Magazine article The Christian Century

Hospitality Theology

Magazine article The Christian Century

Hospitality Theology

Article excerpt

Genesis 18:1-10a Psalm 15 Colossians 1:15-28 Luke 10:38-42

Southern women are great Marthas and proud of it. Having been raised in this culture, I know that supper in a southern kitchen is a wonder to behold. Those who have traditional southern hospitality refined to an art never sit. They hover. Plates are never allowed to go empty. Guests are continually asked if they need anything. In fact, many times the hostess will continue to cook all through the meal.

When does the hostess eat? This is one of the South's mysteries. The hostess keeps working, huffing around the table, a trickle of perspiration running past the string of pearls on her neck. She misses all dinner conversation, all sharing of feelings and information, and gives herself totally to serving.

Also a wonder is the woman who greets the guests unflustered at the door with the table already set, the kitchen spotless. This hostess sits, talks, laughs and eats the appetizers with her guests. She excuses herself, goes to the kitchen, and returns with food that's prepared and ready to eat. At dinner, she remains around the table, getting to know the guests, asking about their lives, sharing her own thoughts and feelings.

Hospitality is an art form. Along its spectrum we all fall somewhere between Martha Stewart and the person who has the pizza place listed on the speed dial. We might shrug off the matter of hospitality styles as an unimportant detail of life except that there appears to be a theology of hospitality at work in scripture. Prime examples of this theology are found in the narratives of two dinner parties: one by the oaks of Mamre and the other in the village of Bethany. Abraham and Sarah spontaneously entertain strangers who appear suddenly during their afternoon nap. Mary and Martha entertain their friend Jesus. They know that he is known as a personality, and even talk sometimes about whether or not their friend could be the Messiah promised to God's people. He is a friend whose presence makes the hostess dust off the good china and polish the silver.

Theologically speaking, hospitality is vital. Not because of the food how much there is and what is served is inconsequential. A little unleavened bread and a cup of wine will do in most cases, because what truly brings us together is the word.

During the eating and the drinking al fresco at Mamre and around the table at Bethany, God's word is shared. The strangers (who the reader knows are God and angels) come to dinner to deliver a message: God promises Abraham and Sarah that the barren will rejoice. At dinner, Jesus shares the promises of God with Mary that the lowly will be lifted up, the dead will be raised, the blind will see and the hopeless given hope. …

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