Thanks to my parents, the home of my childhood was such a welcoming place that people who came to visit often entered without knocking or ringing the bell. My parents still are hospitable people, generous with their food, long dinner table, and extra bedrooms, regardless of how well they know the people who need these things. They’ve fed friends of friends, housed missionaries and others passing through town, and shared Christmas with people they’ve never met.
I, on the other hand, am one of those people who almost never entertains and thinks engraved invitations, guest lists, and background checks are a great idea.
In the culture of the Ancient Near East—the culture of the Old Testament—hospitality toward strangers was so highly valued that withholding it from anyone was cause for shame and dishonor. Not only that, but the host was held responsible for any harm that came to guests in his home. To withhold food, shelter, and protection from anyone who asked for it was to be complicit in their suffering. Hospitality was a matter of life and death. These are strange thoughts for most Westerners, who generally place a higher value on protecting the fruits of our hard work.
Hebrews 13:1-2 suggests that in Jesus’ day, the Ancient Near Eastern culture was already starting to shift: “Keep on loving one another as brothers and sisters. Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it.” This verse is usually quoted with a kind of facetious tone: Be nice to strangers, or else you might offend an angel. Watch your step, because they can call down brimstone on your house.
Lately I’ve started to wonder if that interpretation is right. For starters, I don’t think there’s a biblical precedent for it. But also, why would angels need human hospitality? And why would angels hide their supernatural identity?
Maybe a better interpretation of Hebrews 13:2 would go something like this: Be generous toward strangers, because that’s what love looks like. Also, some of them have gifts they want to give you. For example:
- In Genesis 18, the angels brought the promise of a son (Isaac) to Abraham and Sarah.
- In Genesis 19, the angels rescued Lot and his daughters from the destruction of Sodom.
- In Judges 6, the angel promised Gideon victory over the Israelites’ enemy.
- In Judges 13, the angel brought to Manoah and his wife the promise of a son (Samson).
Here’s what makes it tricky for me to be generous toward strangers with my resources: Forget thinking of them as angels. Most days I have trouble remembering that they are my human brothers and sisters.
The truth is, I need to practice seeing strangers in two different ways, physically and spiritually. First, as my human siblings. If I have something they need, and I’m aware of that need, I should try to meet it. Yes, some of our fellow humans are troubled, dangerous—I’m not calling anyone to put themselves in harm’s way. (Though maybe God himself might call you to that!) I’m only asking: what might change in this world if I could look at such people and wonder what makes us alike? What if I saw them with love instead of fear?
Second, as potential angels. Beings who are greater than I am, spiritually higher than I am. Because the Bible says they’re not always immediately recognizable, and though I don’t know why, I believe it.
I’m not good at this. Whenever a solicitor comes to my door and rings the doorbell that’s right next to the “no soliciting” sign, I don’t usually think Here is my brother who might be an angel. I think other, nastier things.
But I am practicing. I am learning how to think, Here is my brother, putting his hand to making a living. I can give him the respect of courteous attention. And it doesn’t hurt to picture him standing there with angel wings. At the very least, it defuses my annoyance and replaces it with an attitude better suited for the encounter.
How do you see strangers?
Photo by Chris Zieleki