30 Aug Sermon: Trinity 11/Proper 17, Year C
28th August, 2022
‘Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing so some have entertained angels without knowing it’.
In the ancient world hospitality occupied a much more central place in people’s lives than it does in contemporary Western culture. At a time when there was no such thing as the ‘hospitality industry’ an oxymoron which I’m sure would have baffled the ancients – the practice and receipt of hospitality wasn’t only a necessity, it was the glue that bound societies together: socially, politically and economically.
The word translated in Hebrews as ‘hospitality to strangers’ is philoxenia, literally ‘love of strangers’. Hospitality to strangers was held up as a moral obligation for both Gentiles and Jews; an obligation underpinned, as all ethical injunctions were, by the gods. One of the epithets for Zeus was Zeus Xenos, the protector and avenger of strangers. And if that wasn’t enough to put the fear of God into your welcome, there was always the potential for the gods themselves to appear at your door in the disguise of travellers.
The cautionary myth of Baucis and Philemon, an elderly couple who unwittingly host Jupiter and Mercury, both of them were disguised as beggars – is a lovely example of this. It’s a trope that can also be found in biblical literature. The obvious example is Abraham’s encounter with the angels in Genesis 18. That’s now viewed through a Trinitarian lens, but in its original form would have been an object lesson in hospitality.
But philoxenia was about more than kindness to strangers. It was a cultural institution; a highly ritualised form of guest-friendship, each stage of which was carefully choreographed. It occupied a central place in a world held together by an intense network of reciprocal gift-giving.
If you were a guest today, then you could be called upon to be a gracious host tomorrow. While giving a warm welcome to strangers was something still enjoined in theory, philoxenia tended to take place between people of roughly equal social status, partly as a way of displaying and negotiating their place within society. Lavish dinner parties held to curry the favour of your patron were far removed from the humble, indiscriminate hospitality offered by dear old Baucis and Philemon.
It is this culture which Jesus directly addresses in today’s gospel: ‘when you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbours, in case they invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind’. Their qualification as guests, and the substance of your blessing as a host, was precisely the lack of reciprocity.
By the time the Roman Empire had run its course the ideal of Christian charity had brought about something of a revolution in the social imagination of its citizens. And like the pagan exemplars, this too had a divine mandate. More than that, it was seen as an expression of the very nature of God himself.
Relationships in the topsy-turvy kingdom of God, where one returned good for evil, were anything but reciprocal. Its economics – paying the last first, and paying all equally – were foolish. And frustrating. God of Jesus was a God who gave freely and without limit to those who did not deserve it; and who demanded nothing in return except to go out and do the same.
Over the last fifteen hundred years or so, monasteries, perhaps more than anywhere else, have managed to preserve something of this gracious, unconditional hospitality of God in its less diluted form.
Where else can a complete stranger be welcomed as a guest for several nights without charge? The only other places I can think of, at least in this country, are hospitals, hospices and (some) homeless hostels. All of which are rooted in the Christian re-definition of what it means to be a host.
I know from experience that for many of our guests the idea that we offer hospitality without expectation of repayment can be both unfamiliar and discomforting. After all, our minds have been shaped – I might say distorted – by the forces of capitalism, which some have called the dominant belief system of our age.
So we don’t charge our guests, but we do invite donations. The current suggested donation is £50 a night. Interestingly it was at the request of guests themselves that we offered this guideline. Yet I’ve lost track of how many people have said to me ‘I’d like to come again but I can’t afford it’ or ‘I’m sorry I can’t give you what you’ve asked for’ or ‘I know you say its donation-based, but lets be honest…’.
The request for a guideline, the barrier it forms for some people, and the shame it generates in others, belongs in the end to the same way of thinking, which might be summarised as: everything must have a price. But it is characteristic of the best monastic tradition to challenge & undermine this, and it’s something we need to safeguard more than ever as the number of religious houses diminish and more and more are running their guesthouses as commercial enterprises, charging their guests at market rates.
It is very easy, I know, to drift into conforming with the world around us. How often do we make decisions in the monastery based on a deliberate, prayerful engagement with our tradition? All too often we are swayed by efficiency, convenience and pragmatism – which are among the cardinal virtues of capitalism – when what we’re called to is a radical, counter-cultural way of life that points to a kingdom not of this world, though very much within it. And it can be made manifest in the smallest and most insignificant of arrangements and gestures. In fact, in the last analysis, that may be the only way it can manifest itself.
A few years ago the guy who designed our website made a visit to the monastery and was really struck by the fact we didn’t have anyone keeping watch over the shop; that we trusted people to pay for what they took. ‘Wow’ he said, ‘that’s really rather beautiful’. No one preached Jesus at him. He just saw how we ran the shop.
My long-held wish for the guesthouse is that we experiment for a season without a suggested donation. I’m sure it will meet with resistance, not least among some of our guests. But as someone recently put it: we can’t be prophetic, we can’t shatter idols, if we ourselves are nothing but celibate mirrors of the status quo, helping to legitimise the absence of the divine in our world.
Image: JESUS MAFA. The poor invited to the feast, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. https://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=48397 [retrieved August 30, 2022]. Original source: http://www.librairie-emmanuel.fr (contact page: https://www.librairie-emmanuel.fr/contact).