I don’t know about you, but one of my favorite moments in life is when I put on an old jacket or an old pair of pants, reach into my pocket, and find money I didn’t know I had. It doesn’t matter if it’s a couple bucks, or $20; when you discover something of value that you didn’t realize has been there all along, it’s a great feeling.
When I was at seminary, learning biblical Greek and how to navigate such a nuanced, yet precise language, it was a process that made me want to pull my hair out. For hours and hours each week over a period of nearly two years, I memorized verb endings, Greek verbal aspect, and vocabulary … the process was something I utterly despised. In hindsight however, attaining an ability to navigate the language and explore the fullness of the semantic range became a window that changed my entire understanding and appreciation for scripture.
Today, some of my favorite moments are when I discover the failure of English to fully express what biblical authors are actually saying. When I stumble upon these words or phrases, it’s like reaching into your pocket and finding out that what you are holding is far more valuable and exciting than you previously realized. Last week was one of those when I realized that I had completely missed a valuable linguistic nugget tucked away on the pages of the New Testament. One that properly understood, completely changes our conceptual understanding of what it means to obey the biblical command to show hospitality.
God’s desire that we show others hospitality is a common theme in scripture; in the Old Testament showing hospitality was a cultural norm, much as it is today in shame and honor cultures. The New Testament frequently expresses its central importance as well. However, what does it actually mean to show hospitality? This is where things really get interesting: in English, we typically understand hospitality as a willingness to host, feed, and entertain a guest … something we all do and especially with our personal friends. However, what if the biblical term has a much deeper (and more difficult) meaning?
This is the problem we run into when we read the Bible in English and assume we understand what it’s saying … often, we don’t — or at least we don’t understand it fully. Trying to translate between languages is tricky like that, and the concept of “hospitality” is a prime example of what is missed between one language and another.
Based on our English definition, most everyone would consider themselves hospitable. But are we really?
The Greek term that is often translated into the English term “hospitality” is the word φιλόξενος. The word is a combination of two concepts, that break down as follows:
φιλό (pronounced Philao) is one of several words for “love” in Greek. Being a more precise language than English, classical Greek has a few different ways to express the word “love.” In this case, the word that is used means “brotherly love” or “to love like a brother,” and is how we get the name Philadelphia — the City of Brotherly Love.
The word ξενος (Xenos) which makes up the second half of the word we render “hospitality” actually means “stranger” or “immigrant,” and is where we get the word xenophobia which is the fear of strangers/immigrants.
In light of these two words being combined, hospitality as commonly understood, isn’t exactly the best way to express this biblical truth. Instead of simply “entertaining guests” the word becomes “one who loves strangers/immigrants like you would your own brother.” That’s a big difference, and completely changes the way we see this term used in scripture. For example:
In Romans 13 we are told to “practice hospitality.” Whereas a simple reading with a prima facie understanding of the English term would lead us to think we should practice hosting our friends for dinner, we instead see that we are to practice (go out of your way to do it) loving strangers and immigrants as if they were our siblings.
In 1 Timothy 5, we see that widows who received financial support from the early church, needed to have a reputation of loving strangers and immigrants like they were her own siblings.
In both Titus and 1 Timothy, we are told that elders (church leaders) must be people who are known to love strangers and immigrants as if they are their own siblings.
The word appears over and over again throughout the New Testament, which insists that one of the hallmarks of a Jesus follower is a radical love for immigrants — the same way we would love our own brothers or sisters. This would mean that we don’t withhold from immigrants (legal or undocumented), that we don’t allow them to go homeless, hungry, that we refuse to call them names (something I wrote about for Sojourners that you can find here), and that we actually practice going out of our way to take care of them.
It means that when we pass a stranger on the street, we smile and say “hello” instead of nonchalantly looking at our iPhone and pretending we didn’t actually see them.
It means when we’re at the cash register and have our order messed up by the nameless employee, we show patience and kindness instead of impatience and harsh words.
It means when that guy in the car in front of us cuts us off, we pray a prayer of blessing for that person instead of flipping them off.
These are the things the Bible is talking about when we are told over, and over, and over again, to show hospitality — brotherly love for strangers and immigrants.
Are we actually doing these things, or are we simply having friends over for dinner and calling ourselves good?
But wait, it gets worse:
Within the semantic range and historical uses of ξενος, we find that it didn’t simply mean stranger or immigrant. Historically, this word has a dual usage that includes “enemy” since some cultures used the same word to refer to both groups. In addition, “strangers” were often seen or assumed to be enemies, giving the word strong connotations of stranger, immigrant and enemy.
So then, in this case the word “hospitality” becomes “one who loves their enemies in the same way they love their brother“… ouch!
Grasping the depths of the flavor of ξενος, we see the New Testament epistles re-affirming the teachings of Jesus in regard to loving our enemies, especially in refraining from violence toward our enemies.
Which one of us would let our brother go hungry? Which one of us would let our brother go homeless? Which one of us would be willing to kill our brother for any reason?
Probably not many, I hope. Both Jesus and Paul say that this is the same way we are to love our enemies: in the same exact way that we would love our own brother or sister.
Hard truth. Inconvenient truth. Truth that’s difficult to follow, even for me.
However, it’s like finding a couple of dollars in your pocket that you didn’t know you had … because Christlike, biblical hospitality is far more beautiful and radical than I had ever imagined.
Blessing instead of cursing.
Love instead of hate.
It’s beautiful. Radical.
This is hospitality.
I hope that you’ll consider the ways in which you do, or perhaps don’t show brotherly love to immigrants, strangers, and enemies. We must remember, whether it is an immigrant, a stranger on the sidewalk, or an enemy who wants to destroy us — these are human beings with unsurpassed worth, so valuable that Jesus gave his life for them. Our job is simply to affirm their worth, and love them like family.
Benjamin Corey is a two-time graduate of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and current Doctor of Missiology student at Fuller. He is the dad of two girls adopted from Peru, and the co-founder of the Not Here Justice in Action Network as well as the Scholar in Residence for the Foundation for Hope and Grace.
Image: Welcome sign, Ed Samuel / Shutterstock.com