We went to Darling’s Tree Farm to cut down a fir tree last Saturday. It’s astounding how kind and friendly the entire crew out there is, out in the cold all day as they are. Going into the barn to pay for the tree, while others shook, wrapped, and tied it onto our car, we were treated as an old friend. “Have some hot cider!”
Then it was onto Rochester Folk Art Guild, which is actually out in the country. Walk into any of the cluster of weathered old buildings – the main gallery, up the stairs at the weaver’s studio, into the potter’s gallery or small graphics display, or the wood crafters barn – any of them, and be warmed with kindness. In every building the artists not only have magnificent hand-crafted works to display, each one offers a different fare of soup, warm bread, hummus, cookies, coffee, hot tea. “Come on in, have something to eat!”
The tree and presents purchased on Saturday, have already infused our Christmas with blessings from all that hospitality. What an exquisite difference a sense of hospitality makes, whether in commerce, at home, within an organization, congregation, or office. Function and task pursued and delivered within the arms of authentic hospitality is even transformative.
Whether or not you are religious, or what religion you may adhere to, it is interesting to note that one of the core teachings of rabbi Jesus, who Christians believe was a messiah, is the transformative power of hospitality. He lived within the brutally rigid social hierarchy of first century Galilean peasant culture. But there was a nearly magical element of that culture that provided social cohesion for a people otherwise ruthlessly oppressed by foreigners and local potentates alike. It was hospitality.
According to Andrew Arterbury, of Baylor University’s Center for Christian Ethics, among many other scholars, the leading citizens of a village or town had the primary obligation to host strangers. The requirement of that custom was to meet their guests’ immediate needs upon their arrival, even total strangers, by feeding them, providing water for cleaning their feet, and new or additional clothing if needed. Only then, after all of that, were they allowed to ask about their guest’s identity, origins, or purpose of travel. There were many cultural and practical reasons for this extreme and even risky hospitality – practical, theological, and superstitious. But it was practiced widely and to be inhospitable was to bring shame on one’s household and town.
Shame was another glue of social cohesion, and of the afore mentioned brutal hierarchy. So I do not intend to romanticize hospitality without recognizing it was embedded in a culture cruel to women, children, those with any kind of illness or disability, and anyone shunned for morality reasons we would reject today.
Rabbi Jesus radicalized the widely held practice of hospitality by hosting a table-fellowship that welcomed women, children, those shunned for their profession or ostracized for a morality crime. It was a practice that scandalized the cultural hierarchy and crossed boundaries meant to segregate society. It was not just a violation of manners or politeness, it was an intentional effort to subvert a meanness and cruelty that fused together social and economic behavior. The practice of radical hospitality was central to rabbi Jesus’ identity and mission, and yet often neglected, forgotten, and even denigrated today.