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Xenos: Guest and Host

2012 June 28
by Mike

“Practice hospitality.” – Romans 12:13

“Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it.” – Hebrews 13:2

(Richard Beck put me on notice that I have two weeks to put up this post before he does so on his blog. It’s a brief summary of material I gave at Rochester College’s Streaming Conference. The full message will be in a forthcoming book.)

The Greek word for hospitality in these (and other) passages is philoxenia. The love of a xenos, a stranger. We’re fairly familiar with that word from the English word xenophobia: the fear of a stranger.

Xenos originally referred to a foreigner—leaning toward darker adjectives like strange, distasteful, and untrustworthy. Basically, it could refer to your enemy.

But one of the hard things about learning a language is that it’s like playing whack-a-mole. Just when you think you’ve nailed down the meaning of a word, it moves.

So xenos doesn’t just mean a stranger. If you invited the stranger into your home, they are now your guest. Still a xenos. So the word is fluid: it can mean either stranger or guest, depending on context.

And it carries one of those meanings everywhere it appears in the New Testament. Except for one occurrence.

In Romans 16, Paul sends greetings to the church in Rome from some believers in Corinth. Included in that list is “Gaius, who is the xenos of me and of the whole church” (v. 23).

Gaius isn’t their stranger or their guest. He’s their host! Talk about a roving meaning: xenos could mean either guest or host!

Perhaps it’s worth noting that Greek isn’t the only language with a word that can double for guest or host. In Spanish, the word huésped carries both meanings. And actually the old Latin word hospes did as well.

I’m guessing that the word morphed originally because of social obligation: once I’ve been your guest, I’m expected to reciprocate and be your host.

But as followers of Jesus, the border between host and guest breaks down for other reasons (just as the lines get blurred between leader and servant, strong and weak, teacher and learner).

We practice hospitality because Jesus is the host. He’s the one who washes feet, who serves at the table, who gave his life for all. We have learned a way of self-giving love through him. We’ve learned to open our lives, to create space, to welcome.

But we also practice hospitality because Jesus is the guest. The word xenos appears 14 times in the NT. The biggest cluster of occurrences is in Matthew 25, where it appears four times.

Jesus (to those on his right): “I was a xenos and you invited me in.”

Those on his right (to Jesus): “When did we see you a xenos and invite you in?”

Jesus: “Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”

Maybe Christian hospitality is strongest when the lines of host and guest are blurred. We learn to welcome others; yet we also are willing to be welcomed by them.

It’s fitting that Hospice Care comes from a word that could mean either host or guest. I’ve talked to Hospice volunteers and staff who go as servants. They go to welcome and minister with ambulatory care to those who are dying. But their response is always the same: they come away being ministered to; they learn from walking on holy ground; they find they are the ones who have been welcomed.

My religious heritage, maybe my age, certainly my pride—to say nothing of my obsessive compulsive tendencies—want a clean, strong, visible border of safety. I want to know who’s the host and who’s the guest. But to make room for my neighbor, I have to follow Jesus into places and relationships that don’t have nice, sterile, quarantined borders.

I wonder if we best obey the command to be hospitable when we aren’t completely sure whether we are the host or the guest . . . or a bit of both.

10 Responses leave one →
  1. Brent Auvermann permalink
    June 28, 2012

    Today, of all days, I’m having difficulty with this.

  2. Nelda Sims permalink
    June 28, 2012

    So hard to trust enough to be either guest or host of the stranger. My experience, however, is that most people can become friends if we are willing to really listen to each other.

  3. erin permalink
    June 29, 2012

    This is so true of my own life and ministry. The times when I think I’m the “host,” I wind up being the “guest.” When I am with people as their “teacher,” I’m amazed how many times I end up being the “learner.”

  4. Chinedum Nwankwo permalink
    June 29, 2012

    Bro Mike thank for the recent post. It reminds me that I am here to serve and not to be served.

  5. June 29, 2012

    What I so like about this, Mike, is how it introduces reciprocity and egalitarianism into the conversation about hospitality.

    More often than not, the conversation about hospitality is about Us welcoming Them. And more often than not, that welcoming is hierarchical. A wealthier group at the center of the power structure tries to think about how they might welcome some abstract Other, a stranger from the margins. And because of that what often happens is that an impersonal program is developed in order to “welcome” others.

    But if these strangers/guests are actually our hosts then this whole approach has to change. Now I go out to the margins not on some rescue mission or short term mission but to listen, learn and make friendships. To go to the margins and stay. Because that is where Christ is found.

    Studying the gospel of Mark I observed something that sits well with your analysis of xenos. In Mark 9 Jesus instructs his disciples to welcome “a little one,” a child. And in the act of welcoming little ones we welcome Christ:

    He took a little child whom he placed among them. Taking the child in his arms, he said to them, “Whoever welcomes one of these little children in my name welcomes me…”

    In this we see the disciple as the host welcoming the little one as guest. But in the very next chapter Jesus flips this. Rather than merely welcoming the little one–where we sit in the powerful position of host–we are to become like the little one:

    He said to them, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. Truly I tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.”

    I think this is just the sort of reversal you are talking about. We welcome little ones so that we might learn from them and be tutored by them. Why? Because we must become like them.

    For the Kingdom of God belongs to such as these.

  6. June 29, 2012

    What a practical challenge to all of us. A post like this is one reason why I keep coming back. Richard, I also really appreciate your words. Both of you men are gifted writers and thinkers and all around good folks.

  7. Kerry permalink
    June 30, 2012

    Now that’s “Little” hospitality, Richard. Good words.

  8. July 2, 2012

    Whenever our question is about ourselves, we’re asking the wrong question. The question should always be about them. When we are pre-occupied with ourselves, we have missed the focus, which Jesus called us to have … loving others the way he loves us.

    How would we be different if we asked that question about each interaction we had with each person we come across?

  9. Ezra permalink
    July 10, 2012

    Having just finished Beck’s book , “Unclean” it was good to see him pressing you to share these thoughts as well as his comments. So agree with his reflections of how we dispense grace/love/hospitality “down and out” making us the center of attention rather than Jesus.

  10. Kathy permalink
    July 25, 2012

    Speaking of hospitality – I am late getting here, but still want to extend loving wishes and prayers for a beautiful birthday, dear friend!!


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