As an amateur etymologist, I can’t help noticing that the word hospitality contains the word hospital. Checking my big, unabridged dictionary, I see that both words come from the Latin hostis, which may refer to a guest, stranger or enemy. This Latin word is the root of both host and hostile. Could it be that all strangers were once seen as enemies, and those who entertained them viewed with suspicion?
The dictionary also tells us that while a “guest” is always “welcomed,” this may be either “gratuitously” or “for a fee.” So one may be a guest at a hotel (same Latin root as above), in our homes or even in a hospital (although today we would use the word patient), but in all cases, hospitality is offered in that we are taken in to an establishment belonging to another, and to which we would have no right but for the owner’s largesse or desire to make money.
My immediate association with the word hospitality is the story of Abraham in Genesis 18:1-8. As the curtain goes up on this drama, we see Abraham sitting at the entrance of his tent in the heat of the day. I’ve always wondered why he was sitting out in the heat, in the middle of the desert, rather than staying inside the tent with Sarah, where the shade must have been cooler. And why wasn’t he working? Was it his day off? Was he so wealthy that he didn’t have to work? We know that he had many servants and flocks and wells, so perhaps he got to relax while his employees did the work.
I don’t imagine that many people came traipsing through the burning sand, so it must have been something special when three men approached, seemingly out of nowhere. They may have been strangers, but Abraham wasn’t afraid of them. He welcomed them without having any idea who they were or where they came from.
Looking up, he saw three men standing near him. As soon as he saw them, he
ran from the entrance of the tent to greet them and, bowing to the ground, he
said, “My lords, if it please you, do not go on past your servant. Let a little
water be brought, bathe your feet and recline under the tree. And let me fetch
a morsel of bread that you may refresh yourselves, then go on — seeing that
you have come your servant’s way.” They replied, “Do as you have said.”
What can we learn from this? To be sure, Abraham did the normal things that we associate with hospitality: He provided food, water and a place to rest. But Abraham went far beyond the provision of these basic necessities. His actions speak volumes about his attitude.
We are told that Abraham “ran…to greet them.” Imagine that! He actually ran to greet them. These travelers were no mere curiosity to Abraham. He must have felt a deep compulsion to be of assistance to them. He welcomed these visitors not grudgingly, nor out of a mere sense of duty, but with joy. It is obvious that he had great respect for these people who he had never met before, as he bowed down to them and referred to himself as their servant.
So what did Abraham offer his guests to eat? No mere crust of bread, no peanut butter and jelly sandwich for them. Oh no, Abraham provided these strangers with the best and finest that he had to offer.
Abraham hastened into the tent to Sarah, and said, “Quick, three seahs of
choice flour! Knead and make cakes!” Then Abraham ran to the herd,
took a calf, tender and choice, and gave it to a servant-boy, who
hastened to prepare it. He took curds and milk and the calf that had been
prepared and set those before them; and he waited on them under the
tree as they ate.
Instead of serving everyday bread, Abraham had Sarah use choice flour while he himself especially picked out a calf that was tender and choice. Also, curds (similar to yogurt) and milk were considered rich foods fit for special occasions. And Abraham did all this at a moment’s notice, without giving a second thought to the cost.
The theme of urgency pervades these verses. Abraham hastened, he told his wife to be quick, he ran to the herd and the servant boy hastened to butcher and cook the calf. It seems that Abraham’s conception of appropriate hospitality involved not requiring the travelers to wait for anything.
Finally, we are told that Abraham waited on the travelers while they ate. Perhaps this means that he kept out of sight so that the visitors could take their time. But I don’t think so. I believe the scriptural reference is to “waiting” in the sense of a restaurant waiter or that of one who is “waited on hand and foot.” In other words, Abraham was attentive to his guests, refilling their plates and water and generally seeing to it that they wanted for nothing.
Did Abraham know he was providing hospitality to angels? That is a question that has been debated for thousands of years. Ultimately, however, I don’t think it mattered. I believe Abraham would have extended the same courtesy to any travelers who came his way, no questions asked. In other words, Abraham saw a need and he filled it.
Why is it so hard for us to emulate Abraham’s sense of hospitality in the 21st century? I thought about this recently on a lazy Sunday when my wife and I were enjoying a late lunch in Denny’s down by the freeway. As we were leaving, she told me that she noticed three young kids sitting at the table behind us and that she’d like us to pay for their meals. I quickly agreed; we have often performed such random acts of kindness, and Donna has an uncanny discernment of those in need that has always eluded me. After paying their bill, she walked over to their table and gave each of the three of a ten-dollar bill. She reported that they just stared at her as if they couldn’t believe their amazing good luck. One of them had ordered a cup of coffee; the rest drank water. They had shared a sandwich among them. My wife expressed her opinion that they were probably traveling, most likely on foot. They may have been hitchhiking along the freeway, or they could have been homeless, perhaps preparing to spend the night in one of the makeshift camps beneath a bridge abutment or in an alley between abandoned storefronts. The oldest of them couldn’t have been more than 21 or 22.
We never did find out what their circumstances were. Donna told me that she wished we could have taken them into our home, let them bathe and wash their clothes, give them a good meal and a cozy place to sleep. How wonderful, I thought. But, she reminded me that, in this day and age, it is unsafe to allow strangers into one’s home. We must help others from a distance, at arm’s length, for who knows if they will harm us, rob us, destroy our home. Sadly, I had to agree.
I believe that the spirit of Abraham is alive and well, but the realities of modern life have thrown up barriers to properly performing this act of good will. Was the world really so different in Abraham’s time? I like to think not. I don’t believe people have changed that much. Abraham did not know that the strangers traipsing across the sand were not robbers who intended to murder him and Sarah and ravage his herds. He had no idea what their intent was, where they had come from or where they were going. None of that mattered to him. All he knew was that they had arrived and that hospitality was therefore in order.
Perhaps we need to take a sledgehammer and break down the barriers that stand between us and loving our neighbors as ourselves. Or at least take a chisel and chip away at it, one person at a time. All it takes is one or two people to provide an example to others, to demonstrate that there is nothing to fear but our own prejudices. I only hope I can go out on a limb and be the kind of person I really want to be. I don’t know that I’ll ever get there, but I pray that I will learn to open my heart fully, willingly and without fear, just as our patriarch Abraham did so many centuries ago.