus conflict with the Pharisees is a deeply theological conflict. The Pharisees believe "grace" is a reward for good works. Jesus presents us with an opposite belief: first comes mercy, then comes repentance. "Do you show contempt for the riches of God's kindness," writes the Apostle Paul, "forbearance and patience, not realizing that God's kindness is intended to lead you to repentance?"
In the Pharisees' theological world, kindness is the reward for repentance.
In Jesus' world, kindness is the cause of repentance.
The Hospitality of Presence, then, is a specifically Christian form of hospitality. To go toward the stranger with kindness, no matter their varied response, is a basic trait of following Jesus' path for us. It is also, in the end, a test of our true beliefs. We may believe in God's grace with our heads, but our hands and feet are the true crucible of that claimed belief. Perhaps if we feel intimidated, ashamed or merely anxious about the above prescriptions, it's time to re-examine our own view of Jesus' ministry toward us.
Do you really believe that Jesus came toward you?
Do you believe that you were a lost sheep?
Do you believe that you are a found stranger?
If so, extending Jesus' radical hospitality isn't just an adventure, but an absolute joy.