When five candidates for a new district judge position were interviewed at Hometown Helena, they played up their Montana heritage.   The first told of his family making Montana home for three generations.  The next two each upped the ante – four generations and then five generations!  We chuckled when the fourth candidate spoke: “My heritage is Native American.”  The final candidate waded in by saying: “I was born in Illinois.  I wanted to be close to my parents.  But, I came to Montana as soon as I could.” He was elected.  His humor, his having practiced law in Helena for decades and his fine reputation trumped generational longevity.

To be welcomed to the round table is an honor.   In a trusting relationship there is “reciprocity” – from Latin, reciprocus “returning the same way, alternating.”  I can raise my family near yours. You can raise your family near mine.  In the dark of night I don’t sow dandelion seeds in your fescue and you don’t steal tools from my garage.  When you are out of town, I take care of your dog and you return the favor when we are gone.  We enjoy neighborly “mutuality” – from Latin mutuus “reciprocal, done in exchange.”  In places like Montana, mutuality can last generations.

Before we go too far down the road of mutual admiration, you reply: “I’m grateful there are such words. They may describe some places. But, you don’t know my neighbors. I never see my neighbor on one side.  He has retreated so far that I don’t know him.  And, my other neighbor plays his music too loud.  His dog barks too much. Maybe I should love ‘humanity,’ but I’m not sure what to do with my neighbors.”

GK Chesterton gives us perspective: “In order that life should be a story or romance, it is necessary that a great part of it should be settled for us without our permission … We make our friends; we make our enemies; but God makes our next-door neighbor” (“On Certain Modern Writers and the Institution of the Family”).

God calls us out of fear, apathy or foolish anger as well as our false idealism by calling us to love our real neighbor.  We can dilute the nuanced otherness of our neighbor or their complex wildness by dismissing them or by superficially bringing them into our control – calling them: my family – my community – my country.  But then we may be simply justifying ourselves.  God calls us past self-absorption to love our actual neighbor – despite differences in gender, generation, culture and geography.

To make that call very clear, God gives three specific commands to Christians:

  1. Romans 12:13 – Practice hospitality.
  2. Hebrews 13:2Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it.
  3. 1 Peter 4:9Offer hospitality to one another without grumbling.

And, although leaders in the church can simply be protectors of the status quo, God requires that they be skilled in this bridge building art (1 Timothy 3:2, Titus 1:8).

What is the origin of the word, “hospitality?”  We find that it is much more than entertaining others at our home.

The Greek word translated “hospitality” in these verses is philoxenos – philo – “love like a brother” + xenos – “one who is a stranger.”  To practice loving the bewildering person next door, love the barbarian – the one very different from you – the xenon.  Showing brotherly love to the xenon gives you practice in loving your brother and your neighbor when they seem to be strangers. Discovering your neighbor can be like finding another wonder of the world.

Our English word, “hospitality,” is from Latin – hospitem – “guest, host.”  What! – hospitem is both guest and host?  Yes!  If we depend upon neat categories, “hospitality” is confusing.  There is one kind of reciprocity – where we enter a relationship understanding the give and take – the roles – the congruence of mutual expectations.  But, what about another kind of reciprocity – in the give and take of an encounter where we may be guest and then host?

Now, don’t lose me.  In mathematics, “reciprocity” is a number related to another number in such a way that when multiplied together their product is 1. For example, the reciprocal of 2 is 1/2; multiplying 2 x 1/2 = 1.

Moving from math to human relationships – who is closest to the inverse of who we are? Our “reciprocal” is a xenon. Let’s define loving a xenon as God coming into our relationship in such a way that he enables us, as different as we may be, to respect the dignity we each have and still pursue unity.  If our notion of hospitality is entertaining and that stretches us, how much more does authentic culture-crossing hospitality enlarge us?  We may be intimidated by otherness.  But, not God.  We are VERY different than he is; but, in Christ, he welcomes us. Then, he urges us into such adventures with him and our neighbor.

Human relationships are complex – going well beyond the reciprocity of mathematical opposites.  How can 4/123  x 117/277 = 1? Still, our Trinitarian hospitable God can be the dynamic multiplier who brings real unity despite great disparity.

Apart from Jesus, we were separated, excluded foreigners, without hope and without God in the world (see Ephesians 2).  But, the energy of Christ’s work on the cross empowers the Spirit to bring us near – to God and each other. What good news – if we like adventure!

So, let’s not give in to the temptation to make idols of our close neighbors (like family) – or to make idols of those who appear to be very different from us – the stars, the leaders.  With God energizing our relationships, we can also avoid the opposite error of dehumanizing barbarians or each other – putting false distances between us.  We can draw near.

We are not naïve.  There are serious abuses in this broken world; appropriate distance (godly order) may become a necessity.  Still, lively language holds the possibility not only of law but also of grace – philoxenos – “hospitality.”  Christian, as one who has been welcomed by God in Christ, keep this language fresh. Go; love your neighbor – whoever they are.

Sucking out (some of) the marrow-nourishment from the bone-words with you,

Steve Bostrom

PS In regard to language, our English forebears were exceptionally hospitable.  As we look at the history of words, Latin words are used in law and biology; Greek words are used theology and physiology; French words are used in cooking; German words are used in academic writing, and Japanese words are used in martial arts and the auto industry!  “Lilac,” a favorite shrub in Helena, comes from Persian! The number of words in English has grown from about 60,000 words in Old English to about a million today. The principal way in which English grows is by borrowing words from other languages.  What hospitality!

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