Loving Strangers

How hospitable are you? For many people, when they hear the word hospitality, they think about the neighbor who invites them over for a meal or the aunt whose chocolate chiffon cake is legendary. Hospitality in our minds usually raises pictures of friends and family gathered together by someone who enjoys entertaining and does it well.

Interestingly, in the New Testament, hospitality is hardly confined to friends and family. When inspired New Testament writers encourage us to “show hospitality” (Rom. 12:13, Heb. 13:2, 1 Peter 4:9), they use the Greek word “philoxenia,” which literally means, “love of strangers.” The premier Old Testament example here is Abraham in Genesis 18. He generously entertains three strangers, two of whom are angels and the third the Son of God! The New Testament hospitality hero has to be the good Samaritan in Jesus’ story (Luke 10:29-37), who goes out of his way to show extravagant mercy to a badly beaten stranger.

Sometimes we Christians congratulate ourselves on how hospitable we are. Often, though, our hospitality is with those we already know and love, people who are hardly strangers to us, members of the Body of Christ. We’re convinced we are a “friendly church,” but when we look more closely at our friendliness, it may be with each other, not necessarily with the stranger in our church’s neighborhood or the visitor standing alone watching from the outside how friendly we are with one another.

What does real New Testament hospitality look like? It may mean showing unexpected assistance to a frazzled mom at Target. It might mean hosting a summer barbecue in your home for neighbors you’ve never met and beginning the meal with prayer. Or maybe it’s standing in the church narthex intentionally looking for someone you don’t know, and walking up to introduce yourself. Be careful here. You probably don’t want to say, “Hi, are you new here today?” The answer might be, “No, I’m a charter member. Who in the world are you?”

Even more, though, if we follow the lead of Jesus, we will go out looking for the stranger and the outsider. When Jesus walked His way around Galilee, Judea and beyond, He did not spend all His time with insiders and those close to Him. He sought out strangers, people often marginalized and written off by institutional religion. Strong, church-going Christians can easily become more and more isolated from strangers outside the church. We have to be intentional about going where they are — in our public schools, at civic meetings, sports events and work. And when we find them, we may win the right to share our faith with them or to invite them to worship with us.

It all begins with a love of strangers, a desire to know and to be known by someone we have never met for the sake of loving them as Christ loves them. This love of strangers is a crucial aspect to being sent into the world by Christ (John 20:21). It is a defining mark of a Christian and a church turned outward to love the world of strangers even as “God so loved the world” (John 3:16).