When I was young, I was always intrigued by a verse from Hebrews. "Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it.” It was something my mother used to reference when she’d give money to strangers in a parking lot. When she’d offer to watch over other kids for the day when their parents needed an emergency babysitter. When (despite my pleading) she would give oft neglected children across the street some of our leftover KFC, a delicacy we only ordered on birthdays, and I was heartbroken to part with.
But even as a child it struck me as odd. The idea of angels in disguise, testing us to see if we are living up to our virtues. It’s a curious thought and one that will make you see outstretched hands in a different light. It’s certainly motivating to think that we could be being observed in the act, that an angel could be watching us as we make the mental calculation to spare some change or open our door. I always admired my mother for keeping that kind of mindset, for always being willing to help because, like she’d smile and say, "you never know.”
But really, God has no need for angels to test us and report their observations to Him. He sees what we’re doing and what is in our hearts at all times, he already knows when we live up to the standards He asks us to and when we disappoint. And what is the difference to God between giving to an angel and giving to another one of his children? Do we believe He would value charity given to an angel more than He would value a helping hand extended to a needy child or a lonely soul? I don’t think so.
While that verse is helpful for clarifying God’s expectations for us, it doesn’t really change anything if it is taken literally or not. There is no difference whether we’re talking to an angel, a small child, or a wandering drunk, our commitment to that person is the same. God wants us to love our neighbors no matter who they are or where they come from and show them hospitality.
But what does hospitality mean exactly? In the times when Hebrews was written, hospitality served a very different function in society. Secularly, hospitality and etiquette was a defining social structure that maintained the freedom of travel and commerce in society. Between Christians though, it meant something more.
When the Church was young and persecuted, hospitality also meant survival. When preachers might have to travel far and wide by foot, either voluntarily as part of their mission or involuntarily to stay ahead of those opposed to the message of Christ. These wanderers hit the uncertain road with nothing but faith to guide them. They didn’t have the ability to make arrangements or "send ahead” for a room and meal at their destination. Frequently, they were not even sure what their destination was. They were dependent on open doors and hearths, on a seat at the table for a meal, on fellow brothers and sisters understanding their struggle and sharing what they had. A beautiful sentiment.
In our day and age, it is a very different thing to be a Christian. We are blessed to be free to worship without fear, and Christians as a group have flourished and thrived in North America. We don’t have wandering prophets making their way to our city with nothing be the sandals on their feet and the good book in hand. We don’t have fellow brothers and sisters in Christ dodging centurions and looking for a safe place to stay. We have safety, security, and prosperity.
Does that mean our responsibility is the same as those early Christians? Not at all. I would argue it’s far greater. God asks us to dig even more deeply and give even more freely.
Loving a brother in need, a social equal with the same beliefs as you, is easy. You have common ground to start from. There is the knowledge that you could wind up in the same position just as easily someday. The favor you do today comes with the understanding that it might be someday repaid to you.
How much more difficult is it to love the stranger. The person who is different from you, that you seem to share little common ground with on the surface. Someone who would be incapable of repaying you in the same way if the situation was somehow reversed. When we can embrace that person with an open hand and no expectations, that is when we can show real, Christ-like hospitality.
And if our ancient fellow Christians were expected to open their doors and share the last of their loaves and oil with a stranger who wandered in off the dusty road, what are we expected to share when we live in relative prosperity? We’re to give openly, without hesitation, without calculation. When someone asks for a hand, our first response shouldn’t be to think of what we can give without really missing it, but rather, we should be figuring out what they need and making sure they get it.
As we celebrate this Christmas, a season of giving, let’s be inspired to show real hospitality. Reflect the generosity of Christ in your own life and give to those you don’t know, to the people you don’t understand or recognize. Whether or not they are angels in disguise doesn’t matter, they are God’s children just like us, and he wants us to love them like we love the brother or sister sitting next to us in Church.