The recipients of Hebrews had a good history of hospitality. The author of Hebrews encourages them to keep it up:
Heb 13:1-2 Keep on loving each other as brothers. Do not forget to entertain strangers, for by so doing some people have entertained angels without knowing it.
Love each other as brothers and sisters. There’s one word for this that the author uses, and it’s a word that most people know–philadelphia. Brotherly (or sisterly) love. Think of the city of Philadelphia. Filial love–it’s the love that family members show to each other.
Every time philadelphia shows up in the New Testament (Rom. 12:10; 1 Thess. 4:9; Heb. 13:1; 1 Pet. 1:22; 2 Pet. 1:7), it’s in a letter addressed to Christians, telling them to love each other. It’s the kind of love a family shows to each other. In this case, it’s the family of God. In fact, the New Testament does kind of a new thing in using this word. In other Greek literature up to this point, philadelphia was just used to refer to a literal family, for example, the bond that brothers and sisters share from nursing at the same breast.
When we are in Christ, we become part of the family of God. We are really brothers and sisters. So let’s love each other like that, Hebrews says.
And yet, don’t forget about the “strangers,” too. It will be a stunted love if we just show love to the family, to those who are “one of us.”
Do not forget to entertain strangers, for by so doing some people have entertained angels without knowing it.
Verse 1 is about love of brother and sister. Verse 2 is about love of the stranger, of the foreigner, the other. Don’t forget about those outside our zone of comfort and familiarity.
A Friendly Church vs. A Church of Friends
My father, who is himself a minister, has said that there is a difference between a friendly church and a church of friends. A church of friends does well with verse 1–love of the family. A friendly church does verse 1 and verse 2–loving each other, and being friendly to anyone with whom they cross paths. Even strangers.
It sure seems like the author of Hebrews has Genesis 18 in mind. Genesis 18 is the story of Abraham and the three visitors who turned out to be angels of the LORD, though Abraham didn’t realize it at the time.
You never know when an unannounced visitor is going to turn out to be an angel, the author says. There’s something divine about good hospitality, so Hebrews encourages its readers (and us) to show it.
We hear echoes here of the passage in Matthew where Jesus himself says, “I was hungry, and you gave me food; I was thirsty, and you gave me a drink; I was a stranger, and you welcomed me.”
If hospitality isn’t its own motivation, Hebrews is saying, realize the stakes may actually even be higher than you think!
The early church was supposed to be a beacon of hospitality for travelers, visitors, strangers. Their brotherly and sisterly love was supposed to be so strong that it overflowed beyond their community into strangerly love, we might say.
And travelers in the ancient world needed good hospitality, too. There were hostels for travelers to stay in, but they weren’t exactly renowned for their hygiene. It could be a pretty seedy scene. Early inns were immoral. And expensive!
Hebrews calls for Christians to welcome in those who need hospitality.
Jesus in Prison and Today’s Prisons of Isolation
Heb 13:3 Remember those in prison as if you were their fellow prisoners, and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering.
We think of Jesus again: “I was in prison, and you came to me; I was naked, and you clothed me; I was sick and you visited me.” This is hospitality that leaves home. It’s possible that this verse means not just to call to mind those who are in prison, but to go visit them, to help provide for their daily needs of food and sustenance.
This could be literal prison, and we might also think metaphorically of the kinds of prisons of isolation that some people today live in. Catholic theologian Raymond Brown, in his commentary on this verse, says:
We also need to be reminded that some of our own neighbours may be suffering from other forms of ‘imprisonment’, less stark but no less distressing. Many elderly people are desperately ‘cut off’.
Brown goes on to quote the words of an 81-year-old widow:
I am still terribly lonely. It’s the evenings. The club closes at 4.30 p.m. and there’s nothing but long, empty hours until bed-time … I’ve heard so many old people say ‘There’s nothing for us now’. You’ve got to eat to sort of keep alive. But there’s nothing. The time is so long … the evenings … the weekends. I’ve heard several people say ‘I don’t care how soon the end comes for me’… I know lots of people. But that isn’t the same as a close friend.
Sex and Money… and Hospitality?
Heb 13:4 Marriage should be honored by all, and the marriage bed kept pure, for God will judge the adulterer and all the sexually immoral. 5a Keep your lives free from the love of money and be content with what you have…
These are dual threats to the faithful Christian life–sex and money. Or, not necessarily sex and money per se, but the misuse and abuse of sex and money.
Sex and marriage are a God-given good–a great good–to be “honored” and “kept pure” by all. Because God will judge the ones who do not keep “the marriage bed” “pure.”
And money–it’s not a bad thing in and of itself. But when we allow the love of money and the love of continuing to acquire new things–more things–then we run the risk of replacing our God with a new one.
Wait a minute–I thought this was a passage about hospitality. What’s the author doing now?
It’s fairly common for epistles in the New Testament to close with a string of parting commands like this, that the author may not take the time to fully unpack. If you were going to take a trip for a week and leave your family behind, you’d probably do the same thing– “Don’t forget to water the plants. Check the mail. The plumber is coming on Tuesday; let him in.” And so on. So that’s what the author is doing here.
But even so, the author seems to be tying all these things together–
verse 1: love of brothers and sisters in Christ.
verse 2: love of strangers, hospitality.
verse 3: love of those who suffer.
verse 4: love your spouse faithfully.
verse 5: don’t love money and let it crowd out contentment.
This passage seems to be about a right ordering of love. This is what love looks like.
When Plans are Interrupted
Heb 11:5b because God has said,
“Never will I leave you;
never will I forsake you.”
We can love because God is with us. “We love because he first loved us,” John would write in a letter.
Our love-energies, then, rather than being focused on the things and stuff and possessions of our lives, can then be spent on caring for others. Rather than storing up things for ourselves, we can be generous with our time, attention, and resources, and give it to our families–husband and wife, brother and sister. We can even give our time, attention, and resources to strangers.
So we make plans to do this.
I was just talking the other day to a pastor friend of mine. I told him how my wife and I were this close to having our fall schedule worked out, where ministry and her school and the kids and their school and moving in would all fit together each week, down to the hour. As soon as I said that, he and I just both started laughing. I think we both realized that one can only make plans to a certain degree in life.
You know the old cliche: “Life is what happens to us while we are making other plans.”
And that’s the tough thing about hospitality. That’s the challenging thing about visitors or guests sometimes… they can be unannounced. They come to us not on our schedule, but on their schedule. We may experience other people’s claims for our attention as interruptions, not invitations to offer hospitality.
“Lord, when did we see you hungry? When did we see you a stranger?”
This can happen on a large or small scale. Parents, especially we parents of young children, encounter what can feel like a steady barrage of interruptions when trying to get something done. Or when trying to make a phone call.
And, of course, there are times when our kids do need to listen to us and stop interrupting, but it’s still our noble goal to be gracious in how we handle that interruption.
Remember Mary and Martha? Martha was showing Jesus generous hospitality by having her into her home, but Jesus came before she was ready. He interrupted her preparations. She could only see a set of tasks, not a guest. Mary, the one who sat with Jesus, received him, accepted his interruption, is the one in the story who seems to show true hospitality and welcome.
There have to be boundaries, of course. We all need time by ourselves, time when we are not interrupted, or are uninterruptible. But hospitality as a posture, as a leaning of the heart, is open to receive interruptions. Life is not just what’s on the schedule.
Hospitality is about attitude. It’s about the proclivity of our heart. It’s about being open and receptive. Hospitality is about submission.
They Might Be Angels… Or Not
It’s often said that Jesus had a “ministry of interruptions.” How many miracles or healings of Jesus begin with, “As he was on his way from (point A) to (point B)…”? For Jesus it started to seem, as someone put it, like the interruptions were the job; they were the ministry. Not just the things that happened along the way.
As I’ve been meditating on this passage this week, I’ve been challenged, as I’m sure the first readers were, to try to handle the unexpected “interruptions” of life well. It’s not easy. It can be unsettling, even unnerving, to enter into another’s world, to allow them access to our attention and energies. A ministry of interruptions–a hospitality toward even unexpected guests–can be disorienting.
One commentator says, “These strangers might be ‘angels,’ but they might not. This call to hospitality is a call to ongoing vulnerability to the unknown other.”
But here’s the anchor. Verse 8: Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.
He is steady. He is unchanging. For Jesus, nothing is really unexpected, or a surprise, or unknown.
And as we strive to offer generous hospitality to our church family and to strangers alike, we know that God is with us, wherever that takes us. Verse 5:
God has said,
“Never will I leave you;
never will I forsake you.”
We can open ourselves to interruptions, to the unexpected and unpredictable needs of our brother and sisters in Christ. We can receive the stranger who comes in to our familiar space, who doesn’t really belong, whom we might otherwise wish to ignore. Because God’s presence with us is uninterrupted.
And God is pleased when we “do not forget to do good and share with others”–whether we are sharing time, attention, or resources. In so doing, we give God praise.