Hebrews 13:2 offers a plea for hospitality that is very well-known among Christians, one that is meant to motivate to action with a reminder that you may, in fact, be entertaining angels:
“Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it.”
Thus, the writer to the Hebrews appears to present a motivational speech act designed to prompt the reader/hearer to exercise hospitality. In the statement, he is undoubtedly alluding to stories where faithful disciples of the past entertained angels, most perspicuously, Abraham entertaining his three visitors in Genesis 18. Thus, as William Newall concludes, “The expression some have entertained angels doubtless has included, through the centuries, many who still remained unaware of their heavenly visitants.” (Hebrews Verse By Verse (Word, 1987), 442.)
But as familiar as this plea is, there is something perplexing if not outright problematic about it.
Action is important but motivation for action is no less important. For example, it is morally good to perform the action of helping a homeless person. But it is not good if your motivation for helping the homeless person is the belief that this homeless person may, in fact, be a millionaire who will reward you richly.
Jesus talked about the matter of hospitality and motivation in the Sermon on the Mount:
“Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven.
2 “So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. 3 But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, 4 so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.” (Matthew 6:1-4)
Here Jesus says we shouldn’t treat others as means to ends. Do good to others in secret, not to receive rewards from mere human beings.
The problem, however, is that Jesus then appears to undercut the noble call to do the right thing by promising that this will result in a reward in heaven. Thus, we seem to fall back into the trap of thinking about reward as the motivation for doing good. Once again, the intention appears to be selfish.
I think that is to misunderstand the words of Jesus. C.S. Lewis once addressed this issue and he observed, rightly in my view, that we should think of eschatological reward in doing good similarly to sexual union in marriage: one should not seek to marry just to have sex but rather one should recognize that sexual intimacy is a natural outcome of marriage. Likewise, one should not do good to receive reward but rather realize that eschatological blessing is a natural outcome of doing good to others.
This brings me back to Hebrews 13:2. The problem here is that I don’t see the same rationale readily applicable. Here, the author appears to motivate to action by appealing to a rationale which appears to undercut proper motivation: be hospitable to humans because the persons to whom you are being hospitable may not be humans!
This seems to bring us back to the example I considered above which we can state thusly:
“Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to millionaires without knowing it.”
This motivational speech act may yield the desired result of motivating disciples to hospitable actions, but it would seem that it does so at the cost of sacrificing a right and noble intention. On this account, you help strangers because they may be angels just as you help the poor man because he may be a rich man.
Shouldn’t it be enough to say, help the stranger because it’s the right thing to do?