When we say it is our responsibility to offer hospitality to the alien and stranger what exactly do we mean and in particular where does this impetus come from?
Firstly, as Australians our government has committed us to the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights; which defines a refugee as:
“A person who owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country; or who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former habitual residence as a result of such events, is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it.”?
Thus, by simply being an Australian we have a responsibility to ‘refugees’ regardless of our religious beliefs, because our country is a signatory to the “Convention relating to the status of Refugees”. If you like it is our civil responsibility.
When we say that it is our responsibility to offer “hospitality” what does this mean? A simple definition of the term hospitality is;
However, as we are people from a Judea/Christian heritage does this mean that more is being asked of us? In response to this question let us briefly turn to both the Old Testament and the New for assistance in understanding our responsibilities.
The Jewish instructions respecting strangers/aliens pervade all the writings of the OT from the history through to the Torah and the prophets. For example in Leviticus 19:34 we read:
“The stranger/alien who resides with you shall be to you as the native among you and you shall love him (them) as yourself; for you were aliens in the land of Egypt; I am the Lord your God.”
And in Deuteronomy 14:29 we read:
“The Levites, because they have no allotment or inheritance with you, as well as the resident aliens, the orphans and the widows in your towns, may come and eat their fill so that the Lord your God may bless you in all the work that you undertake.”
In Job 31:32
“The Stranger/Alien has not lodged in the street. I have opened my doors to the traveler.”
The New Testament adds an even greater demand on us regarding the stranger/alien or person in need. The most appropriate translation of the English word ‘hospitality’ from the Greek word Philoxenia means a ‘love’ of the guest or stranger. Emphasising that it not just what we do, but how we personally regard the one in need. Our hospitality should be a way of life and an embrace of the other, rather than a simple response to someone in need.
Our response to people in need is perhaps best brought to our attention by the words of Jesus as recorded in the Gospel according to Matthew 25:31ff.
“For 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, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me” v35
And when his disciples asked him, “when was this?”, he responded by saying:
“Truly I tell you as you did it to the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me” v 40
The charge then is this; we must treat all we meet as if they are a loved one and by responding with love we are responding to the Spirit of Jesus.
It is not only in the words of Jesus, it is also in his actions that we understand the importance of a personal response to others. For example Jesus practices “Open Commensality” or more simply open table; where everyone is invited to share the meal with equal status. The stranger is not simply tolerated, but respected and is welcome at the table.
If we follow the actions of Jesus then that we become in Dom Crossans’ terms, ‘companions in empowerment’ because as the story of Ruth illustrates it is through her steadfast loyalty that the offer of love and acceptance from Naomi is returned in even greater measure, when Ruth proclaims:
“Where you go I will go; where you lodge I will lodge; your people shall be my people and your God my God” v16
Ruth was an outsider she was a Moabite, or in today’s terms she was one of ‘them’, but Naomi needed her for the completeness of her character as much as Ruth needed Naomi for the fulfillment of hers.
Is it possible that we need the stranger more than they need us? As Henry Nouen in his book “Reaching Out” suggests, hospitality is about offering a safe space where the stranger can enter and become a friend. Hospitality is not designed to change people, but to offer a space where a relationship can take place.
So the challenge to us as people of faith is clear; genuine hospitality is a deeply personal commitment to love the stranger. It is not some act we perform, but something that defines the people we are by the way we share our lives.
Hospitality then is a way of living life and living it more abundantly by sharing not only what we have but, who we are.
John W H Smith