The mission of God in the world is one of deep, expansive, and costly hospitality. God is revealed in scripture—again and again—as a deity who is constantly “making space.” As Christian educators it should come as no surprise that our approach to civic and political life is grounded, first and foremost, in what we know about God—a divine force for deep hospitality.
In the creation narrative, God is revealed first and foremost as a deity who—quite literally—makes space. God creates the spaces of heaven and earth, skies and seas, mountains and valleys. God creates these spaces, not simply for God’s self, but for his creatures—the stars and planets, the fish and the animals, and ultimately for humanity. In all of this Yahweh is revealed as a strange sort of deity who, out of nothing, generously “makes room” for others, not out of a sense of personal need, but out of a sense of personal abundance. God’s very self is filled with a joyful desire to share spaces with his creation. The creation of the world is the first in a long series of scriptural episodes in which God’s bias towards hospitality and space-making is revealed. God continually makes new spaces so that God might have community and dwell with his people.
The people of Israel—slaves in Egypt—a people with no land, no home, no place to call their own, are introduced to Yahweh as one who promises to make a space for them. Yahweh liberates them from slavery and prepares a space for them in Canaan. A placeless people, God makes a place for them. Canaan is prepared as a space where they can work and worship in freedom and flourishing. These slaves in Egypt have done nothing to deserve this divine hospitality. In fact, at several points, they do a great many things to actually reject this gift of hospitality. And yet, despite their unfaithfulness and their ingratitude, a space is prepared and graciously given to them, by God.
In this new land, the people are commanded to not only remember and rehearse this story of divine hospitality—more than that—they are expected to live that story to imitate their deity’s “space-making” mission with their neighbors. The people of Israel must “walk in the ways” of Yahweh and make generous space for foreigners, widows, orphans, and the poor. They must remember and rehearse that they too were once on the margins and their God was hospitable to them. As a nation that has experienced the hospitality of God, their lives were meant to reflect the hospitable character of their divine space-maker. In failing to show hospitality, they were forgetting and disrespecting the divine hospitality that was shown to them.
And yet it was not to be, Israel failed to make generous and just public space for the least of these. The Old Testament prophets speak of orphans, widows, and the poor being crushed. Small farmers being pushed off their ancestral lands by corrupt political, economic, and religious elites. The marginalized were denied their public right to economic and juridical protection. Ultimately Israel forgot that its nation’s very existence was owed to the unmerited hospitality of Yahweh and the country failed to honor its own hospitable origins and calling.
The biblical theme of hospitality is particularly prominent in the Bethlehem birth narrative of Jesus. The long-awaited Messiah arrives and what is Israel’s response? “We have no room for you.” The poet Thomas Merton captures Christ’s mission of hospitality best in verse.
Into this world, this demented inn
in which there is absolutely no room for him at all,
Christ comes uninvited.
But because he cannot be at home in it,
because he is out of place in it,
and yet he must be in it,
His place is with the others for whom
there is no room.
– Thomas Merton
The hospitable life and teachings of Jesus are in profound continuity with the Old Testament command to hospitality. Jesus was, in many ways, simply being a good Jew when he reminded the Jewish people of their divine calling to make generous space for those on the margins.
However, as we look closer, we begin to see that Jesus is not simply repeating the Old Testament ethic of hospitality—he is radicalizing it. Jesus begins to command generous hospitality not simply for the meager foreigner but for the antagonistic enemy. Jesus begins to command selfless hospitality not simply with one’s food and shelter but with one’s very body and life. We see this taught in the Sermon on the Mount and embodied in Christ’s healing of his attacker on the Mount of Olives. Ultimately we see Jesus teachings gruesomely embodied in the cross as he dies to “makes space” for those who made no space for him. God’s arms outstretched in costly welcome.
Like Israel before them, the church is called not simply to privately remember the divine hospitality they received at the cross, they are called to publicly extend that cross-shaped hospitality into the world.