What Price Hospitality?

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2014-06-29 by Jeremy Clarke

Preacher: Geoff Thorington-Hassell
29th June 2014
Reading: Matthew 10:40-42

Matthew 10:40-42

40 “Anyone who welcomes you welcomes me, and anyone who welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.
41 Whoever welcomes a prophet as a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward, and whoever welcomes a righteous person as a righteous person will receive a righteous person’s reward.
42 And if anyone gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones who is my disciple, truly I tell you, that person will certainly not lose their reward.”

We have the Old French to thank for the English word hospitality – the friendly and generous reception of guests or strangers – or new ideas. The online version of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) added the further helpful insight as “relating or denoting the business of entertaining clients, conference delegates and other officials.” And what a business it is! According to Allegra Strategies, “eating out has become the new normal” – out of home dining from coffee shops to Michelin starred restaurants will grow to £90 billion in 2018 from £80 billion in 2013. Nineteen million adults now eat out in the UK.

The events industry is worth £60 billion – all those conferences and expense account lunches and corporate entertainment (mostly in London) . Tourism is worth £127 billion – 9% of GDP. The NHS as Britain’s largest employer with 1.4 million people has a budget worth just £97 billion. A recent church report on Food Poverty in the UK estimated that 0.5 million people are currently reliant on food aid.

We also like to reward ourselves, or be rewarded. The Office For National Statistics tells us that the total bonus payments received across the economy in 2014 was £37 billion of which £13 billion was limited to the finance and insurance industry alone. It is this sector which is the highest rewarded per employee followed by mining and quarrying a long second, and then information and communication.

According to the BBC in April there were 1.4 million people on zero hours contracts.

For a few minutes this afternoon we are going to think about what Jesus taught about hospitality – or one aspect of it at least – as it is a complex, sometimes controversial and tricky area – and also to think about one aspect around the issue of rewards.

It is through the filter of hospitality particularly and our attitudes to it and why, that perhaps Jesus teaches the way he does to inform our practice and example. Yet it is safe to say that however you approach this, it is not a business.

These few verses are at the end of teachings linked to the sending out of the twelve to announce the kingdom of heaven in line with a demanding job description – to heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse those who had leprosy, drive out demons. They are in a sense more than simply ambassadors or delegates or officials representing on behalf of the King, but they also carry the delegated power and presence of the new reality of a change of government by demonstrating that there is indeed a new sheriff in town and this is what his rule and authority looks like.

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me
Because he has anointed me
To preach good news to the poor
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
And recovery of sight for the blind
To release the oppressed
To proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.”

This is what the rule and authority of the Kingdom that is breaking in looks like.

The benefits of this, however, are not linked to a bonus culture because they are freely given. “Freely you have received, freely give.” Indeed, unlike most ambassadors they are to be reliant on the charity of others, but this itself is based on trust and faith in God’s provision and that indeed God will provide – which in today’s world would seem hopelessly romantic and naïve. Yet in addition to this, and in spite of such evidence or activity of the benefits of the kingdom, the message to the “lost sheep of Israel” (v6) was going to be very poorly received. A welcome wasn’t guaranteed and therefore to change the metaphor Jesus says, “I am sending you out as sheep to these lost sheep of Israel who have now become likened to ravenous wolves. There are roles, risks and opportunities but it will not be easy – and don’t expect it to be – so (v16) “therefore be as shrewd as snakes and innocent as doves.”

This was a specific incident – also recorded in Mark 6:7-12 and Luke 9:1-6, later repeated on a larger scale with seventy two (Luke 10:1-24) sent out. This is not the whole of the story. Although there was a provision against connecting with the Gentiles and the Samaritans we know from the rest of this Gospel and the other Gospels that Jesus did indeed connect with Gentiles and also with Samaritans even before telling his disciples in Matthew 28:19 to “go and make disciples of all nations.” Indeed at the faith of the Gentile centurion a few chapters earlier, Jesus is amazed by his faith (8:10 “ I have not found anyone in Israel with such great faith.” Jesus went on to remark “that many will come from the East and the West and will take their places at the feast with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the Kingdom of heaven. But the subjects of the Kingdom will be thrown outside.”

For as John reminds us in the beginning of his Gospel (1; 11),he came to that which was his own but his own did not receive him.” Yet it was not all bad news as he goes on (v12), “yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name he gave the right to become children of God.” So as God’s original covenant people they had the first bite of the cherry, but it was always intended to go beyond the people of Israel and the universal nature of the Gospel is one of Matthews great themes. It is in the subsequent verses (from v17) that a number of teachings are included that speak and inform both within and beyond this particular expedition. But even before that (in v11-13) the principle “whatever town or village you enter, search for some worthy person there and stay at his house till you leave. As you enter the home give it your greeting. If the home is deserving, let your peace rest on it, it if not let your peace return to you” is a pointer to later stories in Acts to be open if someone is open to you to accommodate you, who are at least open to the message and the messenger, even if not (yet) necessarily committed to the cause.

Now this is a Middle Eastern culture we are talking about here, where there is an expectation of free hospitality where the guest – a complete stranger – has an unquestioned right to provision and protection. We see this in Genesis 1:1-8 with three guests appearing out of nowhere, unannounced needing to be fed, while Abraham was staying near the great trees of Mamre. We see this again in Judges 19:15-54 where the old fieldworker in Gibeah offered hospitality for the night to the Levite where others in the town had ignored their duty – which did not prevent a most dreadful incident of hospitality abuse that led to a vicious and destructive civil war. While this this sense of obligation to stranger is not the norm in the West, other Abrahamic faiths still retain it. So for instance in Islam there is an expectation and duty which informs the unwritten code of the fierce Pashtun people of Afghanistan where Melmestia requires showing hospitality without any hope of remuneration or favour and profound respect to all visitors, regardless of race, religion, national affiliation or economic status. In theory anyway.

Yet Mennonites, amongst others including the old monastic houses, have picked this up. The “Mennonite Your Way” has around 1700 hosts in 60 countries that can offer space for travellers to share fellowship and travel more economically on a donation basis (which could just include a jar of jam) while the Dutch and North German Mennonite groups have a practice of offering a light lunch (a Vaspe) of Zwebach bread for friends and visitors.

Yet this passage is in the context of a missionary movement that is growing, expanding, extending rather then settled, comfortable and secure. It is meeting and will meet in the future, as it expands beyond national borders, both rejection and acceptance, where persecution is to be expected and predicted in v17. The Book of Acts shows a whole variety of opposition from different groups involved in this including councils and floggings and imprisonments (Acts 5:40, 22:19) and the use of the word Gentiles here in Matthew 10 v18 “On my account you will be brought before governors and kings as witnesses to them and the Gentiles” suggests that it is already in view in the wider mission of the post-resurrection period where trials turn out to be testimonies.

Yet the continued refrain here is (v18) “on my account”, (v22) “all men will hate you because of me “ and (v39) “whoever finds his life will lose it and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.”

Where the disciple publicly represents Jesus, the Spirit is active for their advocacy: “you will be given what to say for it will not be you speaking but the Spirit of the Father speaking through you.” But this is also on the midst of the breakdown of social order, where like master, like servant being charged with Satanic inspiration (which at times in history Christians have not fought shy of accusing other Christians) and in the discernment of our fears of wanting to avoid and the reluctance of incurring social and other forms of hostility rather then remaining true to walking in awe and obedience to what we know of God (who does indeed look after sparrows and us but this does not preclude the possibility of not escaping from harm, suffering and death). Where loyalties of following Jesus takes precedence over other loyalties where Jesus calls for not an unloving attitude but rather to put Jesus first in concrete situations in the full awareness of the conflict it may entail.

Now for us here, today, this intensity is a million miles away from our lived experience. It is not so true for other believers in other contexts who do indeed face these choices and conflicts. Yet we can expect, but do not need to go looking for, that our identification with being followers of Jesus as reconcilers or peace makers, heralding and habituating kingdom values and norms will win us both friends and enemies. That’s the debit side. But here in v40 is the credit side, the privileged status of being a disciple: “he who receives you, receives me” over the receipt of hospitality, which implies that through some degree of acceptance (or at least openness) to Jesus teaching comes the blessing and reward that occurs to the giver of hospitality – which Matthew suggests is “where God himself enters the house with Jesus messengers.” Entertaining angels unawares as it were.

This is what I would like us to think about for a few minutes. Not so much the giving of hospitality, for this particular church a good record with strangers and those in need in both within the community of the church and supporting others But rather as followers from whom we would be willing to accept hospitality because of who we are and who we represent. In terms of social power relations this is slightly more dangerous because in giving hospitality you remain and retain the power of the giver, but receiving and being vulnerable and dependant and willing to receive that hospitality requires a degrees of humility, trust and risk. We come to place of dependence where our ability to control and shape the situation and context is challenged. To be served from a position of powerlessness and need requires perhaps a different kind of humility, than being a servant.

Echoes of this are found in the incident in John where Simon Peter, whose turn it is to receive hospitality by having Jesus wash his feet categorically states “you will never wash my feet.” Where he dictates to Jesus what Jesus is able to do. As a guest, as a recipient of hospitality, we are not in a position to dictate and that therefore it carries the risk and embarrassment of being in someone else’s territory, customs and practice that is different from our own, where we gracefully need to discover what it means to be present in God’s presence and bring God’s presence into that situation.

A few examples.

Jesus accepted hospitality from all the wrong kind of people and places (obviously before the benefits of TripAdvisor.co.uk) in eating and drinking – breaking food laws and social taboos. It opened him up to criticism, but also damaged his reputation and called into question his integrity amongst some, primarily religious sections, of the population. It opened up acceptance, hope and salvation to, however, others excluded and marginalised by the cultural, economic religious and political forces of the day.

At the home of Zaccheus ( Luke 19:7) all the people began to mutter, “he has gone to be the guest of a sinner” in response to Jesus inviting himself to dinner with the words: “I must stay at your house today!”

At the house of Simon the Pharisee who deliberately ignored the basic expectations of host to make a point but was then scandalized (as was everyone else in the room) by somebody who came in offering true hearted hospitality (Luke 7:36-50) – a woman who had lived a sinful life who stood behind him weeping, wet his feet with her tears, wiped them dry with her hair, kissed and put perfume on them. I’m not sure how well that would go down as a foot-washing liturgy: there is just so much about these actions and activity that was just plain wrong and inappropriate, unseemly and embarrassing.

Then of course there is the woman by the well in Samaria, a promiscuous heretic. Again breaking religious taboos and nationalistic histories by initiating (rather than waiting for) a request for hospitality through an expressed felt need from someone outside his own faith community (“will you give me a drink?”) and initially meeting with rebuff (how can you ask me for a drink?”)for Jews do not associate with Samaritans).

But then there is this issue of reward – an unexpected non cash bonus – not even Nectar points:

  • V41 Anyone who receives a prophet because he is a prophet will receive a prophets reward

  • Anyone who receives a righteous person because he is a righteous person will receive a righteous persons reward

  • If anyone gives eve a cup of cold water to one of the little ones because he is my disciple… will not lose their reward.”

Zaccheus was curious, interested and open: (v3) he “wanted to see Jesus”. He climbs up a tree to have a look, a wealthy chief executive, just to catch a glimpse.

The reward? “Look, Lord. Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor – and if I have cheated anybody out of anything I will pay back four times the amount.” A transformed hospitality and a witness to the fact that “today salvation has come to this house, because this man too is a son of Abraham.” A disciple’s reward.

The weeping woman who sought Jesus out and entered a hostile, unfriendly home is drawn in contrast to the host: “you did not give me… but she wet my feet and kissed them and poured perfume on them – therefore her many sins have been forgiven , for she loved much” and then Jesus said to her, “your sins are forgiven. Your faith has saved you, go in peace.” A good person’s reward.

And the woman at the well? “I know that Messiah is coming. When he comes, he will explain everything to us.” Then Jesus declared, “I who speak to you am he.” The encounter that allows for disclosure, revelation and faith that touches an entire town. A prophets reward.

In closing, where does this leave us with this issue of hospitality in terms of informing our practice and possibilities? Just something to think about.

Ramadan begins today on Sunday 29th June, a period of fasting, charity, and giving linked to the commemorating of the first verses of the Quran being revealed to the prophet Mohammed. It lasts a month, fasting between sunrise and sunset. At sunset there is an Itfar meal( confusingly breakfast in Arabic). Would you as a Christian be willing to go if invited by a Muslim friend or colleague, or neighbour to an Itfar meal? You may not go because you are/are not a Christian ordained leader, or even because you are known and respected as a good person but simply as a person of faith, a Christian, or simply as a friend who because of who you are people are open to be with and spend time with, willing to discuss, disagree, find common cause. Would you go?

Hospitality opens up not just the possibility of being fed and watered but bringing and being a blessing in God’s presence and bringing his presence. To be a son or daughter of peace and a bearer of peace.

So two last questions. What would determine you to refuse hospitality (there are situations and contexts where that is the appropriate, right thing to do) and what are situations which it would be the courageous and risky thing to do to go and accept?

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