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Chicken & Biscuits and More: AIDS Ministry and Christian Hospitality
by Nancy A. Carter
"Then they also will answer, 'Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?' Then he will answer them, 'Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.'" Matthew 25:44-45.
"Hospitality" means a variety of things to different individuals, families, and cultures. When I was growing up in the rural Midwest, I associated "hospitality" with "comfort foods" such as chicken & biscuits, mashed potatoes, gravy, and homemade bread, jam, and apple pie. I thought that my paternal grandmother made the best mashed potatoes and gravy. I loved the uniquely soggy bottom crust of my maternal grandmother's apple pies. My great-grandmother often offered us fat slices of hot baked bread. I slathered the bread with real farm butter and her homemade strawberry jam.
Henri Nouwen has described one of the major spiritual movements in a Christian's life is to go from hostility to hospitality.1 The way we become more hospitable is to practice hospitality toward the real people God sends us. No one can be hospitable in isolation; we must be in relationship with others.
While Christian hospitality might include serving chicken, biscuits, and other "comfort food," it also includes righteous, or just, actions. The scriptures, from Genesis through Revelation, reveal that offering hospitality, both to friends and strangers, is a significant aspect of faithful living. Hospitality, in its broadest sense, is the basis upon which the United Methodist Covenant to Care program was founded: "If you are a person living with AIDS or a loved one of a person living with AIDS, you are welcome here."
Hospitality in the Bible: An Overview
In the Bible, the original Greek word for "hospitality" is philoxenia (fil-ah-zeen-ee-a), which means "love of strangers."2 We recognize philo, the first part of the word, because of our word "Philadelphia," the city of brotherly and sisterly love. The second part of philoxenia is present in the first syllables of the English word "xenophobia" ("fear of strangers").
Biblical hosts show "love of strangers" by making sure that their guests receive food, drink, clothing, shelter, and/or respect. When at table, however, hosts serve lamb, calves' meat, bread, fruit, and wine-- foods of their culture. (Not chicken and biscuits!) Food, drink, clothing, shelter, and respect are basic necessities of life. Hospitality and justice are therefore linked in the Bible. When some individuals or groups lack these necessities, justice is not fully present in society.
To address lack of justice in biblical times, Israel created laws to help strangers, widows, and orphans, some of the most vulnerable people in society-- people whom Jesus would have called "the least of these." For example, Exodus records this command: "You shall not wrong or oppress a resident alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt. You shall not abuse any widow or orphan. If you do abuse them, when they cry out to me, I will surely heed their cry" (22:21-23).
The Bible contains references to a number of exemplary hosts including Abraham and Sarah; Ruth; Rahab; Joseph, the father of Jesus; the woman who enters an assembly of men and shows hospitality to Jesus; the Good Samaritan; the father who welcomes home his son who has been prodigal; the "sheep" who are separated from the "goats" at the last Judgment; the couple walking the road to Emmaus on the first Easter; and Jesus himself. In many scriptures, especially certain psalms, God is also portrayed as hospitable. For instance, Hebrews 13:1-2, quoted at the beginning of this chapter, alludes to the stories of Abraham and Sarah (Genesis 18); Lot, his wife, and his daughters (Genesis 19); and Manoah and his wife Judges 13). These people showed love to divine strangers.
Expansion Of The Theme Of Hospitality
Many of the stories "about hospitality in ancient Judaism centered around the figure of Abraham," who, by Jesus' day, was venerated as a model for hosts.3 Genesis 18 tells how Abraham and Sarah were blessed with a child after they welcomed divine strangers. Genesis 19 continues the theme of hospitality, with Lot welcoming the same strangers who visited the couple from Emmaus who invite him into their house on the day of the resurrection do not recognize him until he sits down at table and breaks bread with them (Luke 24:28-35). At a welcoming table, strangers who are guests can become divine hosts.
Throughout the historical unfolding of the Bible, the theme of hospitality expands, changing the definitions of neighbor and stranger, host and guest. Unexpected hosts and guests appear, challenging our notions of whom God welcomes and whom God finds hospitable. Ruth, an ancestor of Jesus, provides hospitality to Naomi and receives hospitality from Boaz. She is a Moabite, one of the ethnic groups rejected in older scriptures because of their lack of hospitality (Deuteronomy 23:3-6). Rahab, a prostitute who is also an ancestor of Jesus, is rewarded with protection after she gives housing to Joshua and his men.
Ruth and Rahab, as unlikely hostesses, are precursors of the Good Samaritan, a person from a despised group of people who exemplifies hospitality. The parable of the good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37) describes hospitality in answer to a question, "Who is my neighbor?" In the context of the great commandment to love God, neighbor, and self, the parable teaches that those who reach out and help do God's will. It also implies that those who refuse to touch or to help, who cling to laws of purity and cultural prejudices, do not do as they should.
Joseph, the father of Jesus, is an example of a person who lived out the values of hospitality and justice that are held up in many scriptures. According to Matthew, Joseph, a righteous man, takes a Divine Stranger into his house (i.e., his family tree and his home). In Matthew's narrative, Joseph is the first person who must decide whether or not to welcome Jesus into his life.
Joseph first shows mercy by planning to divorce Mary quietly. Had he followed the strictest laws, Mary would have been killed, for Jewish law indicated that women who were believed to be sexually unfaithful should be stoned (Deuteronomy 22:20-29). His compassionate actions do not stop with a merciful interpretation of the written law, however. Upon a direct revelation from God through a dream, Joseph goes beyond the written law and welcomes Mary as his wife. In so doing, Joseph makes Jesus "legitimate," a part of his house.
The law said that those born of an illicit union should not be admitted to the assembly of the LORD (Deuteronomy 23:3). Had Joseph not welcomed Jesus into his house of lineage, Emmanuel ("God is with us") would have been blocked from entering God's house on earth (the formal worshiping community, the synagogue). How ironic it would have been if religious law had forbidden Emmanuel, the very presence of God, to enter God's house. Congregations today may need to ask if they may be shutting their doors to divine visitations because of religious legalisms.
For Jesus, hospitality meant not only welcoming strangers, but also doing justice. His ideas were derived and expanded from similar concepts in Jewish scriptures and tradition. One of the ways Jesus taught hospitality was through parables. In the parable of the two sons (Luke 15:11-32), the father shows hospitality to both sons, the one who has stayed with him and the one who has returned after wasting his inheritance on riotous living. He encourages the older son, who is angry about the good treatment of his prodigal brother, to be hospitable, too. The host does not judge whether or not the guest is worthy to be loved and helped, but simply provides hospitality. Another way Jesus taught hospitality was through his actions. Some Jewish leaders criticized him for eating with tax collectors and sinners (Matthew 9:10-13; 11 :19; Mark 2:15-17; Luke 5:30-32; 7:34-40; 15:1-2). Simon, in whose home Jesus was a guest, suggested that Jesus would not have let a woman wash his feet with her hair had he known she was a sinner. Jesus, refusing to distance himself from the woman, said that she had been even more hospitable than Simon. "'Therefore, I tell you, her sins, which were many, have been forgiven.'" (Luke 7:47)
According to the Gospel of Matthew, the New Creation of God avoids judgmental/exclusionary ways of relating to people by offering an ethic of hospitality and justice. Formerly "unwelcome" people, such as women who had sex with persons who weren't their husbands and "illegitimate" children, were not to be treated poorly anymore, whether that meant capital punishment (in Mary's case) or exclusion from the religious congregation (in Jesus' case). God's House is an inclusive house, with many rooms for the unclean, Gentiles, women, tax collectors, persons with physical and emotional challenges, and others (Matthew 8:1-10:37). The "least of these" may really be God in disguise.
Jesus' story of the sheep and the goats (Matthew 25:31-46) suggests that it is foolish for us to define and treat others as either strangers or neighbors, as belonging or not belonging to God. Faithful people simply practice hospitality, particularly to those who are in need of food, drink, clothing, shelter, and respect. We are to treat the "least of these" with the utmost hospitality, as if they were the "greatest of these," says Jesus (25:45). We are to do what is righteous ourselves and not to judge others in terms of whether or not they deserve hospitality.
Because stigma and discrimination are major obstacles to effective HIV/AIDS prevention and care, one basic way that churches can help overcome these problems is to truly welcome everyone. Christian hospitality is a key aspect of congregational ministry with people living with HIV/AIDS and their loved ones. When congregations reach out and embrace all people, including those affected by HIV/AIDS, healing happens, not only among individuals but the church community as a whole. Jesus' example, careful reading of the Bible, a community of committed laity and clergy who support each other, and revelation through the Holy Spirit can guide us through the process of developing the best ministry of hospitality for our time and place. We can covenant to care, be hospitable, and honestly declare, "If you are a person living with AIDS or a loved one of a person living with AIDS, you are welcome here."
When Jesus had come down from the mountain, great crowds followed him; and there was a leper who came to him and knelt before him, saying, "Lord, if you choose, you can make me clean." He stretched out his hand and touched him, saying, "I do choose. Be made clean!" Immediately his leprosy was cleansed. (Matthew 8:1-3)
In the ancient world where Jesus walked and talked, most people accepted that illness and disabilities were evidence of God's punishment. They believed that those who were sick, blind, deaf, or lame were being punished for their sins (or their parents'). Society established boundaries to protect itself from "contagion." It stigmatized and discriminated against those considered "unclean," "unholy," and "sinful," separating them from those considered "clean," "holy," and "pure." Among the outcasts were persons with leprosy and other skin diseases. Lepers had to be announced by the words, "Unclean, unclean!," and live alone or in small groups separated from the rest of the community.
Into such a world entered Jesus. He reached out and embraced not only lepers and other outcasts, but the whole world. Jesus demonstrated that afflictions were opportunities to glorify God and to receive divine healing (John 9:1-13). He showed that holiness was expressed through acts of love and hospitality, not by stigma and rejection. In that world, Jesus gave humanity a preview of the great banquet when all of God's household will feast together.
Into the world today comes Jesus. Because of technology and science, the modern world is very different from the ancient one. Yet, in terms of human hopes and fears, today's global community is so similar. Society still stigmatizes and discriminates against groups of people. Many people with HIV have been turned away from health care services, denied housing and employment, and shunned by their friends and colleagues. In more extreme cases, people with AIDS have been kicked out of their home by their parents, divorced by their spouses, and physically attacked or even murdered. In the religious community, many continue to believe that AIDS is God's punishment for sin and close their doors to people with AIDS and their loved ones.
Into the contemporary world, the Divine Healer brings the same gospel message of compassion, love, forgiveness, and justice as he did two thousand years ago. Jesus reaches out and embraces not only people with AIDS but the whole world. He invites us to join the household of God and asks us to offer hospitality to all who need food and shelter, including people with AIDS. The one who is the Resurrection and the Life shows us how to live and to help others to live.
Dear God, help us to become more hospitable, to open the doors of our hearts to you, to open the doors of our churches to people with AIDS and others in need. Teach us to be holy, to reach out to all those who have been created and loved by you. Amen.
- Faith and Food: Biblical Perspectives, Elliott Wright, New World Outlook, September-October 2001.
- On Visiting the Sick, John Wesley, Sermon #98.
- The Use of Money, John Wesley, Sermon #50.
1 Henri J. M. Nouwen, Reaching Out: The Three Movements of the Spiritual Life (New York: Doubleday & Co., 1975).
2 See Romans 12:13; Hebrews 13:2; 1 Timothy 3:2; and 1 Peter 4:9. The word for "hospitality" does not appear in the Hebrew scriptures (Old Testament), though hospitality is described as a righteous behavior in a number of places.
3 John Koenig, New Testament Hospitality: Partnership with Strangers as Promise and Mission (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1985), p. 15. The gospels refer to Abraham's image of host when Jesus praises the centurion's faith and says that many will eat with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in God's realm (Matthew 8:11) and in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31).