Amish hospitality: Years ago, on a trip through the Amish country of Pennsylvania, fr. Tony took the occasion to visit several of the shops. Many of them had signs of greeting hung on the door or in the window, which read, “Welcome! There are no strangers here — only friends we haven’t yet met.” In keeping with the sign was the warmth and kindness with which visitors were received and tended to. Unfortunately, hospitality such as this has become an uncommon, albeit pleasant surprise in today’s world. But it was not always so. In ancient times, hospitality was considered a sacred duty and in Scripture the patriarchs are cited as models of this virtue (Genesis 19:2; 24:17-33; 43:24). Recall, in particular, the visit of Yahweh to Abraham (Genesis 18:2-8); Abraham and Sarah’s generous welcome of their guests was rewarded with the promise of a son. As Xavier Leon-Dufour [Dictionary of Biblical Theology (Geoffrey Chapman, London: 1973)] explains, hospitality was to be valued as a work of mercy as well as a means of witnessing to the Faith. The visitor who traveled through and requested assistance (Proverbs 27:8, Sirach 29:21-27) was to be regarded as a living reminder of Israel’s former struggle as enslaved strangers in Egypt (Leviticus 19:33-34). The stranger in need was also to remind Israel of its present status as a wandering pilgrim on earth (Psalm 39:13, Hebrews 11:13, 13:14).
We owe hospitality to strangers in Jesus’ name (“offering a cup of cold water..”): For the Jews, receiving a person’s representative or messenger was the same as receiving the person himself. Hence, receiving a man of God who teaches God’s truth was considered equivalent to receiving God Himself. Giving hospitality to a preacher or a believer is the same as welcoming Jesus Himself. The Good News is that the modesty of our circumstances does not limit our potential rewards. We don’t have to be a prophet to receive a prophet’s reward–we have only to receive a prophet. We don’t have to be a great saint to receive a great saint’s reward–we have only to show hospitality to such a saint. The smallest gift to the littlest disciple brings a certain reward. Just as God knows and cares about every hair of our heads, so too, He knows about our generous acts in behalf of the faithful. Such gifts are counted as gifts to Jesus — and gifts to Jesus are counted as gifts to the Father. Another bit of Good News is that, as we are engaged in the Lord’s work, those who help us are also promised a reward. That is true whether we are clergy or lay people, preachers or janitors. We may not find it comfortable to be on the receiving end rather than the giving end of a generous, loving exchange, but the Lord has ordained that our humble, grateful receiving becomes a blessing for the giver. This is why welcoming others is given such high priority in the New Testament, and why it is a tradition which still lives on in many parts of the Church today. The basis of all hospitality is that we all belong to God’s family, and that every person is our brother or sister. In the game of life, while we would prefer to be the quarterback — the hero — Jesus’ heart leans toward the water-boy or water-girl. Hence, providing a cup of water is a valid vocation.