Hospitality, sans the dinner plates

I grew up around words like grace and hospitality and sanctification and justification and love. If you asked me about them, I could rattle off a dictionary definition and quote a Bible verse or two. I learned them long before I actually understood them, long before they shaped the way I saw God and myself and the world He made in a way no dictionary definition could ever do. 

Don’t get me wrong: I love the church I grew up in and the friends and mentors I found there. I am so grateful my parents opened the Bible with us at dinner and prayed with us. I am glad I swam in grace and hospitality and sanctification and justification and love for years. Fish don’t know they’re in water, though, as the saying goes–so it’s only now, as a (sort-of) grown-up who grew up in the church, that I am beginning to realize the weight and worth of all those words I tossed around like copper pennies. 

Most recently, in my own apartment with a dining room table and enough dinner plates for more than one, it’s been hospitality that I’m trying to unpack. I have always known hospitality was a Biblical command, but I did not think it was one for every season of life. 

When I was little, showing hospitality meant people were coming over. It meant I had to vacuum the living room and my sisters had to empty the dishwasher and set the dining room table with the nice plates. When I went to college, I thought I couldn’t show hospitality because I didn’t have those things. I had two plastic plates from Target, and I boiled water in a microwave. I certainly didn’t have a dining room table. Hospitality is for grown-ups, I thought–like, real grown-ups, the kind whose dining rooms are not also their kitchens and their bedrooms and their offices. 

Then I got a dining room table, but I also had roommates. Hospitality is for when I have my own space.  Then I moved to the city apartment I have now, where parking is a pain and I have to escort visitors through a lobby and up an elevator. Hospitality is for when I have my own driveway.

Somewhere along the line, I realized that if I keep making excuses, hospitality will be for when I am in a hospital bed. 

My limited understanding of hospitality kept me from practicing it. Somehow, I reasoned that I couldn’t have people over; ergo, I couldn’t show hospitality. Where I got the idea that hospitality equals entertainment, I’m not sure. When I think of the hospitality I’ve been shown, I think of others extending spur-of-the-moment invitations for lunch after church, offering rides, asking to get coffee, and showing me around their favorite places–and doing all of that long before they got to know me, sometimes even before they’d even met me. The hospitality I’ve been shown is more than pristine tablecloths and nice plates and hors d’oeuvres. It’s not putting on a show; it’s making someone new, someone other, feel at home.

Romans 12:13 says, “Contribute to the needs of the saints and seek to show hospitality.” Hebrews 13:2 says, “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.” 1 Peter 4:9 says, “Show hospitality to one another without grumbling.” The Greek word translated “show hospitality” in each of these verses is a variant of philoxenosphilo, meaning love, and xenos, meaning stranger or foreigner. Hospitality is, literally, loving the stranger. 

Xenos might sound familiar for another reason: it’s half of the word xenophobia. The other half is phobos, meaning fear. Love of strangers, fear of strangers: Hospitality is the opposite of xenophobia. It is loving strangers with the affection of a sibling, loving them as a confidante, as a friend. Loving strangers can involve entertaining them, but it doesn’t have to. It’s possible to show hospitality from a dorm or a high school cafeteria or a messy house or an apartment on the top floor or a space you share with roommates. 

I used to view kingdom hospitality as nice tablecloths and spic-and-span floors. Now I think kingdom hospitality looks a lot more like handing your guest a cutting board and a knife when she walks in the door and asking her to chop some vegetables. It looks like asking the new person at church about their week, like picking up the phone when your hurting friend calls you unexpectedly, like offering to give someone a ride when you’ve only spoken to them once. Kingdom hospitality isn’t putting your life on display for someone, but inviting someone into your life. That’s the kind of connection we’re all longing for, really–a shadow of our home to come. 

Opening our doors to make others feel at home in our homes is a way to eagerly anticipate the day when we will finally reach our true home. Sure, maybe some part of each of us wants to be given a special seat at a beautifully decorated table, but our longing to belong runs far, far deeper than our longing for prestige. The eternal home we were made for isn’t one where we’re exalted above all else. It’s one where we are part of a family. 

Hospitality is a way to rehearse that future family today, in the already-but-not-yet. I love that I can rehearse it now in my own apartment, but no matter where I live, showing hospitality will still be my calling. When we love the other by bringing them into our lives and making an effort to enter theirs, we honor our ache for a homeland, one that includes people of all tribes and kingdoms and nations. We rehearse the city to come. And that’s a lot more than setting out the good china. 

P.S. If you’re looking for more resources or ways to think about hospitality, I’m reading Rosaria Butterfield’s The Gospel Comes with a House Key, and I’ve loved it so far. I also enjoyed this episode of The Gospel Coalition’s “Let’s Talk” podcast.

2 thoughts on “Hospitality, sans the dinner plates”

  1. Hi Molly – I am the Editor of a free Christian eMagazine out of Calgary called Kolbe Times: Faith, Arts & Justice. We are ecumenical in spirit, and our magazine is a “labour of love”, run entirely by volunteers. We have quite a large subscriber base in Canada and the U.S., with a growing community of readers around the world. You can check us out at The theme for our upcoming June issue is “Community and the Common Good”. I’ve been reading and enjoying the blog posts on the Common Ground website for a while now, and especially loved your recent piece “Hospitality, Sans the Dinner Plate.” Could we reprint it in our June issue? We’d be happy to include the website address for the Common Ground website, and encourage our readers to check it out. As well, we’d be happy to include any other links to social media or other websites that you might like us to include. Thanks for considering this request – we look forward to hearing from you!

    1. Molly Harnish

      Hi Laura – thanks for reading and reaching out! I’m encouraged by your interest and will send you an email shortly.

      – Molly

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