Considering Hospitality’s Relation to Christian Practice: Methods and Sources

“This custom [hospitality] functions as an effective bridge for evangelization and the unification of the early church.”[1]

“Having become, in the Spirit, the adopted son of the Father, the beholder ventures a shy look at the ultimate source of his own being…Inexhaustible fulness of life, so overflowing, that it can itself create a space for being that, even though not equal in being, yet has a share in its fulness of being through grace to which we have no right.”[2]

Arterbury’s article follows typical historical-critical method, making historical context—in this case, thought and practice about hospitality—essential to understanding the text. And helpfully so: whereas today hospitality typically stays between friends or family, Arterbury explains, ancient hospitality was offered to strangers, to unknown travelers, putting host and guest in vulnerable positions[3]—a fact important for understanding how the hospitality in Luke 10, Luke 24, and Acts 10 would have been understood.

What interests me, however, is how Arterbury’s method affects his understanding of hospitality’s relationship to Christianity. His key points primarily suggest how Christian practice in the texts fit hospitality as first-century people knew it, positioning hospitality as a guide and tool. The 70 in Luke 10 are to take the dependent position of a guest as they minister;[4] the 2 disciples on the road to Emmaus listen, as good hosts do, and only after hosting him recognize Jesus;[5] Cornelius’s hospitality to Peter welcomes someone from a different region or culture, resulting in unification of Jews and Gentiles.[6] Correspondence allows Arterbury to make the conclusion in the epigraph above: ancient hospitality is used as a bridge for evangelization and for unification of the church.

The argument is admirably thoroughgoing, drawing detailed rather than facile relations between ancient hospitality customs and Christian practice in the texts. Belief that the divine can come in the guise of a stranger and the practice of forming an enduring covenant with some guests through the exchange of gifts in ancient hospitality help explain why it is crucial to evangelization that disciples receive hospitality.[7] Such details also provide generative insights and questions for the ethics of Christian hospitality. Ancient hospitality practices affirmed in scripture suggests we cannot conceive of ourselves as unaffected or invulnerable hosts when we welcome others, including nonbelievers. In what ways should we become more vulnerable in offering hospitality today? As hosts, how do we recognize the other’s vulnerable position without positioning ourselves above them? Approaching the text from the perspective of human practices as Arterbury does encourages fruitful attention to concrete details of our human interactions.

Standing alone, however, Arterbury’s method risks significant theological deficiencies. Missing are questions of how Christian theology and practice might challenge and transform our concepts of hospitality. One can forgive Arterbury for not venturing outside biblical studies’ familiar territory in a 6-page article, but the issue lurks just below the surface. In Arterbury’s reading of Acts 10, “Peter moves seamlessly from guest to host and back again while God provides the ‘gift’ that seals the permanent relationship.”[8] But if the gift is not Peter’s, to what extent can we rightfully speak of him as host? And when the “permanent relationship” between Jew and Gentile is not an agreement to host each other in passing but consistent table fellowship where all are blessed by receiving the Host, who hosts whom? These challenges spur important systematic questions about the role of human culture in Christian theological and ethical treatment of hospitality. What other sources might help us think hospitality in a more thoroughgoingly theological way?

Perhaps the Rublev Trinity, as Gabriel Bunge interprets it, suggests one. As Bunge documents, Rublev’s masterpiece emerges out of an iconographical tradition around the “Hospitality of Abraham” in Genesis 18. Over centuries, the primary focus of these icons became Trinitarian, so that by about 1000 A.D., Abraham and Sarah were often depicted between the three guests, their hospitality having become “an act of reverent worship of the Holy Trinity.”[9] Rublev follows a still further development: he omits Abraham and Sarah entirely, making all who faithfully behold the icon the worshippers.[10] Hospitality has turned to contemplative worship of the economic Trinity,[11] in which it seems our perspective of hospitality is itself turned over. As Bunge narrates, contemplation of the icon goes from one member of the Trinity to the others, past the chalice of the Son’s suffering to the Spirit that is given at Pentecost, drawing the beholder deeper into contemplation of the divine until the awesome recognition of the gift of the Spirit.[12] In effect, it seems the icon participates in the saving activity of God, welcoming us ever deeper into God’s life in contemplation. Welcoming God in worship, we find ourselves welcomed, and we realize God’s welcoming—in creation, in Christ’s death, in the gift of the Spirit—is in fact the one that came first.

Arterbury sees hospitality first as something used within God’s economy. It is an “effective bridge.” But perhaps we should also think of hospitality as God’s economy. As we participate in this economy, we ourselves offer others hospitality, but our hosting is never independent; the practice of Christian hospitality itself becomes a gift God gives continually as we are welcomed into the divine life.

Still, we can’t remain in theological contemplation—at some point we have to look away from the icon to the world around us if we are to actually offer hospitality to human others. In doing so, how do we balance attention to existing human practices of hospitality and attention to God’s economy as sources for ethical and theological thought about hospitality? And if we think of God’s economy as hospitality, how do we avoid making “hospitality” so expansive that its ethical import becomes vague? Concepts of hospitality as we know it do not seem quite capacious enough for Christian life, but they remain in some sense an essential consideration.

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[1] Arterbury, “Entertaining Angels: Hospitality in Luke and Acts,” 26.

[2] Bunge, The Rublev Trinity, 110–11.

[3] Arterbury, “Entertaining Angels: Hospitality in Luke and Acts,” 20–21.

[4] Arterbury, 22–23.

[5] Arterbury, 24.

[6] Arterbury, 25. Admittedly, Arterbury is slightly ambivalent on this final point: he frames hospitality between Gentile and Jew as consistent with the ancient practice of hospitality overall but different from some Jewish practice of seeking hospitality only from other Jews.

[7] Arterbury, 21.

[8] Arterbury, 25.

[9] Bunge, The Rublev Trinity, 54.

[10] Bunge, 56.

[11] Bunge notes that icons cannot depict the inner workings of the Trinity but only the effects of its economy that are manifest to us. Bunge, 92.

[12] Bunge, 110–12. Note near-repetitions of phrases such as “Thought plunges deeper.”

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