Xenos: Guest and Host
“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.