A friend recently sent me an article depicting “The World’s Most Influential Values”. The graphics in the article offer a fascinating insight into the values that influence the behaviour of human beings around the world. Of particular interest to me was “that a number of… ‘connectedness’ values” appeared in the top ten most important values globally, including family, relationships, belonging, community and loyalty. A core aspect of being human is our need for connection and critical to a sense of connection is cultivating the habit of hospitality.

I hope we can all remember a time when we experienced a particularly warm welcome. I imagine we’ve also experienced that sense of you’re not from round here” when walking into some pubs or sadly, churches. As an Englishman married to a Scotswoman, we’ve spoken about the different habits of hospitality in Scottish and English culture. Hospitality comes in many different forms, but a consistent theme is the idea of making someone feel welcome.

Jesus and the heart of hospitality

In the gospel accounts of Jesus’ life, we read far more about Jesus being the guest or receiver of hospitality, than the one acting as host. Jesus says as one point that the Son of man has no place to rest His head” (Luke 9:58). Yet as a guest, Jesus helps us understand the heart of being a hospitable human.

Let’s take one example, Jesus’ encounter with Zacchaeus the tax collector (Luke 19:1 – 10). When Jesus spots Zacchaeus in the tree, Jesus is adamant that He should be a guest at Zacchaeus’ home: Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today” (v.5). In this encounter, Jesus is the definition of the uninvited guest. The reaction of Zacchaeus and the crowd help us understand Jesus’ self-invitation. It was a great honour for Zacchaeus to have Jesus enter into his home and so Zacchaeus welcomed [Jesus] gladly” (v.6). The crowd saw what was happening and started to mutter about Jesus’ shameful behaviour in their eyes: He was willingly being a guest of a sinner like Zacchaeus.

The actions of Jesus in this encounter help move our understanding of hospitality from potentially stereotypical ideas of hosting a good meal, to perceiving hospitality as a critical aspect of how we relate to other people. Theologian Henri Nouwen argues that:

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Hospitality means primarily the creation of free space where the stranger can enter and become a friend instead of an enemy. Hospitality is not to change people, but to offer them space where change can take place. It is not to bring men and women over to our side, but to offer freedom not disturbed by dividing lines.” Reaching Out: The Three Movements of the Spiritual Life

I think Jesus’ interaction with Zacchaeus helps to unpack this understanding of hospitality in three ways:

  1. First, Jesus saw Zacchaeus with the dignity his humanity deserved.
  2. Second, the acknowledgement of Zacchaeus’ significance led Jesus to welcome someone who was, due to his unethical approach to his work, ostracised in society.
  3. Third, in extending a welcome to Zacchaeus, Jesus created space where Zacchaeus could become a friend rather than an enemy. In Nouwen’s words, Jesus offered space where change can take place”.

We read far more about Jesus being the guest or receiver of hospitality, than the one acting as host. Yet as a guest, Jesus helps us understand the heart of being a hospitable human.

The ultimate self-invitation

In the build up to Jesus’ death, we read about Jesus sharing the last supper with His disciples (Luke 22:7 – 20). It’s one of the few accounts in the gospels of Jesus acting as the host. During the meal Jesus breaks bread and shares wine with His disciples, saying: This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me” and this cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you” (v.19 – 20). Jesus’ words are pointing forward to the new covenant that will be established through His death, resurrection and ascension. This new covenant establishes the Father’s welcome to all of humanity, to share in the life of His Son by the power of His Spirit. It’s God’s invitation to us all, His means of saying to each one of us, I must stay at your house today”. The question is, will we warmly welcome Him?

Habits of hospitality

As we seek to reflect the hospitality we’ve received from God to the people around us, how can we develop habits of hospitality? I think Jesus’ welcome challenges us in three ways:

  1. First, how can we practice the habit of seeing the significance of every person we meet?
  2. Second, how might we create space to take a posture of welcome towards the stranger or those ostracised in our society?
  3. Third, what might it look like for our church communities to be those spaces Nouwen described, not requiring change, but still offering people space where change can take place?

Cultivating habits of hospitality is a key part of developing the connections we all want and need to thrive as human beings. Hospitality is not easy and we all need the Spirit’s help to reflect the same welcome Jesus offered to Zacchaeus to those around us.

But each time we do, we all become a little bit more human.