When we think about serving God we often imagine going here or there to meet people, or to do projects. It is easy to overlook one of the best resources that many of us have for serving Him: our homes.
Hospitality is becoming rare in our fast-tracked, Blackberry, blueberry, iPod, takeout dinner world. However, at heart most of us still long for HOME, not only as a place to rest our feet, but also as a place to include others as an extension of the warm inglenook of the heart.
What is true hospitality? It is extending oneself and one’s home to welcome friends and strangers. It is extending the love of God in a practical and compassionate way. In Jewish life, hospitality is regarded as a sacred obligation…the mitzvah called…the bringing in of guests. Showing hospitality…is as much a part of our religious Jewish observance as prayer, study and giving charity.…”1 The scene in Fiddler on the Roof where Tevye brings home the poor scholar for Shabbat illustrates that traditional Jewish understanding of hospitality. In some corners of the Jewish community, students are still seen as the objects of hospitality. How much more should we, as Jews who know the Messiah, extend ourselves to young people?
It is easy to do good to those who can return the favor. It is another thing to invite in the struggling student who lives in a cramped dorm room; the widow neighbor down the hall who lives on a small pension; a new family on the block; a visitor to our congregation. There is no assurance that your generosity will be returned, but that is the point: hospitality is a view outward, not inward…it is “simply paying attention to the people around you who may be in need of some kindness and warmth.”2
Nor is hospitality always convenient. Shabbat dinner comes at the end of the week when we are the most tired (possibly cranky), and the least likely to want to prepare a multi-course dinner and be stuck with a wine-stained tablecloth afterwards. So, like the proverb says, better a one-course meal of vegetables, than a houseful of feasting with strife. A simple meal served with gracious hospitality is more satisfying than the most sumptuous and perfectly presented fare.
My husband Jhan and I spent the first two-and-a-half years of our marriage traveling with the New Jerusalem Players, a Jewish gospel drama team from Jews for Jesus. Whereas most newly-married couples invest time in creating their first home together, we spent time being hosted in other people’s homes during our travels. We would often talk late at night about our various housing experiences. During those years we developed a sense of what worked best, how others made us feel truly comfortable, what was helpful, what was not—always with an eye to the future when we would have our own place from which to extend hospitality. Those road experiences made a lasting impression and have been invaluable, as we’ve sought to create an inviting atmosphere in our home and make it a source of peace and restoration for all who enter. Hospitality tends to reproduce itself, even if it takes a few years.
So in our home we have an “open door” policy, meaning, our refrigerator door is always open to anyone who needs to be fed. In fact, I tell our guests that they can be guests for only one day and after that, they have to become part of our family and help themselves. I show them where the cereal and bowls are, how to work the coffeepot, how to load the dishwasher, and even how to unlock the back door to let the dog out. I have figured out that most people don’t really want to be guests; they want a sense of family, of belonging. So when people ask, “Can I help?” I do not take it as a polite inquiry. I take them up on their offer, believing that as they have opportunities to serve, God meets one of their deepest needs: to feel valuable and valued.
1 Peter 4:8-10 tells us: “And above all things have fervent love for one another, for ‘love will cover a multitude of sins.’ Be hospitable to one another without grumbling. As each one has received a gift, minister it to one another, as good stewards of the manifold grace of God.” These words were not written for those who are graduates of the Martha Stewart School of Homemaking. God wants us to share what we have, whether it is much or little. If you have not already, I hope you’ll begin to think of your home as a sanctuary for others, even if it’s only an apartment the size of a midtown Manhattan phone booth. What really shines is the attitude behind the giving, not the gleam of fancy silverware. “Our homes are an extension of ourselves…when we practice hospitality we have the opportunity to touch lives in an intimate, personal way.” “True hospitality…has nothing to do with impressing people, but everything to do with making them feel welcome and wanted.”3
Recently, we hosted a group of 30 young Jewish believers ages 18-28 in our home for dinner and fellowship. They came because they were hungry; they came because they were curious; they came because the idea of a gathering WITH FOOD touched that place in their lives that could not be met by a Saturday night hangout at the pub (no matter which sports team was playing on the widescreen there). Somehow, the invitation to come and receive, without any expectation of having to give back, drew them like a magnet to our front door. Many of them live in dorms or are on a limited budget that is typical for an 18-28-year-old.
I think the night was a success of biblical proportions. A sense of warmth, wonder, openness and well-being flowed through our home as if the 30 people gathered there had found themselves ensconced in the safety of an ark set to sail in Skokie.
What does such an evening, of greater or lesser proportion, entail? A good bit of prayer, planning and preparation, perhaps, but more than anything else, a willingness to make it happen. We wanted it to be FOR THEM. The focus was on the young people, not on our performance as hosts. Doubtless, they have already forgotten the color of our living room and even what they ate (okay, maybe they remember the cheesecake). Hopefully, the words spoken, the grace expressed, the acceptance shown and the opportunity for 30 young Jewish believers like themselves to be gathered together will make a lasting impact of shared identity, hope and faith. And maybe, some of those young men and women are thinking somewhere in the back of their minds of how they will one day be in a position to reach out and offer hospitality to the next generation of Jewish believers.
If you feed them, they will come.
- “Shabbat at Home” by Rabbi Janet Marder, 1/21/05
- Open Heart, Open Home by Karen Mains, page 24, Mainstay Church Resoures, Wheaton, Illinois, 1998