By Pastor Glenn Pease
Earl M. Finch became one of the most popular bachelors in Hawaii because he had the gift of hospitality. It all started in Hattiesberg, Mississippi when he saw a Japanese soldier reading the menu on the window of a drugstore. He felt the impulse to go over to the G I and say, "Are you hungry son?" "You bet," came the reply. He started talking to the soldier and discovered that there were a number of Japanese soldiers in nearby Camp Shelly, but they were not welcome anywhere in town because they were Japanese.
Earl said, "How would you like to bring a couple of your buddies to my place for supper tomorrow." He said, "Yes," and the next day when Earl got home from work he found flowers. The soldiers were so grateful for his hospitality even before they experienced it that they said thanks by means of flowers. Soon Earl had 100 Japanese soldiers over for a barbecue, and he became so popular that he rented a store downtown and turned it into a club for them. As they sailed off to war he began to write letters to them. New soldiers came and he wrote letters to them. In all he wrote 15 thousand letters. Earl kept getting letters back from them, and as they married and had children he got letters saying they named their son Earl in his honor. We are not talking about one or two, or even 5 or 6, but 15 hundred babies were named Earl because of this man's hospitality.
When the war ended a large number of the soldiers went home to Hawaii. They got together and invited Earl to come and visit them. When he arrived the band began to play, and there was a big parade to a park where 5000 Japanese gave Earl Finch a barbecue. The governor and mayor were there, and one by one the mother's brought their babies for Earl to see. Earl was one of the most popular names in Hawaii because of this man. He never married, but he felt like the biggest granddaddy on earth. He moved to Hawaii where he enjoyed the hospitality that was a reaping of the hospitality he had shown.
This true story is an historical illustration of the power of hospitality to determine one's destiny. Jesus taught this very thing in Matt. 25 where He said, "I was a stranger and you invited me in, and the righteous ask, when did we see you a stranger and invite you in?" Jesus replies, "Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me." They were welcomed into the kingdom God had prepared for them because they were hospitable to strangers. The Greek work for hospitality means love of strangers.
Why was Jesus so concerned that we have a love for strangers? It was because Jesus came into this world as a stranger, and he knows what it is like to be rejected. He came unto His own and His own received Him not. There was no room in the inn at His birth, but this was a problem easily overcome and the stable was a satisfactory substitute. But when you find no room in people's heart and lives for you, there is no substitute. Jesus was not even welcome in His hometown of Nazareth. It was one of His greatest sorrows in life to experience a lack of hospitality in prejudice people. Jesus knew the burden of being alone and being a stranger that is unwelcome. That is why Jesus loved to tell the parable of the Good Samaritan, for it is the story of hospitality in action. The love of and care of a stranger in need is what it is all about.
Paul portrays the whole outreach of the Gospel to the Gentile world as a ministry of heaven's hospitality. Paul says in Eph. 2:12 that the Gentiles were separate from Christ, excluded from the citizenship of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world. But he goes on to say that they were by Christ brought near through His blood and made one so that they are no longer strangers and aliens, but members of the household of God.
They were strangers, but God took them in, and by His loving hospitality made them His own, and adopted them as His children. Hospitality in the heart of God is the heart of our salvation. Jesus expects that we will respond in kind and be hospitable. He says in Rev. 3:10, "Behold I stand at the door and knock. If any man hears my voice and opens the door I will come in and eat with him and he with me." Salvation begins with a hospitable heart that invites Christ in. Jesus has no greater joy than that of being invited into our lives in a spirit of hospitality. His next greatest joy is when we express hospitality to others. In Heb. 13:2 we are reminded, "Do not forget to entertain strangers, for by so doing some people have entertained angels without knowing it."
We never know who it is we may be blessing by our hospitality, but the one we know we will always please is our Lord. He is pleased when we are hospitable because that is a form of service, and the servant is the highest class in His kingdom. Jesus in our text makes a special point of urging His followers to go out of their way to show hospitality to the stranger. He urges us not to invite those in who can invite you back, but to focus on the poor and those who cannot repay you. This is a troubling passage to read, for it seems to go against the grain of our nature. It is not a popular text for preaching. I have indexed many thousands of sermons and found only a couple who have preached on this passage.
Part of the problem with this text is that it is so easy to misunderstand. It could be taken to mean that Jesus is opposed to family fellowship and friends and relatives getting together to share in a meal. We know this is just a part of life to have friends and relatives over for all the major holidays, and all of the special occasions in life. It is so much a part of life that we don't want to hear anything that even suggests that this is not important.
It is obvious that Jesus was not saying anything against this universal custom. He loved it Himself and it was a part of His heritage. The Jews were famous for their family feasting. Jesus treasured the time He could get away to the home of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus. He loved the hospitality of family and friends, and He would not want to convey the idea that we ought not to cultivate the relationships of our friends and relatives by means of hospitality. Jesus would not condone the spirit of Richard Armor's poem called Relationally Speaking, even though he would, no doubt, chuckle at it because it contains a grain of truth. Richard Armor writes,
I've relatives living near me,
I've others who live afar.
I've relatives I'm at peace with
And others with whom I war.
I've relatives who are wealthy
And some who are very poor.
There are those who are fairly decent
And others I can't endure.
Two kinds of relatives please me,
But few of either I've known:
The kind who leave me money
And the kind who leave me alone.
Jesus is not supporting this put down of relatives. He is simply saying that when we use hospitality exclusively for the purpose of entertaining friends and relatives we are limiting this gift for service and relationship building to the natural level. In other words, even the world does this. The most ungodly people on the planet have their relatives and friends over, and there is probably a pagan or atheist alive who has not had the virtue of hospitality on this level. The Christian is to learn how to use all of life's natural gifts and virtues in such a way as to go beyond the natural man and be a blessing to the world. This is not to say that hospitality is not Christian when it only serves those within the kingdom of God. We are to do good to all men, but especially to those of the household of faith. Hospitality to those in Christ is a very precious virtue.
In 3rd John the Apostle writes to his dear friend Gaius, and says in verse 5, "Dear Friend, you are faithful in what you are doing for the brothers, even though they are strangers to you." He gained a reputation of helping travelling Christians get their task done by providing for them. John adds in verse 8, "We ought to show hospitality to such men so that we may work together for the truth." It is a wonderful ministry to show hospitality to those within the Christian family.
The Bible no where hints that the natural virtue of hospitality is not among the highest of values. It is very good, but Jesus is challenging the Christian to go beyond the natural, and to go beyond eros love, which all normal people have, and phile love, which all normal people have, and on to agape love, which is above the normal and exercised only by those who are open to be used as channels of God's love in the world. All love is good, but most love is self-pleasing love, but agape is self-giving love. It is not natural to invite strangers to your home for dinner. That is why the vast majority never do it. We are just normal and natural as anybody else. It is abnormal to so love the poor, helpless, and forgotten people to the point of doing anything with them socially. The idea of fixing a nice meal for people we don't even know is completely foreign to us.
But this is the point of Jesus. You haven't experienced the full joy of hospitality until you take it beyond the natural level and give yourself to entertain those who cannot be of any value to you. That is Christ's way of pointing out that most of the natural virtues of life are based on selfishness. We do good things because when we do we get good things done for us. I scratch your back and you scratch mine. I have you over for dinner, and then get my free one when you have me back. It is not evil, it is just life as it is. But the abundant life in Christ is to go beyond this and do things that are really acts of love with no catch. Humanistic love always needs a payoff but heavenly love is free grace. The grace of God does not need to be repaid. It is unconditional favor. We do not have to spend all eternity paying for our salvation. It is a free gift of infinite worth, and we will be praising God for it forever, but we don't have to pay for it.
Jesus is saying to go and do likewise in the world. Do acts of love and kindness out of grace just because you love people and desire to be part of the answer to life's problems. Just have people over or take them out, and don't expect anything in return. Your greatest reward will be that it pleases God, and what pleases Him has eternal reward.
What a challenge for us as Christians to rise above the natural level. If Jesus is truly present in our home, and we are conscious of His presence, one of the things that will happen is that we will want to use our home and other resources as means of hospitality on the highest level. That is only possible when we are able to love those who can give us nothing in return. Let's face it, a challenge like this makes most of us feel like babes in Christ and not mature disciples. We live primarily on the natural level, and when it comes to an issue like this we are basically carnal Christians.
I confess it myself that the few times we have had total strangers in our home for a meal it was not very pleasant, and we were not encouraged to repeat the experience. But you see, I am looking for pleasantness, good results, and fruit, and all of things that make it rewarding, and all of the things that make hospitality enjoyable. I expect some sort of pay off, which is the very thing Jesus says makes my hospitality only natural and on the level of the carnal man. Jesus is saying that as long as we are looking for a present payoff we are operating on the level of the natural man. Only when we choose to show hospitality regardless of the payoff have we risen to the level of agape.
It is so hard for us to follow Jesus to this level of love because we are conditioned by philosophy of success that says if it doesn't pay forget it, and we do just that. No matter how right and good something is, if it doesn't pay off we drop it. That just seems like common sense, but because we follow common sense, which is the level of thinking common to all natural men, we do not rise above the common man.
Jesus calls us to do good things just because they are good and loving things to do whether they pay off or not. Do them just because they ought to be done and God is pleased when they are done. Show hospitality to those who do not deserve it, and who will never be able to respond in kind, just because it is a act of grace. God's grace to us is new every morning, but there is little grace between men that is freely shown for no other reason than the desire to be loving. It is so rare because we resist it. We have a host of objections to this idea of being a host to strangers, or to people outside our class, or to those who will never become our social friends.
One of the strongest objections to this call to heaven-like hospitality is that we are not all made alike, and some people just do not like company. They are loners and creatures in love with solitude. They are shy and awkward even around friends, let alone strangers. John Greenleaf Whittier, the great poet, did not like society, and he had to be tricked into not slipping away when house guests were to arrive. Ralph Waldo Emerson was the same, and he justified it by saying, "What God hath put asunder why should man join together?"
There are many Christians who feel the same. They are just not gifted with a personality that enjoys hospitality. I think it is important for us to recognize individual differences and realize that not all Christians will be able to be equal in their obedience on this point. Jesus was speaking to one who was having a dinner party, and He was letting him know how to be more effective as a channel of God's love and grace. We can't assume that Jesus meant this to be applied by people who have even a hard time enjoying a social event with people they know.
I think the important thing for us to focus on is not all the reasonable and legitimate excuses for not practicing what Jesus is saying, but rather to focus on the principle of grace and areas of life where we can apply the principle in our lives. The principle of grace is that of the higher reaching down to lift and encourage the lower. It is the Gospel of God's plan of salvation applied on the human level. It is the imitation of Christ by being Christ to someone who needs it.
This leads us to make an important distinction between humanistic and heaven-like hospitality. The humanistic is good, but it is all on the natural level. It deals with all forms of relief and welfare. Christians should be involved on this level, for this is a minimum level of compassion. But heaven-like hospitality offers to needy people the luxury of being accepted. You do not need to accept anybody by sending them food and clothing. It can be done even as a put down to make them feel inferior. But heaven-like hospitality implies acceptance. If you eat with a person you are doing something far different than if you give them something to eat. Sadler writes, "Partaking of food in common has, by the absolutely universal consent of mankind, been esteemed a very different thing to a mere gift of food."
The gift of food is an acceptance of your responsibility to care about the needs of others. The gift of your hospitality is an acceptance of the person with the needs. Both are good and necessary, but the second is the higher calling to which Jesus is calling. Someone said, "People don't care how much you know until they know how much you care." Jesus is challenging us to be involved in the ministry of accepting those who have every reason for loss of self-esteem and non-acceptance of themselves.
Low self-esteem seems to be one of the primary effects of the fall. It is a key factor in almost every deficient life-style you can imagine. Why are people alcoholics? It is low self-esteem. The same is true for why people are prostitutes, why they commit suicide, why they become drug addicts, and why they become criminals. We could go on and on, but we can wrap it up with this statement: Why do people do all the sinful and foolish things they do that are so destructive to themselves and others? The answer is almost always found in low self-esteem.
Loving people is, in essence, lifting their level of self-esteem. Giving them things may have no effect on this whatever, and could even push them lower. The most effective way to lift any persons self-esteem is by acceptance. Heaven-like hospitality is one of the most powerful ways there is to give this luxury of acceptance. A Scottish proverb says, "Welcome is the best dish in the kitchen." But its the principle that counts. If you can find other ways more consistent with your personality to convey acceptance, then by all means do it. A Persian proverb says, "Kiss not thine own child if an orphan is standing by." That is being sensitive to the feelings of others. But heavenly hospitality would not be content with mere refraining, but would give the orphan the kiss of acceptance.
The early church took this concept of hospitality and developed the hospital where the sick could be cared for in Christian love. And also the hospice which met the needs of strangers travelling, much like modern hotels and motels. Chrysostom, the golden mouth preacher, between 400 and 402 A. D. built several hospitals, and Jerome founded the first orphanage in Jerusalem. St. Augustine founded a hospital in his own home, and the monasteries became hospitals and hotels, and also nursing homes as well as shelters for orphans, cripples and the destitute. St. Bernard's great monastery became famous for its brave men and dogs who rescued thousands of people from certain death in the mountain passes of France.
There are numerous ways we can apply the principle of grace, but none is so powerful as heaven-like hospitality. It is so much more personal than Christian institutions. Asking someone into your home says something you cannot say in any other way. Arthur Guiterman wrote,
Hail Guest! We ask not what thou art;
If friend, we greet thee, hand and heart.
If stranger, such no longer be.
If foe, our love shall conquer thee.
May God help us to choose the higher way and by hospitality or some other means convey to strangers the love and grace of God which offers them acceptance.