In her book, And You Welcomed Me: A Sourcebook on Hospitality in Early Christianity, Amy Oden expands our understanding of hospitality to ethical and spiritual realms. Much like the work of Emmanuel Lévinas and Martin Buber, Oden notes that acting humanely extends beyond offers of beverage, food, and entertainment. Respect is the precondition for such offerings. My mother used to say, “If you can’t do it out of love, don’t do it at all.” We are reminded of Martin Luther’s insistence that proper faith must ground all proper action or no value and goodness is achieved. To respect another involves, according to Oden, as well as Lévinas and Buber, a “recasting of social relations” in order to “reframe social relations and engender welcome” (14). Oden turns to the early Christians to guide us toward a moral awareness of and commitment to hospitality: “Early Christian voices tell us again and again that whether we are guest or host we must be ready, ready to welcome, ready to enter another’s world, ready to be vulnerable. This readiness is expectant. It may be akin to moral nerve. It exudes trust, not so much that one will succeed in some measurable way, but that participation in hospitality and its consequences. At the same time, the readiness that opens into hospitality also leads to repentance” (15). This readiness can be painful because it requires hosts to authentically reconsider initial perspectives of both guests and hosts themselves. Oden calls this a “de-centering of perspective,” which results in both parties discovering “something new, approaching the edge of the unfamiliar and crossing” (15). In such cases, hosts focus on their guests, not themselves. Oden reflects, that although one may be entertaining at home, one longer feels “at home.” She cautions, “When we realize how we have inflated our own frame of reference and imposed it on all of reality, we know we have committed the sin of idolatry, of taking our own particular part and making it the whole.” Let’s stop here, leaving the early Christians behind for a moment, and personalize Oden’s premises.
I am trying to recall if I have ever hosted a gathering in which I privileged my readiness for (or is toward) my guests over my perspective—or, more honestly, over my ego. In the spirit of Augustine’s Confessions (which I’m teaching this week), I’ll illustrate. Thinking back…I was probably more concerned about the wow factor of serving hot homemade eggrolls (who does that) than the annoyance factor of high oil odor permeating the house for several days. I was probably more concerned about the wow factor of serving a chicken liver terrine than the likelihood that university students would rather have cheese dip. I was definitely more concerned with the wow factor of concocting one complicated dish after the next than releasing myself from the kitchen to take care of my guests.
Shame on me for forgetting what the ancient Greeks knew: being a host extends beyond personal ego and even beyond personal virtue to the realm of the gods. We know that as wayfarers, the Greeks relied on Zeus’ protection when visiting and being visited. They never knew if the knock on the door signaled a “theoxenia,” a divine visitation (18). I teach thexenios code in my first semester classes. This code required Greek hosts to welcome strangers, offering them food, drink, shelter, entertainment, and ablutions—without any assurance that the stranger was important or able to reciprocate. So too, the Hebrews valued hospitality. Oden recalls when Abraham welcomes strangers at Mamre, Rahab welcomes spies, and when Zarephath’s widow welcomes the prophet (17). The Romans also prized a moral sense of hospitality related to the gods. Even Ovid’s Metamorphosestakes a break in its serial stories of the gods’ raping and rampaging to inspire readers with the Roman duty of hospitality with its Philemon and Baucis story. Beyond narrative, the Roman legislated hospitality with their “jus hospitii, or law of hospitality,” which distinguished seven different hospitality relationships (18).
Adopting such a Greek, Hebrew, and Roman ethical stance toward hospitality, Oden warns that “[t]he success of hospitality, however, does not depend on end results. Rather, the success of hospitality is measured by the degree to which one offers one’s genuine presence with another, to fully enter another’s world and dwell with another” (109). We have returned full cycle.
So take a risk and nix your ego, all you fellow hosts. Embrace your guests, not just with a friendly Sedaris “I Like You” reception but with “zeal and full of life, with readiness” (Oden 117) Treat your guests like Philemon and Baucis did, offering more than what you can afford to give, not just of your resources but of yourself. Let go of preconceptions about your guests and yourself. Afford your guests the hospitality to feel “at home” but not yourself. You, as host, should be off balance—not sure of yourself, not attending to yourself, and ultimately, not aware of yourself. With readiness, embrace hospitality morality.
Oden, Amy G., Ed. And You Welcomed Me: A Sourcebook on Hospitality in Early Christianity. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2001.