The New Testament world of Jesus, the apostles, and the Church practiced a generic and universal form of hospitality—almost a compulsory and rudimentary expectation of helping sojourners, travelers, strangers and aliens as they came passing through one’s town. Welcoming strangers from abroad was the common practice and expectation of the Jews in Israel during the days of Jesus and the apostles. Ironically, the Gospels reveal an inconsistency about hospitality with respect to Jesus. On the one hand, Jesus was frequently denied the hospitality He deserved, yet He Himself was the Master at practicing and preaching the ideals of hospitality.
Born in a Manger
The first example of hospitality we meet in the Gospels is actually a negative one, and the greatest miscarriage or negligence of hospitality the world has ever known. That is how Jesus, the Savior of the World, was ignored and even rejected as a visiting stranger. This is true spiritually as well as practically. Spiritually speaking, the Gospel of John opens up immediately identifying Jesus as God in the flesh, who came to earth motivated by love to save sinners, beginning with the divine visit to His own people and nation, Israel. But instead of opening their hearts and homes to Him, they spurned Him. John recounts in hindsight, “He came to His own, and those who were His own did not receive Him” (1:11). This verse teaches that Jesus came down from heaven to be the Savior of Israel and the world, but particularly the Jewish leadership, did not welcome Him. They were not hospitable. John says Israel “did not receive” Him. The essence of being hospitable is to have a welcoming spirit toward another. On the whole, Jesus was not welcomed when He came 2,000 years ago.
John says Jesus came to “His own,” so there was a sense in which He was not a stranger. He was not a stranger in that He was a fellow Jew. Also, He was the One predicted in the Old Testament Jewish Scriptures, so they should have been expecting His arrival and should have been able to identify Him (Matt 2:1-6). And generically He should not have been a stranger for He was the Creator of all things—including them! (John 1:1, 3, 10).
But in a real sense Jesus was indeed a stranger to many. He was a stranger to Jerusalem Jews because He was raised for thirty years in Nazareth of Galilee. The Jerusalem Jewish leadership looked down their noses at those outside the Jerusalem enclave. Even after two-plus years of public ministry, the multitudes who followed Him and benefitted from His miracles were continually debating His identity. He was strange and foreign to them because they did not know who His earthly father was (John 6:42); they did not know where He was trained or why He taught so differently than other rabbis (Matt 7:28). Many asked Him, rudely, point-blank in public, while He was teaching, “Who are you?” (John 8:25; cf. John 4:29; 5:12; 9:36; 12:34; Matt 21:10; 26:63). Conspiracy theories about Him were flourishing among the Jews. At the end of His public ministry some Jews were speculating that He was John the Baptist risen from the dead. Others conjectured that He was Elijah the prophet or Jeremiah reincarnated. And still others promulgated the intriguing myth that He was a great Old Testament prophet risen from the dead (Matt 16:14; Luke 9:19). Worse still, the Jewish leadership labeled Him a bastard child (John 8:41), a genetically polluted Samaritan (John 8:48), demon- possessed (John 8:52), a false teacher (John 7:47-48) and a blasphemer worthy of death (Matt 26:65-66).
In addition to being rejected as a stranger on the spiritual level, Jesus and His family were rejected at the time of His birth. Ironically, YHWH, the God of the Jews, was the one who originally made the law for compulsory hospitality to be shown by Jews toward visitors who pass their way in time of need (Lev 19:10). But when the greatest Jew in the history of the world came visiting (in utero) to a fellow Jewish town with His poor family (Luke 2:24; cf. Lev 12:6-8), He along with His humble Jewish family were categorically not-welcomed by fellow Jews. They did not benefit from the law of hospitality that should have been their safety net.
The Suffering Servant
Fast forward thirty years and the Scriptures reveal that Jesus fared no better in receiving hospitality from others. For the most part He was neglected, ignored, or deprived when it came to material possessions and practical comforts. He noted this plight when He declared publicly about Himself, “The foxes have holes and the birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay His head” (Matt 8:20).
Once Jesus left the home of Mary and began His public ministry, He was homeless. Jesus was a homeless person—that is what this verse means, and that is a provocative reality. For three-plus years Jesus had an itinerant ministry. He was always traveling and on the move. He restricted His ministry to the Jews and their cities and towns, as He preached the good news, taught the masses, healed the sick and loved sinners. All the while, He never had a home to call His own. He depended on the Father to provide for Him (Matt 6:8) and at times a few hospitable Israelites actually welcomed Him into their homes as a stranger in need (Luke 8:1-3). But much of the time Jesus had no place to live.
Contrary to the lack of hospitality Jesus was shown, He Himself was the master and model of showing hospitality to others. From the biblical definition and pattern already established, it is clear that at the heart of hospitality is the love of strangers, which entails loving people in general, greeting unfamiliar ones with arms wide open, attending to the practical needs of others, and aggressively meeting those needs selflessly and sacrificially if necessary…like a sincere, warm greeting of shalom, foot-washing, providing a meal or a bed for rest and more. Jesus was characterized by all of these attributes.
Jesus exuded a true love for people in general, and strangers in particular. Jesus had no rivals in this regard. He was incarnate love. Jesus truly welcomed sinners. Not only did He welcome them, He pursued them! His whole ministry was given to loving, welcoming, serving, and caring for strangers—people He did not know. Jesus loved the multitudes (Matt 9:36), as He wept for them (Matt 23:37) and prayed for them (Luke 23:34) and even gave His life for them (John 3:16).
Jesus’ truly welcoming spirit is seen in His willingness to touch a leper. Lepers were outcasts and despised by the people. The one thing you should never do is go near a leper, let alone touch one. On one occasion, while ministering by the Sea of Galilee, Jesus did the unthinkable and touched a man full of leprosy (Luke 5:13). The man was instantly healed. On another occasion as He was passing through Samaria, Jesus came across ten leprous men who were complete strangers (Luke 17:11 ff.). They may have been part of an isolated leper colony—literally strangers to everyone in town. When they heard Jesus was close by, traveling through their village, they cried out, “Have mercy on us!” Jesus did and He healed them. Jesus loved strangers. Even unclean, ostracized, defiled, dirty, deplorable, outcast strangers like lepers. True hospitality—the act of welcoming those in need, especially strangers—flows from a heart of love and compassion for people. Jesus was the Master.
Teaching on Hospitality
In addition to Jesus’ acts of hospitality toward others, there is His teaching on hospitality. The story, or parable, of the Good Samaritan is the quintessential example. This parable may be one of the most well-known, time-tested, universally recognized stories ever told. Being a “Good Samaritan” is a standard catchword to describe one who is a model of virtue. Amazingly, this parable that Jesus originated is only six verses long in the Bible. Jesus spoke the parable in response to a self- righteous Jewish scribe:
But wishing to justify himself, he said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” Jesus replied and said, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell among robbers, and they stripped him and beat him, and went away leaving him half dead. And by chance a priest was going down on that road, and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. Likewise a Levite also, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, who was on a journey, came upon him; and when he saw him, he felt compassion, and came to him and bandaged up his wounds, pouring oil and wine on them; and he put him on his own beast, and brought him to an inn and took care of him. On the next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper and said, ‘Take care of him; and whatever more you spend, when I return I will repay you.’ Which of these three do you think proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell into the robbers’ hands?” And he said, “The one who showed mercy toward him.” Then Jesus said to him, “Go and do the same.”Luke 10:25-37
The lasting power in the Good Samaritan story centers around the Samaritan’s attitude toward the injured stranger he saw laying half-dead on the road. When the Samaritan saw him the Bible says he “felt compassion” (v. 33) toward the helpless, injured man. “Compassion” here is the verbal form of the Greek word splanchna, a noun that literally refers to the intestines or the bowels or the inner parts of the stomach. It came to represent that pain in the gut which resulted from strong emotional turmoil during trials of life. It is similar to our modern-day expression, “heart-broken.” The Samaritan had a true emotional, heart-felt sympathy of anguish for the bleeding stranger—and this sympathy prompted mercy and action. Traditionally, full-blooded Judean Jews despised Samaritans, and the respectable Jew would have no dealings with them whatsoever, as Samaritans were considered “unclean.” (John 4:9).
The Samaritan’s heart-felt compassion and act of mercy is in stark contrast to the Jewish priest and the Jewish Levite who passed by their fellow dying Jew, as they looked at him with indifference—a cold heart and zero compassion. The priest and the Levite were clerics—men of the cloth, men who were supposed to represent God and serve the people. Not only that, the injured man was a Jewish pilgrim, and it was the Jewish pilgrims who gave alms at the Temple that provided for the sustenance of the priests and the Levites who were supposed to be serving and representing the lay Jewish people, like this man who lay dying in need of their help. Jesus’ point is obvious: the priest and Levite performed religion, but they did not truly love God from the heart, and as a result they had no love for their fellow man. The Samaritan was different. His heart was different, therefore his attitude and actions were different. He showed the dying stranger the fullness of mercy and hospitality, or stranger-love, as he did not “pass by” but came up to him, poured oil on his injuries, bandaged his wounds, put him on his animal and transported him to an inn to receive care. The Samaritan then paid all the lodging fees accrued at the inn. The Samaritan’s schedule was no doubt interrupted and changed by this whole event and he spent much of his own money to care for this man. Jesus commended this kind of overflowing generous, spontaneous hospitality and called on all His listeners that day to “Go and do the same” (vs. 37).
The hospitality modeled and taught by Jesus 2,000 years ago has ongoing practical benefits for us today because Jesus still continues His ministry of hospitality toward sinners like me and you. Jesus is still loving strangers today. We are blessed recipients of God’s reconciliation, even though we were strangers. That’s the grace of God and the gospel of Jesus Christ, which is the very model of how we should practice hospitality.