I'll be the first to admit I'm no domestic diva, and my husband will just as quickly second it. In the beautiful chaos that is our home, I try to have "a place for everything," but the truth is that everything is rarely in its place. One day, though, I'd had enough. I wanted to be able to sit down after dinner without the pressure of a messy house. I wanted to put my feet up and know nothing needed to be done. So I set my other work aside and devoted the entire day to tackling piles of laundry and cleaning bathrooms. I was in the middle of vacuuming the hall when my kids arrived home from school. My seven-year-old son took one look at the house, a look at me, and without missing a beat, asked, "Who's coming for dinner?"
Despite being domestically challenged, my husband and I try to cultivate an open home. We love how hospitality embodies the welcome of the gospel—how it pictures the feast and rest that awaits us in the Kingdom. And we believe Jesus when he taught that extending hospitality to others means we are extending to him. In Matthew 25:35, He says, "For I was hungry, and you fed me. I was thirsty, and you gave me a drink. I was a stranger, and you invited me into your home."
But, like any other virtue, hospitality can easily become nothing more than an item on the "To Do" list of our spiritual life:
Be joyful. Check.
Be humble. Check.
Give to the poor. Check.
Be hospitable. Check.
There are many reasons this can happen, but one of the most common ones is that we misunderstand God's purposes in hospitality. We misunderstand what God intends to do, not only through us, but for us as we open our hearts and homes. We forget that hospitality is as much about our own spiritual blessing as it is about blessing others.
This truth is never clearer than in Hebrews 13:2: "Don't forget to show hospitality to strangers, for some who have done this have entertained angels without realizing it!" Instead of appealing to us to practice hospitality because of what will happen for others, the author of Hebrews encourages us to do it because of what we might receive in the process. In other words, "Be hospitable to strangers because they might just be messengers sent to you from God."
On the surface, this may seem like some kind of odd mysticism. But if you dig a bit deeper, this verse reveals a truth about how God uses hospitality to bring people together to fulfill his larger purposes. But to understand this, you first need to know something that the original audience of Hebrews knew.
Hebrews was written to Jewish believers making the transition from Old Testament Judaism to Jesus' New Covenant. As a result, many of the themes and illustrations of Hebrews are rooted in Jewish religious structure and history. This verse is no exception. When the author penned Hebrews 13:2, he was likely referring to a specific event in Jewish history—an event so important that if it had not happened, the Jewish nation would not exist. An event so important that it's included in Holy Scripture. An event made possible by hospitality.
The three strangers
It happened one day nearly 2,000 years earlier when a wise, old man was sitting in the door of his tent in the middle of the rocky plain of Mamre. He was trying to get some relief from the burning afternoon sun, when suddenly out of the dust and dryness, a figure appeared. No, wait—there were three of them.
Immediately, the man jumped to his feet and ran to them. And then, in an act of extraordinary hospitality, he invited them to stay with him, to refresh themselves, to rest. They agreed, and the man went into his tent to prepare delicacies of roasted meat, freshly baked bread, and cheese. When he returned with the food, the strangers happily indulged themselves. As they were finishing, one of them asked the old man where his wife was. He replied, "She is in the tent."
To this, the stranger curiously replied, "I will surely return to you about this time next year, and your wife shall have a son."
If you haven't already guessed, the old man was Abraham, his wife was Sarah, and the three strangers? Messengers from God bringing unbelievable news that would alter the course of history and redemption. These three strangers came bearing the news of the miracle son, Isaac, who would be the start of the Jewish nation and a forerunner of Jesus Christ himself.
It's hard to imagine what would have happened that day if Abraham had not invited them in. Surely God would have kept his promises to give Abraham a son, but in his wisdom, he used Abraham's graciousness to enact that promise. The faith that Abraham exhibited in leaving Ur was the same faith that he exhibited when he invited three strangers to stay with him. He showed that he believed even the most unlikely of circumstances were guided by God's hand.
The writer of Hebrews uses the story of Abraham and the three strangers to teach us something about the nature of hospitality. But more than that, it is also teaches us something about the nature of serving others and even the nature of God himself. In God's Kingdom, service is never one-sided. "Give, and you will receive. Your gift will return to you in full—pressed down, shaken together to make room for more, running over, and poured into your lap. The amount you give will determine the amount you get back." (Luke 6:38). In God's Kingdom, "[g]ive freely and become more wealthy; be stingy and lose everything" (Proverbs 11:24). In God's Kingdom, our Sovereign is so abundantly kind and powerful that even when we think we're extending ourselves to meet the needs of others, we find he is meeting ours in return.
But just like in Abraham's case, receiving that blessing requires faith.
Opening our homes and tables to strangers requires believing they have been sent to us by God, that they are God's messengers to us. Opening our homes and tables requires believing that all things—our food, our time, our wealth—comes from his hand, and that he will never leave us wanting. Opening our homes and tables requires believing that God works in the details of our lives to work all things together for good. But when we do open our homes and tables, God blesses both giver and receiver.
That's exactly what happened that day on the dusty plain of Mamre. Abraham's hospitality to three strangers opened the door for him to receive a blessing from God. It happened in a moment, and was unexpected and unbelievable. But in that moment, he received the promise of a coming son. The promise of a nation. The promise of joy and laughter. The promise of redemption.
Hannah Anderson is a freelance writer, blogger, and author of the upcoming book, Made for More: An Invitation to Live in God's Image (Moody, April 2014). She lives with her husband and three children in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. You can connect with her at her blog sometimesalight.com and on Twitter @sometimesalight.