We know that our love should extend to those whom we may call “strangers.” These are what Scripture means by “neighbors,” and there are some good, biblical ways in which we can draw them into fellowship through hospitality.
The ancient culture within which the Bible was written valued offering food and lodging to travelers. There were no hotels and restaurants such as we have everywhere today. If you were traveling, you had three choices. You could simply set up camp wherever you were in the evening and eat and sleep in the open. The safety of this practice varied rather drastically from region to region. You could ask for shelter from any house you passed, and they were very unlikely to turn you away. Again, you might or might not be safe. This is why people traveled in caravans or large groups. The third, and by far best, choice was to have family or friends on your way wherever you were going. If someone saw a person or family or group traveling, they were to offer them food and shelter. In Genesis 18:4 Abraham offered food to travelers passing by. In Genesis 19:7 Lot offered lodging to two angels. In Judges 19:20 an old prophet offered lodging to two travelers.
The book of Hebrews reminds us that when Abraham entertained those passing strangers, he actually entertained angels. “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by this some have entertained angels without knowing it” (Heb. 13:2).1 In spite of the value placed on hospitality, over the centuries many interpretations were placed on the laws of Moses to protect believers from breaking the smallest part of the law. These regulations served to separate believers from any outsider. An upstanding Jew in the time of Christ would not have considered eating with others whom they perceived as not on their spiritual level for fear of contaminating their holiness.
When Jesus came along, He made a practice of eating with “publicans and sinners.” (See Matthew 9:9-13.) Choosing to change those aspects of His culture which were in opposition to God’s wishes for His people, Jesus opened Himself to others who were different, to those who needed what He had to offer, whether that was physical healing, food, friendship, or new ways of thinking. He made it clear that He expects the same kind of compassionate hospitality from His followers. “ ‘Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did it to one of these brothers of Mine, even the least of them, you did it to Me’ ” (Matt. 25:40).
We usually think of following Jesus’ example as doing what He would do—acting as He would act. And that’s valid. But in this story what He actually says is that when we meet people’s needs, it is as if we have offered our service to Jesus Himself. We talk to God through prayer. We praise God through song. We learn about God through reading the Bible. But to give to God, we must give to our fellow human beings.
Romans 12 lists attitudes toward others that are part of hospitality and that support hospitality. “Contributing to the needs of the saints, practicing hospitality. Bless those who persecute you; bless and curse not. Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep. Be of the same mind toward one another; do not be haughty in mind, but associate with the lowly. Do not be wise in your own estimation” (vv. 13-16). You won’t see a single word in this passage about parties or cleaning house or choices in entertainment. Yet this is what biblical hospitality is all about.2