Hospitality is central to the Christian life and to the New Testament. Contrary to the modern understanding that equates hospitality with the entertainment of friends or treats it as a synonym for the service industry, biblical hospitality is that which is extended to the stranger, the disenfranchised, the marginal.
Arguably the locus classicus of hospitality texts is found in Jesus’ parable of the sheep and goats in Matthew 25 where the extension of hospitality becomes a hallmark for the identification of true disciples:
37 “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’
40 “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’
Another important passage for hospitality is found in Hebrews 13:2:
Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it.
As important and valuable as these passages have been at motivating Christians toward the extension of hospitality to “the other”, they also appear to have an uncomfortable undercurrent: In each case, the text can be read as endorsing hospitality based on a motivation other than embracing the marginalized person.
In the first passage, it appears that the motive for hospitality is found in the fact that by embracing the other, one is in fact embracing Jesus. In the second passage, the motive seems to be the possibility that a guest might, in fact, be an angel. In each case, the motive that is extended to drive people to hospitable action seems to be something other than reaching out and embracing the marginalized person as an end in themselves.
Consider an analogy. Imagine that Jake volunteers regularly at the retirement home. After some weeks watching him spend hours reading to the elderly, speaking with them, and simply listening to them, you ask him: “Jake, what motivates you do reach out to these forgotten people?” And Jake replies: “Hey man, don’t forget to show hospitality to the elderly, because some of them are rich, and you might thereby receive a big reward in their will.”
A response like this would immediately undermine all the good will created by Jake’s actions. Needless to say, whatever we say about the Matthew 25 and Hebrews 12 passages, they cannot be interpreted as reducing the motivation for hospitality to the thought that Jesus is (or an angel might) be served instead of the real human being that now stands before us.