A couple of million people have now fled Ukraine due to the Russian invasion. This crisis will require the humanity, mercy, and hospitality of other nations to help the many refugees. The current crises prompts my reflection on the notion of hospitality towards all people. Here are some lessons from the Bible and also from Dio Chrysostom.
The Apostle Paul charges Christ-followers to pursue hospitality (Romans 12:13). The author of Hebrews likewise says that Christians are not to neglect showing hospitality; by doing so, some have entertained angels without knowing it (Hebrews 13:2). Jewish auditors of these words probably would think about the angel Rafael secretly assisting Tobias in the book of Tobit. Or perhaps they might think of Abraham and Lot assisting angels (Gen 18–19).
All the same, the word that both Romans 12:13 and Hebrews 13:2 use for hospitality is philoxenia. In the ancient world of Paul the stranger or xenos was to be received as a guest and treated as though a friend or philos; hence, philoxenos which then becomes philoxenia.
What might we learn about hospitality from Scripture and the ancient world?
Dio Chrysostom’s The Hunter
First-century orator and philosopher Dio Chrysostom, in his seventh oration: Euboean Discourse, also known as The Hunter, tells of a prime but overlooked example of a person helping strangers.
Dio begins the story with his travel in a storm on a small ship with fishermen. The ship was wrecked on the cliff of the coast of Euboea. He made it to shore, and then hoping to find another ship that was ported, he walked along the cliff. He then saw a deer in the water. Soon after, a hunter called to him by the name “stranger” and asked whether he had seen a deer. Dio helped the hunter to retrieve the deer. The hunter then flayed the deer and invited Dio to dine with him letting him lodge at his home.
The hunter lived with his wife along with her sister and husband and all their children together. The hunters’ fathers were once shepherds and farmers who had lived on a patch of land owned by a wealthy man. But when the emperor executed the land owner and confiscated all his goods, they stayed on the land and learned how to hunt. Their fathers owned no money and lived in huts of timber, as did currently their sons, the hunter and his wife’s brother-in-law.
The Hunter on Trial
On their way to the huts, the hunter tells Dio of one of the very few times he had been to the city. He was brought to court where a prosecutor accused him of not paying rent on public land and of not paying taxes. The lawyers were finely dressed and well groomed, whereas the hunter had unkempt long hair and wore an animal skin. He was given a public defendant, and after deliberations for and against him, the judge asked what the hunter would be able to give in return for occupying the land. The hunter said, “four deer pelts of excellent quality!” (Orations 7.43). At this the city folk who watched the deliberations laughed at him.
The hunter was then asked if he could give money in the price of an Attic talent. He replied that his family does not weigh meat but they are willing to give whatever meats they had. Likewise he could give a little bit of wine and grain, and even his sons to help in the military if need be. The prosecutor could not believe this, and accused the hunter of hiding some money. But these were the only things the hunter would be able to give, though if the people of the city wanted his family’s huts, he would give them to them as long as they provided his family with another place to dwell.
He then mentioned the many oar blades from shipwrecks that he nails to a sacred oak: “many is the time I have pitied shipwrecked travellers who have come to my door, taken them into my hut, given them to eat and to drink, helped them in any other way that I could, and accompanied them until they got out of the wilderness” (Orations 7.52).
While he was still speaking a man from the crowd stood up and confirmed the hunter’s testimony. He claimed that he and another man in the crowd were once shipwrecked travelers that this hunter kindly helped. The hunter had brought them into to his hut, rubbed them with tallow, poured warm water over them to warm them up, and gave them loaves, venison, and wine. After three days he escorted them to the plains, gave them more meat, two pelts, and even took his daughter’s tunic from her to help keep one of the strangers warm.
Upon hearing this, the hunter’s public defendant instigated the city officials to welcome the hunter to dine in their town-hall and give him 100 drachmas for equipment (which he refused) and a tunic and cloak in return for his sacrificing his daughter’s tunic. This should be done to him “as an inducement to others to be righteous and to help one another” (Orations 7.61). That day the hunter wore his new cloak instead of his animal skin to the public dinner.
Dio and the Hunter
After the hunter told Dio of this experience in the city, they reached his hut. He treated Dio hospitably with the daughter pouring wine for drink and his sons preparing the meat for their dinner. Dio was given his own bed and later witnessed a simple wedding ceremony and genuine contentment of two families that possessed hardly anything.
Dio continues to write how impressed he is at the hospitality of the poor who light fires more promptly, guide strangers (xenous) without reluctance, and share what they have more readily than a rich man. A rich man would hardly give his wife’s, or daughter’s, or even his slave’s clothes to shipwrecked victims (Or. 7.82). In his estimation, the rich and elite are the most miserable wretches when compared with poor, humble cottagers like the hunter: “I could not help deeming these people fortunate and thinking that of all the men that I knew, they lived the happiest lives” (Orations 7.65).
Hospitality according to the Bible (New Testament)
In the New Testament, Jesus establishes the paradigm for being hospitable in several ways. First, both he and his itinerate followers depend on such hospitality when proclaiming the gospel from city to city (Matt 10:9–15; Mark 1:29–31; 6:8–10; Luke 10:38–42; John 4:40). Second, Jesus chides Simon the Pharisee for not being hospitable to him when a woman washes his feet with her tears (Luke 7:44–46). Third, Jesus teaches parables that expect hospitality and helping the poor as the norm (e.g., Luke 11:5–8). Fourth, Jesus himself becomes a prime example of hospitality, humility, and service for his disciples by washing their feet (John 13:13–17). Finally, Jesus discloses dire consequences for those who fail to be hospitable and assist the poor (Matt 25:31–46; Luke 16:19–31).
The later followers of Christ are likewise to be hospitable to traveling apostles and ministers (Acts 9:43; 16:15; 21:7, 17; 18:14; Philemon 22; 3 John 5–8). In the Pauline letters, one of the requirements for leadership positions was that such believers were to be hospitable (1 Timothy 3:2; Titus 1:8). Indeed, not just leaders and ministers, but all believers were expected to be hospitable (1 Peter 4:9; cf. 1 Clement 1.2). This is what Paul and the author of Hebrews encourage in Romans 12:13 and the Hebrews 13:2, respectively.
As believers who are to let our light shine in dark places in the world, may we also learn to help and be hospitable towards others, just like the hunter.
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