To welcome the stranger is to welcome Christ. Believer or nonbeliever, attractive or unattractive, admirable or disreputable, upstanding or vile—the stranger is marked by the image of God. Therefore, we are called to love. The Greek word for hospitality in the New Testament makes this perfectly clear. It is the word philoxenia, which is a combination of two words: love (phileo) and the word for stranger (xenos). It literally means “love of stranger.”
Loving the stranger was a vital element in the life of the early church. There are numerous passages that speak to the importance of hospitality. Just a few include:
Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers. Romans 12:12-13, NRSV
Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it. Hebrews 13:2
The overseer is to be above reproach, faithful to his wife, temperate, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach. 1 Timothy 3:2
Offer hospitality to one another without grumbling. 1 Peter 4:9
There is another aspect of hospitality that is important to note. It is not just for the benefit of the other. There is also something extraordinary that is gained when we receive the stranger.
When you give a dinner or a banquet, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, lest they also invite you in return and you be repaid. But when you give a feast, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you.
Luke 14:12-14, ESV
The practice of biblical hospitality is unique because it reaches out to those who cannot reciprocate. In most cases when we invite friends into our homes for dinner, there is an expectation that they will return the “favor” and have us into their home. But the point of this passage is that customary “pay back” hospitality is of no great merit to God. The very best hospitality is that which is bestowed, not exchanged.
The Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas said the only thing that really converts people at a deep level is seeing “the face of the other.” Welcoming and empathizing with the other leads to transformation of the whole person. This interchange is prepared to transform both persons—the seer and the seen. In a sense, we need the stranger for our own conversion from our individualism, self-centeredness, and our tendencies towards self-preservation and exclusion.
Being included is really at the core of biblical hospitality. If we had to take all of this talk about loving strangers and welcoming people into our lives and homes, and boil it all down into one word, it would be the word inclusion. As followers of Jesus we are called to be radically inclusive people. We should be quick to include others into our lives.