The first Sunday on which I invited guests for lunch after church, the oven settings failed. We all arrived at the house, anticipating the mouthwatering aroma of baked ham and instead opened the door to . . . nothing. The oven was cold, the ham even chillier, and my smile of welcome instantly froze on my lips.
This was not at all what I had envisioned. As I hurriedly microwaved slices of ham on a dinner plate, I felt disappointed. I wanted my guests to come into my home and find rest and nourishment for both body and soul. I wanted them to sit at the table and enjoy themselves. I wanted the ham to be delicious.
And I don’t think my disappointment was wrong. With regularity, I see articles on hospitality that assert some version of this statement: “It is not about your house or your meal; it is about the Christ-centered fellowship that takes place at your house over your meal.” Christians frequently speak as if hospitality is good, but anything that resembles “entertaining” is bad. We disparage well-ironed linens and beautifully arranged flowers; like the austere guests in Babette’s Feast, we view a sumptuous meal with deliberate skepticism.
I can agree with the basic premise of these sentiments: Christians should not reduce hospitality to Instagram-worthy tableaux. If we are motivated in our hospitality by a desire to impress others—or to use them for our own social advancement (Luke 14:12)—we sin. God abhors pride (Amos 6:8), sending his Son to die because of it and his Spirit to kill it where it yet festers in our hearts (Col. 3:5-13). Self-promotion disguised as a dinner invitation is not true hospitality.
But I’m not convinced that inviting people to a delicious and carefully presented meal necessarily makes biblical hospitality into something worldly and inferior. In fact, folding linen napkins, making a complicated new recipe, lighting some candles, or queuing a playlist of beautiful music can be acts of love toward the neighbors we welcome.
Hospitality—welcoming others to share our homes and lives—can take place in the space of five minutes with little prior preparation. It can be practiced over McDonald’s coffee or PB&J or no food at all. It can happen in an untidy house or at the neighborhood pool. Whenever we invite someone into our life for the good of her body and soul, we practice hospitality. Hospitality is more than entertaining. But it does not have to be less.
God himself welcomed the first people into a garden containing “every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food” (Gen. 2:9). And throughout Scripture, hosts honor their guests with extraordinarily time- and effort-consuming hospitality. Abraham fed his angelic guests meat that was “tender and good” with cakes made from “fine flour” (1 Sam. 18:6-7). Jesus rescued the near-disaster at Cana by providing the guests with abundant “good wine” (John 2:10). And the consummation of Christ’s kingdom is described in Revelation as a marriage supper—a feast of blessing for every guest (Rev. 19:9).
In The Hidden Art of Homemaking, Edith Schaeffer writes, “Food should be chosen to give pleasure, and to cheer up people after a hard day’s work, to comfort them when they feel down for some reason, to amuse them when things feel a bit dull, or to open up conversation when they feel silent and uncommunicative . . . There is no occasion when meals should become totally unimportant” (p. 120, 123). Carefully-chosen food, lovingly prepared and beautifully presented demonstrates honor toward our guests. It is an act of self-sacrificing love—serving the needs and desires of others at cost to ourselves.
Schaeffer goes on to tell the story of a homeless man who stopped by her house one day asking for a cup of coffee and some bread. Rather than simply giving him the bare essentials he requested, Schaeffer went inside and prepared soup and two different kinds of sandwiches, which she cut into triangles and arranged on her best china plate. She brought this food out to the waiting man with a copy of the Gospel of John and a bouquet of flowers entwined with ivy on a tray.
When her children questioned her efforts to make such a beautiful and tasty presentation for a transient man who had only requested a crust of bread, Schaeffer replied, “Who knows, perhaps he’ll do a lot of thinking and someday, believe. Anyway, he may realize that we care something about him as a person, and that’s important” (p. 130, emphasis original).
These days, I have my oven settings figured out, and the food is usually ready on schedule after church. I iron the damask napkins from my husband’s grandmother and stack the plates from our wedding registry, and then I serve the men and women and children who join me around the table. Who knows? Perhaps each guest will realize that I care about him or her as a person. And I think that is important.
Megan Hill is the author of Praying Together: The Priority and Privilege of Prayer in Our Homes, Communities, and Churches. She lives in Massachusetts and is a member of West Springfield Covenant Community Church (PCA) where her husband serves as pastor.
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