The House of God
The relationship was straightforward. The men and women of Israel were called to be God's people and God alone was to be their God. But this identity was far from one that gave them permission to stave off every neighbor and keep every foreigner at bay. On the contrary, the vertical relationship between God and Israel had very clear implications for horizontal relationships with their neighbors. Hospitality was written into the very consciousness of the people of Israel. They saw that they were living in "none other than the house of God" and as such their very lives were to signify the master of the house.(1) It was, no doubt, in understanding the feast that God had set before her that the woman of Shunem urged the traveling Elisha to stay for a meal. Later realizing that her guest was a servant of God, she took hospitality to all new heights. "She said to her husband, 'Look, I am sure that this man who regularly passes our way is a holy man of God. Let us make a small roof chamber with walls, and put there for him a bed, a table, a chair, and a lamp, so that he can stay there whenever he comes to us.'"(2)
Modern hospitality typically doesn't include the physical building of new rooms onto our houses. Still, the image is one with staying power. What is hospitality in world where the view is global and yet the concept of neighbor seems an increasingly distant nicety? The Christian, as for ancient Israel, is particularly affronted by the question, for how often it seems we find God asking us to do the very things that God has done for us: "In my Father's house are many rooms," said Jesus. "If it were not so, I would have told you. I am going there to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am" (John 14:1-3). Hospitality is a command we are given because we have been given a home. We welcome others because we have been welcomed. We build rooms in our lives for strangers, outcasts, and neighbors because we, too, were once strangers when the Son prepared us a room.
We also build rooms simply because our neighbors need them. In Martin Luther King Jr.'s famous sermon on the Good Samaritan, he distinguishes between asking "What will happen to me if I stop to help this man?" and "What will happen to him if I don’t?" King then asks himself, "What will happen to humanity if I don't help? What will happen to the Civil Rights movement if I don't participate? What will happen to my city if I don't vote? What will happen to the sick if I don't visit them?"(3) Choosing to do nothing in terms of hospitality, service, and justice is still very definitely making a choice. What will happen to my neighbor if I refuse to see her need for the room in my life I can offer?
Here, we might further discover that God not only encourages hospitality for the sake of the one who would receive it, but also for the sake of the world that sees it. In a memorable article in The New York Times, Nicholas Kristof makes the observation that in certain countries where danger and instability are constant threats, “you often find that the only groups still operating are Doctors Without Borders and religious aid workers: crazy doctors and crazy Christians." He continues, "In the town of Rutshuru in war-ravaged Congo, I found starving children, raped widows, and shellshocked survivors. And there was a determined Catholic nun from Poland, serenely running a church clinic."(4)
Genuine hospitality is one of the very powerful means that Christ's arms are seen reaching out for the world. On multiple levels, the one who builds a room for a neighbor is painting a picture, and it may well be the only description of the good news those who behold the act will ever see.
With Elisha and the Shunammite woman, we live our lives in none other than the house of God. Countercultural scenes of hospitality today may rightly be met with the surprise of Jacob, "Surely the LORD is in this place, and I was not aware of it."
Jill Carattini is managing editor of A Slice of Infinity at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Atlanta, Georgia.
(1) Genesis 28:17.
(2) 2 Kings 4:8-10.
(3) From A Knock at Midnight: Inspiration from the Great Sermons of Martin Luther King, Jr., "The Three Dimensions of a Complete Life," edited by Clayborne Carson and Peter Holloran (Warner Books, 1998).
(4) Nicholas D. Kristof, "Evangelicals a Liberal Can Love," The New York Times, February 3, 2008.