Philoxenia: Love of the Stranger

What is Philoxenia? When I first heard this word, I wondered if I had just stumbled upon a new kind of flower, Philoxenia… sort of like a Xenia or phlox or a Xenia crossed with a phlox to create a whole new flower.  It’s not a flower, it is the Greek word for Hospitality.  It literally means Philo or Love; Xenia or Stranger; put together it means LOVE OF STRANGER. 

Hospitality then is the act of making strangers feel loved, as if they belong, welcome—like family.  Hospitality is another thread that is woven throughout the entire Bible. 

Growing up in the church, hospitality was more about making sure the coffee was on and the donuts and cookies were placed out on the serving table.  We had a hospitality committee, usually made up of women, who made sure there were plenty of good things to eat and coffee to drink—cool-aid for the children and decaf for the senior folks.  And we would gather in the fellowship hall after the morning service to share in a time of “fellowship”.  Because what else would one do in a fellowship hall?  I loved this time because it meant that I could play just a bit longer with my friends before we all went home for Sunday dinner. 

Going a little deeper, many congregations would hold Wednesday night suppers for families participating in the children and youth programs or better yet, hold a dinner for people in the community.  It could even involve feeding the hungry by offering a free meal in the fellowship hall.  Often hospitality was offered to couples getting married or for funerals.  Each women’s circle, usually named Martha circle or Mary circle, would take turns organizing the lunch for newlyweds or those having just lost a loved one.  These were vital ministries of the church.  These are good parts of church community perhaps more common in the rural areas than urban.  Nothing wrong with these forms of hospitality unless these are the sole definitions of hospitality.   

I honestly don’t ever remember anyone preaching or teaching on hospitality outside of including it in the list of spiritual gifts.  Our images were always the above descriptions, therefore those gifted with hospitality were the ones on the hospitality committee who loved to make coffee and cookies, cook and make the fellowship hall look beautiful. 

While the Biblical understanding of hospitality includes the above images, the understanding in scripture is much broader and definitely more radical.  I share all of this because we have limited our ideas of hospitality to actions that are mostly comfortable—making food, setting the table and hanging out in fellowship hall with mostly the church folks that we already know. 

We sorely need a return to a more Biblical definition of hospitality—Love of Stranger. 

Philoxenia is the opposite of xenophobia which means fear of the stranger.  It is common in people groups around the world to separate from and fear those who are different, or on the fringes of society or marginalized in some way.  It is why the Bible so often speaks about caring for widows, orphans and strangers–they are the vulnerable ones.  Funny how already vulnerable people are most often scapegoated and further marginalized through what psychologists call demonization. 

Demonization is the act of framing others as somehow evil or threatening.  Its common in our political dialogue and is the language and process of scapegoating.  Scapegoating is the art of blaming others for the sins of our society.  By focusing only on the faults or perceived faults of a particular person or group of people, we can create a caricature of who they are—one not based in reality.  Then stories are found and told to support that narrative and reinforce it as “fact.”  This continues until a person or group is fully demonized.  They are the bad ones and we need to somehow rid ourselves of “these” people.  It’s how we maintain power.  

Demonization is the way we excuse ourselves so that we don’t have to face ourselves and our own sin.  It’s the way we otherize people so we can escape our responsibility or moral duty to love well and strive for justice.  Historically demonization has also been the foundation for great evils such as ethnic cleansing and genocide. 

The Bible offers a radical alternative to xenophobia—philoxenia—love of the stranger.  What does it mean to love the stranger? 

When I think about the meaning of philoxenia, the first story that comes to mind is the story of the Good Samaritan.  Remember, a man, beaten and left for dead was lying beside the road and both a priest and a Levite had walked by the beaten man and looked the other way.  The context of the story was the question about who was one’s neighbor.  Jesus did not really answer the question but told a story about what a good neighbor really looked like.  And the hero of the story was the most despised of characters—a Samaritan.  God’s people had already demonized Samaritans as being unfaithful and unclean, Jesus lifts this man up reframing the narrative.  Somehow this Samaritan who saw the beaten man, tended to his wounds and paid for his care was more noble and a better neighbor than those who considered themselves God’s people.  He is the one who showed hospitality.

And perhaps rather than wondering who is our neighbor, we ought to be concerned with how well we are being a good neighbor.

The Samaritan showed hospitality and love to the beaten man left on the side of the road.  The demonized Samaritan was a better neighbor and showed more Torah love than God’s people did.  Hospitality is to see the beaten down ones and serve them so they can become healed and whole.    

Who are the ones beaten down today?  And how might we be a neighbor? I think of the largest humanitarian crisis in decades, the refugee crisis.  While others are scapegoating and demonizing them, I wonder if God’s people might be the ones who would stop, give them food, tend to their needs, find them shelter and welcome them into community.  I wonder how just being community and welcoming them could create a home for them among people who would love them.  They have truly been robbed of their homes and country by evil rulers and I feel that God’s people are more inclined to look the other way instead of serve them.  I wonder about what kinds of kingdom opportunities we are missing because we have looked the other way. 

Hospitality then is to see and act—to serve—to tend to the ones in need of attention–to welcome others as if they were family.  It is to place our status aside, to shed fears and minister to the ones beaten and bruised on the margins of our society. 

The Bible contains story after story after story of how the gospel is applied to our relationships.  In Galatians, we see Paul chastising Peter for being concerned about his status and avoiding eating with Gentiles and sinners.  While Jesus ate with sinners, common practice was to avoid such habits that would make one unclean in the eyes of one’s peers.  To touch the lepers, to touch bleeding women, to call tax collectors as disciples and women delivered from demons as followers—this is the picture of welcome that Jesus gave us.  Jesus himself, was the picture of philoxenia.  He loved the ones on the margins and it is with them he forms a new community of the forgiven.

Another story particularly challenges us.  It is the story found in Luke 7.  It is the story of a sinner who welcomed Jesus while a Pharisee did not.  Jesus was invited to the home of a Pharisee but was not offered the usual kinds of welcome.  This was intended to show Jesus dishonor.  Normally the host would have a servant wash the feet of the guest.  Normally the guest would be greeted with a kiss.  That he did not offer these acts of hospitality showed contempt for his guest.  Watching was a woman who had received the redemptive work of Jesus, she had been forgiven much.  In gratitude, she entered the forbidden area, she washed the feet of Jesus with her own hair and kissed him.  The Pharisee in his contempt wondered why Jesus would allow such an unclean woman to touch him and if he were a prophet, wouldn’t he know what kind of sinner she was? 

The Pharisee was confronted of not only his inhospitality toward Jesus but his inhospitality and unforgiveness toward the woman who had been forgiven.  With contempt for her gratitude, his own sin went unnoticed.  What would he do when faced with his own need for forgiveness?  It is the community of the forgiven who offer first a welcome to Christ, and then a welcome to others in the world. 

I wonder what would happen if we refused to participate in the demonization of others and instead offered those same people—refugees, immigrants, orphans, widows the welcome heart of God.  What would happen? How would our faith impact the world differently? 

A few years back, we began a ministry to women in transition.  Often they had turned to the church for help—some had been demonized as Jezebels for somehow not being submissive enough—therefore causing their own abuse.  Having had abusive spouses, they were blamed for their own abuse and the abuser was not held accountable.  We opened our home in radical hospitality to give them a safe place to recover emotionally and financially from the toll of such toxic relationships.  In each case, the Spirit has been active in bringing each person to our home.  The Spirit has been healer and comforter.  We have felt his power personally as the Spirit has given insight and empowerment in each situation.  We can trust that God’s heart is for others. And if we simply begin, God will show up.

I think that some of the stories in the Bible listed above could help us face our own inhospitality toward those the world would demonize and call unclean.  In fact demonization of others might be our first clue that radical hospitality is needed.  Jesus was not afraid to be with the ones on the margins of our world.  He did not care if his status were in jeopardy nor was he concerned about how his image would be affected.  He was not worried about his culture being corrupted by Gentiles.  I wonder if we might teach more carefully about the welcome heart of God knowing that in Christ, God first welcomed us.  Perhaps we could also extend that same welcome to others and in the name of Jesus offer hospitality.  

Hospitality is more than serving coffee and cookies… it is extending the welcome heart of God to heal, lift up, empower, and include those our world would deem as a stranger we are called to LOVE the stranger–to friend them and invite them into our community.  Philoxenia.  Just do it.

Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers (philoxenia) for some who have done this have entertained angels.  Hebrews 13:2

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