[Texts: Sirach 10:12-18; Psalm 112; Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16; Luke 14:1, 7-14]
O send out thy light and thy truth, that they may lead me,
and bring me unto thy holy hill, and to thy dwelling. Amen.
This verse from Hebrews that we read today might be my favorite verse in the whole Bible:
Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.
Hospitality… entertaining people… a lot of these words bring to mind my Southern roots and upbringing.
I grew up hearing a lot about hospitality, particularly from my mom and my aunt, who are two of the most gifted hostesses I know– they’d give Emily Post a run for her money. Because of them, I can set a table with a ridiculous number of forks, and I know where everything goes. I can make pleasant small talk with the best of them. And if there was a silver-polishing Olympics, not only would I win a medal, but I could polish it myself.
And, of course, like any good Southern hostess-in-training, I was well-versed from a very young age in the art of table manners. I can still hear my parents’ voices in my head: “Mabel, Mabel, get your elbows off the table; this is not a horse’s stable.”
These are all good things– manners and etiquette say something important about who we are and how we want to be perceived. But I don’t think the author of Hebrews was warning his audience about their table manners when he cautioned them about hospitality. I think it runs deeper than that.
I didn’t know the Greek word for “hospitality” off the top of my head, so I opened up my Greek New Testament to this chapter and verse to look for it. As it turns out, a form of the word φιλόξενος (fill-OX-en-oss) is translated as the whole phrase “to show hospitality to strangers”, not just the word “hospitality”.
φιλόξενος is what’s known as a compound word. (I promise, this grammar lesson won’t be painful. Hang in there with me, okay? Greek is not scary!)
German is famous for its use of compound words– you just keep smashing nouns together until you end up with something obnoxious like Geschwindigkeitsbeschränkungen, which is a perfectly valid and useful German word. (It means “speed limit”. I kid you not.) American Sign Language does something similar. The sign for acolyte, for example, is made by signing holy, then table, then serve, then person.
Either way, you’re using words as pieces of bigger words. Right? Ours might not be as long, but we have compound words in English, too: words like schoolwork, housecat, and sunglasses.
φιλόξενος is just like that. It’s made by combining two smaller words to make a bigger one, and you can take it apart to look at the individual pieces.
Let’s work backwards on this one. The second half of φιλόξενος is ξένος (KSENN-oss), which is where we get xenophobia, the fear of the unknown. ξένος can be correctly translated as either “stranger” or “foreigner”.
The same word is used by St. Paul in his letter to the Ephesians, when he says, “Ye are no more strangers and foreigners, but fellow citizens with the saints, and of the household of God.”
Then we have the first half, which comes from φιλία (FILL-ee-uh), which means “love,” but a particular type of love.
Now, you may have heard that there are four ways to say “love” in Greek. There are actually six that I know of, but in C. S. Lewis’s The Four Loves, he talked about– you guessed it– four of them.
- The first one is στοργή (STORE-jay), which is the natural love that is often experienced among family members.
- φιλία (FILL-ee-uh) is platonic love, or the love we have for those who are dear to us
- ἔρως (AIR-owess) is romantic or sexual love– like, being in love.
- And then there is ἀγάπη (uh-GAW-pay), which is usually explained as being like God’s unconditional love.
The first part of φιλόξενος comes from the same root as φιλία, that platonic second type of love. Now, don’t misunderstand: φιλία isn’t a casual “Love ya, bro” sort of thing– it’s a very strong word. Think of relationships in the Bible like Ruth and Naomi or David and Jonathan: friendships that were deep, intense, and self-sacrificing, as much if not more so than many romantic relationships. Loving someone that profoundly is a choice. (Have you ever heard someone call their close group of friends a “family of choice?”) If I were to tell my best friend– whom I would give my life for in a heartbeat–that I love her in Greek, I would be using a form of this word.
So, what we have here is a word for “love”, plus a word for “stranger”. φιλόξενος is the exact opposite of xenophobia– it is the practice of showing love to strangers.
I think it’s interesting that this word is made by combining “stranger” with a form of φιλία– a very deliberate and personal type of love– rather than a form of ἀγάπη, which is an indiscriminate and unconditional love, like the love God has for all of humanity.
You’d think a word for how we’re supposed to treat strangers– people we don’t know– would use a word that means “I love you because I love humanity as a whole, and you’re a human.”
But it doesn’t.
It uses a word that means “I love you because you’re you, and you, specifically, as an individual, are precious to me.”
What does that say about how we are supposed to treat strangers, then? How are we supposed to love them?
Take a moment and think about this: what is something that’s special about each of the people you love?
When I hear this question, so many things come to mind. I think of April’s near-infinite creativity and her gift for listening. I think of Dan’s sense of humor and his masterful storytelling. I think of Heather and her incredible grace and courage. I think of how Cynthia never gives too much advice– she just guides you toward the answers that you had inside of you the whole time. I think of Megan’s gift for teaching. This list could go on ad infinitum because I know a whole bunch of amazing people.
Who came to mind for you?
Now think about this: Every person on this earth has a list of things that are special about them. Every person who has ever lived has borne God’s image, and been known to and loved by Him.
Remember that each person you meet is God’s child, and they were designed by God. There are just as many things that make that person special as there are about your husband or wife, your son or daughter, or your best friend. Even total strangers.
In her book, An Altar in the World, The Rev. Barbara Brown Taylor– the Episcopal priest who also wrote Learning to Walk in the Dark— suggests noticing strangers as a way of practicing mindfulness. She talks about taking time to notice– really notice– every single person you encounter, even if they’re just passing you on the street or standing in front of you in line at the store.
The author of Hebrews takes it even further than that– mentioning not just strangers, but those who might make us feel xenophobic or afraid– he specifically mentions prisoners! We are told to remember them as though we were there with them– as though we were all incarcerated felons too, which means we have no reason to think we occupy any kind of moral high ground.
(We don’t, by the way– the “moral high ground” is an illusion. The reading from Sirach had some strong words about pride–words we’d all do well to heed, lest we get the idea that we’re better than anyone. The Gospel text from Luke’s Gospel also has something to say about getting up on our high horse and assuming we’re better or more important than someone else.)
And the bit about torture– whom does our government torture? Terrorists, right? Or at least, people we think might be terrorists. We’re supposed to love them, too, as though we were in their position. Remember, every murderer and terrorist and school shooter and anyone else who has done any awful thing you can think of– they’re God’s beloved children too. They’re also the strangers to whom we’re supposed to show love.
And, as I mentioned before: the word ξένος can be translated not only as “stranger”, but also “foreigner”. Some translations use the word “alien”– in the terrestrial sense, of course– which is a familiar term to anyone who watches the news, often leveled at those whom we might not think have a right to be in our midst.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks once said, and I’m paraphrasing, that the most supreme form of love is to see the image of God in those in whom we do not see our own image.
Take a moment to really see every face of everyone whom you encounter, and silently bless them, thinking to yourself about each person as you pass them: “Thanks be to God for you, and for all the things He loves about you. May God bless and keep you today.”
Whomever God places in your path– whether you would label them as a stranger, a foreigner, a villain, or “the other”– show love to them, the text says.
Love them like there’s a whole list of amazing things about them, because there is.
Love them like they, specifically, individually, mean the world to you.
For by so doing, many have entertained angels unawares.