The terrain surrounding Jerusalem is rugged and unforgiving: rocky hills with little water to the west, forbidding desert to the east, scorching temperatures most of the year. Travel could be dangerous, so hospitality to the traveler was an ongoing need and a sacred duty. The New Testament is full of images and stories of guests received, both those already known as friends and those strangers who are taken in and transformed into guests. Among nomadic tribes, the guest comes under the protection of the host, who guarantees inviolable safety. The important elements of hospitality include the opportunity for cleansing dusty feet, scented oil to soften dried skin and mask odors of the road, food, shelter, security, and companionship.
When Jesus sends out disciples on mission, they are to lodge in the houses where they are welcomed. Jesus’ vision of mission is impossible without this reciprocity, the reception of those who are sent by those who receive them (Matt 10:11, Mark 6:10, Luke 9:4, Luke 10:7-8). In the case of hospitality refused, the disciples are to move on.
The many stories of banquets in the Gospels presuppose the practice of hospitality for important events and transition moments: for example, the great dinner (Matt 22:1-10; Luke 14:15-24) or the celebration of the return of the younger son (Luke 15:22-32). These banquets in biblical perspective open horizons toward the kingdom of heaven. How is ultimate happiness imagined—as a banquet in which everyone is happy and fulfilled (Luke 22:30), or as the celebration of a marriage (Rev 19:9)?
Jesus is himself the important guest in the Gospels. There is a wrong way to receive him, typified by Simon the Pharisee, who treats him poorly by offering neither water for foot washing nor oil for anointing nor gesture of welcome, while the “sinner” woman who enters uninvited receives him correctly (Luke 7:36-50). Martha and Mary do not offer the perfect reception, however, for in this intimate place among friends that should feel comfortably familiar, Jesus is brought into a home where there is some underlying family tension (Luke 10:38-42).
Later, Paul and other itinerant missionaries rely on the hospitality of those who receive them as they journey from city to city. The Lord’s Supper was celebrated primarily, though not exclusively, in private homes that would become centers of hospitality and evangelization. At Philippi, Lydia, a merchant of purple cloth, is mesmerized by Paul’s preaching and insists that he accept her hospitality in her home that will become a center of faith (Acts 16:14-15, Acts 16:40). In the miraculous nocturnal delivery of Paul and Silas from prison in Philippi, the jailer, himself saved from suicide by Paul’s quick action, responds by taking them into his own home, where in the middle of the night he and his household give the apostles medical attention and food (Acts 16:29-34). Here, hospitality is the expression of a desire to repair the damage of the past and continue the relationship.
The hearers of the Letter to the Hebrews are warned of the importance of practicing hospitality: some have in this way received angels without knowing (Heb 13:2; compare Gen 18:1-15). Sometimes it goes wrong: the author of 3John 9 has a hospitality problem: the house of Diotrephes will not receive the emissaries sent from the author—for what reason, we do not know.
At the very end of the Bible, hospitality is still an issue: Laodicea, one of the seven cities featured in Revelation, is asked to receive the risen Jesus as a guest who will come for dinner (Rev 3:20). Will they receive him?