Ancient Hospitality: A Lost Religious Practice

 
Hospitality to strangers was a very big deal throughout the ancient world. I am not sure if any of us in the modern era have any appreciation for just how important it was. There were no hotels, no GPS systems, few restaurants. Being in a tough spot away from home was a life or death situation!

Hospitality was not only a cultural practice, but it also had serious religious significance.

I just finished listening to an audio book of The Odyssey, the Ancient Greek poem attributed to Homer. It was an appropriate companion on some recent long road trips (this blog is called “The Traveling Ecumenist” for a reason!) It is generally thought to have been written in the 8th century BCE, and it is the second-oldest surviving work in western literature.

The Odyssey is called an “epic” for a good reason–it is a sweeping saga of wartime battles, magical meanderings, courtly drama and intense personal struggles. It is the quintessential tale of a young man who goes off to build his identity by confronting challenges and then faces the equally difficult-struggle to come home again as a wiser, more mature adult. Yet in the midst of so many complex themes, the subject of hospitality makes it mark on nearly every scene.

I’m not even exaggerating: Hospitality is just everywhere in this story. As Odysseus, his son Telemachus and others travel through the ancient world, they are continually treated to lavish feasts, incredible gifts and a warm welcome nearly everywhere they go. In fact, one time Telemachus had to actually sneak away from an exuberant King Nestor just to keep up with a rigorous travel schedule. No good host would have allowed him to leave so quickly without being received properly.

Hospitality wasn’t just for royalty. How the poor were treated was also of special importance. The Goddess Athena once turned Odysseus into a beggar so he could case his palace in disguise and test the loyalty of his subjects. While there, an elaborate debate ensued among the crowd. Many taunted the beggar. Others attacked him, urging him to get lost. Many accused the beggar of being lazy or an opportunist, living off of the work of others. Still others begrudgingly gave charity but withheld respect. Those with contrary views asserted that they should treat the beggar kindly, as no one knows what circumstances brought the beggar to this place in life. Still others postulated that the beggar could be a test from the gods.

You can hear the same comments today about the poor that were in full voice 2,800 years ago. Almost daily I hear the same debates rage in regards to homeless beggars and immigrants knocking on the door asking for safe refuge. The one thing that’s so different from our modern society was the underlying code of ethics about how to treat the stranger who comes to the door begging. We seem to have lost this.

I was amazed when listening to this story just how similar the views of hospitality were to those found in the Bible. Even though the Ancient Greeks had a very different religious tradition from the Ancient Israelites, they came to similar conclusions. The Greeks were worried that the gods themselves would disguise themselves as beggars just to test their charity. Mistreating beggars–perhaps the most vulnerable members of society–was believed to warrant the gravest consequences from the gods. Stories from the Bible have very similar notions. Consider these passages:

Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it. Hebrews 13:2

This is a reference to Abraham and Sarah’s experiences in Genesis 18-1-15. Abraham wasn’t just kind to three unexpected guests–he went out of his way to dote on them. These men turned out to be angels. Tradition even suggests that these were the three persons of the Holy Trinity. As a reward for treating strangers kindly, God granted Abraham and Sarah a child. You just never know who the person who knocks on your door may be! And while helping others, you just never know what blessings may come back to you.

It is actually Jesus himself who confirms everyone’s suspicions on the matter. In the famous passage Matthew 25:31-46, Jesus as God incarnate comes right out and tells us:

‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’

Jesus actually admits directly what everyone has already known in their hearts.

In so many cultures, people have an intuition that beggars, strangers and the homeless are special representatives from God.

We refer to this as the preferential option for the poor in the Catholic tradition. What this means is: Yes, Jesus is incarnate into all of humanity, and God loves every one of us. But the “least” should get our preferential attention and treatment, because God is there with them and in them in a special way. A preferential way.

The Ancient Greeks did not know Jesus by name, but they still knew that there was something special about a guest who comes to the door–especially a guest in need who is desperate enough to beg for help. Yes, despite the religious overtones, the Ancient Greeks still struggled, like we do today, over whether or not to assist the stranger. But at least their religious tradition gave strong support to the side of hospitality.

When we see a beggar on the streets, we can choose to see him in glass half-empty or half-full terms. It is within the realm of possibility that the beggar has either the best or worst intentions or something in between. Anything is possible. But what is going to be our assumption? We can choose to either assume that he is attempting to swindle us or whether he is just trying to cope with difficult circumstances. We can also choose to see the presence of God in this person and offer warm hospitality.

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