One day last week, after work, I left school with three other teachers, and we called a Grab taxi to go home. This is our usual routine since we all live in the same apartment building. At the back gate, we found a pick-up truck waiting for us, but there was a problem: Only two seats were available, but four weary travellers. My colleague gestured to the truck bed and asked if some of us could ride there. He also tried to open the passenger’s side door, but to no avail; it was locked.
After about four minutes of confusion and gesturing through the window, the real Grab car, with almost the same license plate, pulled into the lot. Even now, I feel for this poor Thai man who, while waiting to pick up his child from school, was interrupted by four strangers attempting to negotiate—with apparent desperation—a ride in the back of his truck. But he was gracious and smiled through the whole misunderstanding. This scene came to mind as I was preparing for this homily. He was, in a word, hospitable.
Hospitality is not always the offering of shelter or the welcoming of a guest. It comes in many forms, and in this case, it was merely graciousness in handling a miscommunication.
“Whoever gives a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple, I tell you—none of these will lose their reward.” Offering a glass of water. It is a small and ordinary gesture, but it conveys immense hospitality because the boundlessness of Christ’s love plays upon the surface of that water, and whoever drinks it takes in that infinity.
The early church offers us a vivid example of hospitality, to the point that we may be tempted to refer to them as a communist society. They held all things in common, after all. And yet the reality was more subtle, for this community was not an economy: it was a body, the body of Christ. To have an economy, there must be possessions to buy, sell, and trade. But when all things are held in common, all resources shared, how can this label apply? The early church transcended economic systems; it did not instantiate them, for there, in the dynamism of fellowship, every possession was transfigured into a gift. And indeed, the slogan of the early church could easily have been: Nothing owned, all given. Christ reigned, and for that reason, hospitality reigned also.
In the first centuries of Christian history, there was a belief circulating that only the Father was truly divine, while Christ was a lesser being, the creator of the world but not on quite the same level as God. This was called subordinationism, and it met defeat at the hands of the Cappadocian fathers—St. Gregory of Nyssa, St. Gregory Nazianzen, and St. Basil the Great—and others, who argued that only if Christ can only unite us to the Father if He, too, is divine.
And as Jesus’ full divinity was gradually recognized, the face of eternity began to change, and now all these centuries later as we affirm, in the Nicene Creed, that Christ is “of one being with the Father.” We affirm that the Father, in eternity, gives birth to the Son, welcomes Him, loves Him. God’s transcendence may at first have seemed far off, distant, incommunicable, but now it is the hospitality of the Trinity, the dynamism of the Father’s love for the Son, the Son’s love for the Father, and the Spirit’s rejoicing as their shared delight. And so, when we are hospitable, we share in eternity. And as we offer a cup of water to the thirsty, we are caught up in the very life of the Trinity.
Jesus also displays hospitality throughout the gospels, and he does this in a most unusual way: He steps outside of economies. I do not mean simply that He was a vagabond and relied on strangers for shelter and for his daily meals; I also mean that He did not act or think as we do today. We save our money, we plan ahead, we grow anxious about the future, but He wandered from place to place in the desert sands and trusted only in the providence of His transcendental Father. He lived submerged in God’s hospitality, trusting in it at every moment, gathering His subsistence from it.
And how often he offended against the logic of economies! We believe a day’s work should earn a day’s pay, but in the parable of the vineyard, kindness triumphs over proportion, and those who bear the heat of the day are paid the same as those join later, as the day cools and the sun fades. In this story, He showed us that hospitality is something that lies beyond the desert; it has nothing whatever to do with exchange. And here again, hospitality upends the logic of economy. For most of us it is all but impossible to imagine a world in which we never have to worry about money, but Christ imitated the lilies of the field and, like them, He never laboured nor spun, but His life unfolded in the radiant light of God’s provision.
He also stepped outside the economy of violence. We often assume that crimes should be punished and evil deserves a requital, but Jesus said, “You have heard it said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,’ but I say, ‘Love your enemies.’” He was crucified but never retaliated; He merely prayed for His abusers, and in doing so He removed Himself—and His followers—from the cycle of reward and punishment, of crime and punishment, of assault and requital, and from the violence that allegedly sustains the order of cities and nations.
It is hard to imitate Him, of course. But to shed our concern for wealth and security is to actualize our faith in God’s providence, and this is to assume that God Himself is hospitable to us, that He entertains us in this world, so to speak, and that we are His guests, having been conjured into existence with great love. And to be indifferent to justice and to prize mercy above retribution is to extend hospitality to all, regardless of who is deserving. To be hospitable is to follow Christ. And so, hospitality is more radical than we suppose.
I once read a passage from Frithjof Schuon, a writer on all things spiritual. He said that Christianity had to temper its original radicalism because, as it was practised by the early church and the desert fathers, it could never become the religion of an entire society of the West. He was not complaining about the church’s unholy flirtation with Constantinianism, nor was He saying that the compromise was a bad thing. For Schuon, all this was good and necessary and bound to happen. But this set me to thinking: What if it simply is not possible to found a society on Christianity, and what if this is the point?
At the very least, this insight makes sense of the lives of the saints. These were people who, in one way or another, simply did not fit. St. Francis of Assisi could not hold down a steady job and, instead, walked the streets as a friar begging for his food and teaching about compassion. Like Christ, he stepped out of the economy, and His wages were spiritual—communion with God—and not material. And when St. Seraphim of Sarov was attacked by robbers, he refused to strike back and did not seek revenge. He stepped out of the economy of justice and demanded no retribution. By imitating Christ, these saints were implicitly rejecting the very foundations of society: money and justice. And so perhaps Schuon is right: No society can survive if it follows the precepts of Christ. And perhaps, just perhaps, therein lies the radicalism of the gospel.
But of course, there are some who would look upon my reverence for the church and for the saints with suspicion. Is Christianity not the religion of colonialism, spreading to new lands only through conquest or at the very least with an arrogant cultural supremacism? This is a style of thinking that has become fashionable in certain postmodern schools of theology. It is true, of course, that the church is not innocent of violence, and it is also true that sometimes it was a culture—rather than the gospel—being preached. But those who embrace this ultimately Nietzschean story have forgotten the larger context.
Christianity was never self-enclosed, even from its beginning, and, in fact, the Nicene Creed was an exercise in interfaith dialogue. The doctrine of the Trinity arose in part because the church fathers were in constant and respectful dialogue with Greek philosophy. And from the early days of the church, Christian mystics drew heavily from Plato, Plotinus, and others—they did not regard Christianity as a self-contained system of beliefs and, for that reason, were able, with deep hospitality, to learn from the best in pagan wisdom.
The early church did, thankfully, reject the caste system of the Roman Empire, elevate the poor, and so on, and so I am not saying there was no apocalyptic element or no break with the surrounding culture. Of course there was. I am only saying that there is continuity as well as discontinuity and that Christian doctrine emerged—at least in part—through hospitality toward the pagan world and its philosophers. And as hospitality was extended, our doctrines emerged.
And so, despite its failures, I continue to believe that the church is a place of radical hospitality. The church is Christ’s mystical body, and this is why we strive to value love over possessions and to trust in God and not wealth. This is why we forgive. This is why we pray for our enemies. And this is why we refrain from judgment and look for good in the world. The church is not a belief system, a nation, or an economy: it is a wide embrace.