To Be A Good Guest

To Be A Good Guest December 5, 2019

Sailko: Basilica di San Vitale – MIBAC / Wikimedia Commons

Hospitality is one of the many virtues promoted within Scripture. Perhaps no better representation of this can be found than in the story of Abraham and the hospitality he showed to three strangers at Mamre. From it, many important theological reflections have developed (including ways in which the three strangers represented God to Abraham).  Likewise, Lot, his nephew, was saved from the destruction of Sodom because of his own hospital nature.  While the people of Sodom selfishly looked after their own pursuits, Lot was interested in helping and protecting any wayfarers who came to the city gates. When two of the three strangers who visited Abraham went to Sodom and Gomorrah, Lot welcomed them into his home, offering them his protection. Based upon his reading of the legends of Abraham and Lot, whereby the strangers were identified with angels, the author of the book of Hebrews suggested, “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares” (Heb. 13:2 RSV).

What is often forgotten, however, is how those who are on the receiving end of hospitality should act. A good host is compassionate and kind, but likewise, a good guest is compassionate and kind as well.  A good guest will not overstay their welcome, indeed, they will try not to be a burden upon their host. Jesus, understanding this, indicated that a good guest would be one who is humble and unassuming:

Now he told a parable to those who were invited, when he marked how they chose the places of honor, saying to them, “When you are invited by any one to a marriage feast, do not sit down in a place of honor, lest a more eminent man than you be invited by him; and he who invited you both will come and say to you, `Give place to this man,’ and then you will begin with shame to take the lowest place. But when you are invited, go and sit in the lowest place, so that when your host comes he may say to you, `Friend, go up higher’; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at table with you.  For every one who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted” (Lk. 14:7-11 RSV).

On the one hand, Jesus’ advice seems to be about how a guest should keep their sense of honor, making sure they do not render themselves capable of being shamed. If a guest assumes too much from their host, trying to take a position of honor, they might find their host not only unaccommodating, but actually putting them to shame. Someone who has been given welcome by another should always remember that they are guests. Being a guest in and of itself is an honor. Expecting more than that can only go badly. It is important, no matter who we are, to be humble. Jesus offered a prudential explanation for this, reminding those who seek to be treated with extreme honor that if they fail to get it, how ashamed they would feel. Nonetheless, the point Jesus makes goes beyond concerns of shame. It is rather an attempt to make sure we remain humble in spirit so we can create good relationships with others, especially with those who are showing us some form of kindness. It is in this spirit Paul wrote, “Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; never be conceited” (Rom. 12:16 RSV). Hospitality is a means by which a host can begin to live in harmony with others, but if the guest is conceited, then that harmony is broken; the host will be blameless, while the guest will suffer the consequences of their imprudence.

There are many ways guests can be arrogant. One is to demand that their host should cater to their every whim. Sometimes these whims are negligible, but not always. It is terrible for someone who has been welcomed as a guest to assume for themselves a place of honor as if they are better than anyone else around them. But there are many ways someone could do this. One way is to pretend to be a holy, or at least extremely pious person, while making demands on their host to accommodate some special interest which they use to justify their sense of superiority towards others.  Those who are truly holy understand this. They will do what they can to put their hosts at ease, even if it means they might have to temporarily change their ways so as to be charitable to their host, as can be seen in this example from the Sayings of the Desert Fathers:

A brother, an ascetic who ate no bread, visited a great elder. There were other guests there, and the elder cooked a little food for them. When they sat down to eat, the brother who was an ascetic set for himself alone chickpeas softened by steeping and began eating [them]. When they got up, the elder took him aside and said to him, “Brother, when you visit somebody, do not make a show of your way of life. If you want to maintain your way of life, stay in your cell and do not come out at all.” Convinced by the elder’s word, the brother began compromising when he met with brothers. [1]

St. Francis of Assisi lived this out, as St. Bonaventure indicated in his biography of Francis:

When he went out among people, he conformed himself to his hosts in the food he ate because of the text of the Gospel. But when he returned home, he kept strictly his sparse and rigid abstinence. Thus he was austere toward himself but considerate toward his neighbor. [2]

Being a good guest is being someone who is considerate of their host. We should not place burdensome demands on our hosts. When we are welcomed in the spirit of charity, we should act with the spirit of charity in return. Indeed, to be troublesome is to show we do not appreciate the hospitality which we have received. Thus, if we find ourselves as someone’s guest, we should consider the words of Paul: “Do nothing from selfishness or conceit, but in humility count others better than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others” (Philip. 2:3-4 RSV). Those who are rigid in their ways, those who place demands on others so their rigid ways and expectations can be kept, are demonstrating the self-conceit which undermines any good which could otherwise be achieved by our actions.[3]

This is not to say a host cannot, or should not, meet the needs of their guests, when real needs are under consideration (such as not to provide food which will get someone with a particular food allergy sick), but when dealing with particular preferences, the guest should be the one who accommodates themselves to what they are being offered by their host. A guest using their own supposedly pious way of life to undermine and place undue burdens on their host have destroyed the very piety they claim to follow. Compromise is important. That is how harmony is established and maintained.

Thus, when dealing with the expectations of hospitality, guests should follow the dictates of charity.  Jesus, it can be seen, lived this way, and it is perhaps because he did not place demands on those he visited, those he dined with, that his critics talked poorly about him and suggested he was a sinner. Instead, his critics showed that they, in their judgmental spirit, have rejected the point of the law, and in doing so, have only projected their sinful disposition on Jesus.

Hospitality is important. It is a way to establish bonds with others, indeed, to commune with them. To keep such a spirit of communion open, the spirit of charity behind hospitality should be shared by both host and guest alike. While we think of the many ways in which a good host should act, catering to the needs of their guests, we must think more also of what a good guest should be like. Hospitality seeks to create bonds of love between the host and the guest. Only when both the host and guest act out of love can those bonds be established, and the fruit of hospitality realized.

[1] John Wortley, trans., The Book of the Elders: Sayings of the Desert Fathers (Collegeville, MN: Cistercian Publications, 2012, 130 [N257].

[2] St. Bonaventure, “The Major Legend of Saint Francis,” in Francis of Assisi: The Founder. Ed. Regis J. Armstrong, OFM Cap., J. A. Wayne Hellmann, OFM Conv., and William J. Short, OFM (New York: New City Press, 2000), 561.

[3] This is true also in regards the way we treat others in society as a whole. For example, if we prefer some styles of clothing over others, we must not degrade others if they do not follow our fashion sensibility; we must not think them shameless for wearing what they find is suitable, for if we do, we likely will be the ones who are shameless.


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