Answering Islam - A Christian-Muslim dialog

God is Hospitable: Shouldn't we also be hospitable?

Roland Clarke

Let's begin by reading four well known scriptures on hospitality. While reading these verses remember that the Greek word rendered hospitality in English is 'philoxenia.' Literally it means 'love of strangers.' Hebrews 13:1,2 says, “Keep on loving one another as brothers and sisters. Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it.” (NIV) Who is this alluding to, that entertained angels unknowingly? Abraham of course!

Jesus also instructed us to show love to strangers, “Come, ... inherit the Kingdom prepared for you from the creation of the world. For I was hungry, and you fed me, I was thirsty, and you gave me a drink. I was a stranger, and you invited me into your home.” (Matthew 25:35) In a similar way the apostle Paul taught, “When God's people are in need be ready to help them. Always be eager to practice hospitality.” (Romans 12:13)

The fourth scripture, Luke 14:12-14, doesn't use the word 'hospitality' yet it reinforces the theme of loving people outside our social circle or comfort zone. Then Jesus said to his host, “When you give a luncheon or dinner, do not invite your friends, your brothers or sisters, your relatives, or your rich neighbors; if you do, they may invite you back and so you will be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed. Although they cannot repay you, you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”

There are many other verses that can inspire us to be hospitable, for example, verses telling us that God himself is hospitable, “God shows love to the foreigners living among you, and gives them food and clothing. So, you too, must show love to foreigners.” (Deuteronomy 10:18,19)

Elsewhere it is prophesied that “In Jerusalem the Lord ... will spread a wonderful feast for all the people of the world. It will be a delicious banquet with clear well aged wine and choice meat. There [in Jerusalem] he will remove the cloud of gloom, the shadow of death that hangs over the earth. He will swallow up death forever! The Sovereign Lord will wipe away all tears...” (Isaiah 25:6-8)

Interestingly Jesus picks up this banquet theme in Luke 14 which we just read a moment ago! Jesus was eating a meal in the home of a Pharisee and he made a startling statement about showing hospitality to the marginalized and poor. Then the conversation takes an interesting turn, as another guest responds,

“Blessed is the one who will eat at the feast in the kingdom of God.”

Jesus replied: “A certain man was preparing a great banquet and invited many guests. At the time of the banquet he sent his servant to tell those who had been invited, ‘Come, for everything is now ready.’

“But they all alike began to make excuses. The first said, ‘I have just bought a field, and I must go and see it. Please excuse me.’

“Another said, ‘I have just bought five yoke of oxen, and I’m on my way to try them out. Please excuse me.’

“Still another said, ‘I just got married, so I can’t come.’

“The servant came back and reported this to his master. Then the owner of the house became angry and ordered his servant, ‘Go out quickly into the streets and alleys of the town and bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame.’

“‘Sir,’ the servant said, ‘what you ordered has been done, but there is still room.’

“Then the master told his servant, ‘Go out to the roads and country lanes and compel them to come in, so that my house will be full. I tell you, not one of those who were invited will get a taste of my banquet.’” (Luke 12:15-24)

Here again, we see another glimpse of God's character. He is kindhearted and hospitable, feeding the poor, the marginalized and handicapped. As Lord of all, it makes sense that he sends messengers far and wide to invite everyone to attend his banquet. Being the perfect host, God doesn't show favouritism. Everyone is invited, as the prophet Isaiah said, “Is anyone thirsty? Come and drink – even if you have no money! Come take your choice of wine or milk its all free!” (Isaiah 55:1, bold font added)

Jesus loved foreigners

Not only does God love foreigners, his Son, Jesus Christ also loves them. First century Jews lived next door to their Samaritan cousins but regarded them as illegitimate sons of Abraham. Indeed they despised and shunned Samaritans as foreigners. (Luke 17:18) Jews had strong taboos against socializing with Samaritans but Jesus ignored them.

John chapter 4 recounts how Jesus engaged a Samaritan woman in casual conversation at a well. Not only did he talk with her, he was willing to drink from her water pot. She was not used to being treated with respect by a Jew! A little while later he agreed to stay a couple days in Sychar at the invitation of her people. Doing this meant eating in Samaritan homes which no doubt stretched the disciples outside their comfort zone!

One would hope they learned from this experience. However, several years later we read in Acts 10 how Peter faced a similar dilemma. Through a vision, the Lord asked Peter to kill and eat from a wide variety of ritually unclean animals. Initially he couldn't bring himself to say “Yes” to the Lord. But on further reflection, he agreed to go to the home of Cornelius, a Gentile. The vision was a jolting experience, a reminder of what Peter had glimpsed several years earlier in Sychar, i.e. Jesus (and God) does not show favouritism. He is willing to embrace people from every race or nationality.

Today we have many opportunities for practicing hospitality

Seeing the hospitality of God and Jesus inspires us to love the foreigners and refugees living among us. It is interesting to see that many of them have emigrated 'west' to countries that have a 'Christian' heritage. South Africa, where I live, fits this basic pattern. Although South Africa is not formally classified as 'western' it has a strong Christian heritage like most other 'western' nations. Like them South Africa has also experienced a large influx of refugees. As a result we are rated as the country having the most asylum seekers, according to the UNHCR reports of 2012 and 2013.

Why are these throngs of people flocking westward? And what is causing this massive displacement from homelands? (note: a significant percentage of these are Muslim) Many have fled the ravages of war. Others have experienced intolerable and oppressive living conditions. Some are looking for employment and a chance to make a new life.

Could it be that God is shaking the nations as prophesied in Haggai? One also wonders if there is a providential purpose behind multitudes of refugees coming to 'Christian' nations. Does God not expect his people, who are so blessed, to show generosity and hospitality? Does God not expect us to imitate his attribute of fairness and impartiality? Christians should be the least likely people to mistreat foreigners, because after all, the Bible says, "God shows love to foreigners ... So you too must show love to foreigners." (Deuteronomy 10:18-19) Christians are taught to practice philoxenia not xenophobia. (Notice again the root word xeno from which we get our English word stranger.)

A personal story

A few months ago God opened my eyes to an opportunity to befriend refugees who play soccer in a park in town which happens to be not far from me. I started watching them play soccer and I made friendly conversation with a couple spectators and guys on the sidelines who were waiting to play. I showed my sincere interest and asked a variety of simple questions. In this way I learned where they came from and how long they had been in South Africa, etc. On one occasion they even invited me to play five-aside soccer on the side of the main field. I thoroughly enjoyed this even though I ended up getting a sprained ankle!

According to various sources that I have consulted, it seems there could easily be 80,000 newcomer-Muslims in Durban, i.e. they have come here since 1994 which has basically doubled the Muslim population of Durban. Where have these people come from? ... a variety of countries such as DRC, Malawi, Tanzania, Burundi, Rwanda, Somalia, Ethiopia, Nigeria and Kenya, as well as the Middle East, Pakistan and even Bangladesh.

Are you getting the picture? God has a purpose behind the turbulence that has displaced multitudes of people. As our Chief Shepherd, Christ sees these scattered people as sheep without a shepherd. In effect they are a mission field on our doorstep. Many of them are not only poor, they're open to friendship and are willing to listen if we share our message of hope in a gentle and respectful way. As a matter of fact, these newcomers are more open to receive the seed of God's Word than the older migrants – those who've been here a century or more and are well established.

There is no shortage of opportunity to befriend newcomers. Most Christians in Durban have met a refugee car guard. Some of us have had our haircut by a Pakistani barber. Or we may have met someone from Asia who sells cell phones.

Illustrating different ways of showing hospitality

Let me tell you how we befriended a Turkish family many years ago in Canada. Mrs Tarik used to accompany her six year old son to school walking along our street. At that time we also had a six year old boy who attended the same school. We struck up a conversation and soon became friends. Once in a while we took our son to their home to play with their son, Ali.

On one occasion we invited Ali and his parents to eat supper with us. Little did we realize how deeply touched they were by this kindness. His mother was helping in the kitchen and my wife asked her, “Have you ever had the opportunity of eating in a Canadian home like ours?” She held back the tears and replied, “No, not once in the 6 years I've been here.”

When we have opened our home and shown hospitality to foreigners we have found they respond warmly and open up to us. Seldom do they hesitate to share their life, including areas of deep struggle. This kind of sharing often lends itself to offering a prayer in Jesus name and, in due course, an opportunity to share a reason for our hope in ways that are "seasoned with salt." (Col. 4:4-6)

Let me tell you another story, about Malik, a refugee whom I met 4 months ago while playing five-a-side soccer. During the first months I encountered Malik on several occasions, not only on the soccer field but also at the shop where he earns a minimum wage working as a security guard.

Early in our friendship I gave him a small paper containing a saying of Solomon, whom Muslims believe was endowed by Allah with much wisdom. The quote reads, “For everything there is a season, a time for every activity under heaven. A time to be born and a time to die ... Yet God has made everything beautiful for its own time. He has planted eternity in the human heart, but even so, people cannot see the whole scope of God's work from beginning to end ... A good reputation is more valuable than costly perfume. And the day you die is better than the day you are born. (Ecclesiastes 3:1,2,11; 7:1,2).”

Malik liked what he read but it wasn't until several weeks later that I began unwrapping its implications and explaining how eternal life is a gift from God.

As with the earlier story, this one shows, by God's grace, how a small act of friendship can open the door to a bigger opportunity. This is in keeping with Christ's saying, “You have been faithful in handling this small amount, so now I will give you many more responsibilities.” (Matt. 25:23) What began as a friendly “hello” on the soccer field eventually led to a meaningful encounter with 10 of his extended family in the intimacy of his home!

God knew I had patiently taken many small steps to build a friendship with Malik. The Lord knew I was earnestly praying for opportunities to deepen our friendship so that I could share the Gospel. Then out of the blue came an offer of 1 ton of food parcels designated for refugees. Much to my surprise the mystery donor asked, “Can you distribute these parcels to refugees?” To make a long story short, I ended up giving these parcels to many Muslim and Christian refugees. As you can well imagine, delivering these parcels gave me an appropriate door opener to go into many Muslim homes – a momentous step towards deepening my relationship with them.

Two fellow Christians, Eme and his mother Justine, joined me as we visited Malik at his home. The companionship of Eme and his Mom has proved strategic since they speak the same language as Malik, although they come from different countries. Throughout our visit conversation flowed freely in Swahili. I was thrilled to see a beautiful bond of friendship form between Justine and the 3 Muslim ladies. (one of them Malik's girl friend)

It was also wonderful being able to freely talk about God. We began by acknowledging the Lord's goodness in providing the food parcel. A little later when supper was served, Justine asked if we could give thanks, which she did in Swahili. After supper we talked about many things such as the names of the children, how many years since they left Burundi and how they have managed in terms of making a new life in this country, etc.

Before concluding our visit I read them a parable of Jesus which provides a glimpse into the generous and hospitable heart of God. The entire family listened with great interest as we read from Luke 14:12-25 about a certain man who spread a great feast. Although we read it in English, Justine spontaneously added explanatory remarks in Swahili as needed.

It was obvious that Malik's family thoroughly enjoyed the evening and their appetite was whetted for more. When we said goodbye they warmly invited us to come again.

The above two stories show different ways of doing hospitality – either by inviting a newcomer/refugee for a meal or by donating a food parcel in their home. Regardless how it is shared, let us make sure that the gift expresses our loving care. Let me share some additional examples that illustrate some other ways of showing hospitality.

A friend of mine recounted how he challenged a Christian couple to look for opportunities of reaching out to Muslims. They told him they were acquainted with a Muslim man who's wife had died not too long ago. It never occurred to them, however, to try and move the relationship a step closer by inviting him over for a meal. How delighted they were when he accepted the invitation without hesitation.

The Bible describes another circumstance which lends itself to showing hospitality to foreigners. Moses instructed the Israelites that when they arrive in Canaan they should give thanks to the Lord for freeing them from slavery and giving them this land flowing with milk and honey. He told them to pray, “'And now, O Lord, I have brought you the first portion of the harvest you have given me from the ground.' Then place the produce before the Lord your God, and bow to the ground in worship before him. Afterwards you may go and celebrate because of all the good things the Lord your God has given to you and your household. Remember to include the Levites and the foreigners living among you in the celebration.” (Deuteronomy 26:10,11)

How can we apply this principle to modern times? Can you think of a festive celebration that gives us a reason to be thankful? ... Christmas ... Thanksgiving ... birthdays ... Do we see these special events as opportunities to include poor and marginalized people? (Or do we choose rather, to associate with those in our comfortable social circle, i.e. our clique?)

These examples I've shared are just a sampling of some of the many different ways of showing hospitality. We have focused mainly on Christians befriending non-Christians which is appropriate since Christ is our example. By eating with tax-collectors, sinners and Samaritans he showed that this is how we too must seek the lost by eating with them.

On the one hand, hospitality is vital to reaching the lost, yet Scripture also teaches us to show hospitality to one another, that is, within the family of God. Consider these verses: “Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins. Offer hospitality to one another without grumbling.” (1 Peter 4:8-9, NIV) 3 John 5-7 reads, “Dear friend you are being faithful to God when you care for the travelling preachers who pass through, even though they are strangers to you. They have told the church here of your loving friendship. Please continue providing for such teachers... For they are travelling for the Lord.” Galatians 6:10 says, “Therefore, whenever we have the opportunity, we should do good to everyone – especially to those in the family of faith.”

Whether implicitly or explicitly, these verses teach Christians to be hospitable to one another. We are to practice both kinds of hospitality – outward and internal. We must be careful not to de-emphasize one at the expense of the other.

Some may query the emphasis on loving foreigners yet, considering Christ's mandate to spread the Gospel worldwide, this is by no means inappropriate.

On the other hand, we shouldn't understand philoxenia narrowly, as though it applies mainly, or only, to foreigners. It is clear in Luke 14 that Jesus used a wide angle lense:

When you give a luncheon or dinner, do not invite your friends, your brothers or sisters, your relatives, or your rich neighbors; if you do, they may invite you back and so you will be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed. Although they cannot repay you, you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous. (NIV)

In today's world one finds many different nationalities – foreigners – living and working as neighbors. However, there is a different sort of stranger who may be racially the same as us but still we must step out of our comfort zone to relate to him/her. This is true, even in the church. There are brothers and sisters in Christ whom we hardly know. In a sense, they too are strangers.

Is Jesus talking about this kind of stranger in Luke 14:12-14? One thing is clear, he wasn't stipulating a precise list of people that we should invite. His main purpose was to challenge us to step out of our comfort zone and befriend marginalized people. This includes anyone who is not our friend, relative, etc. Interestingly, the poor and handicapped people whom Jesus specifically mentioned represent people at the opposite end of the spectrum, i.e. those at the lowest end of the social ladder. These people had fewer friends. They weren't the “most popular kid on the block.” Jesus tells us not to narrow our guest list or stick with our cliquish group of friends. Instead we ought to be open-hearted, and invite 'outsiders.' Reflect a moment and ask yourself, “Have I been practising hospitality the way Jesus taught?” “Am I willing to follow his example and obey him? If so, who will I invite?”

Who will I invite?

How about inviting someone who has recently started coming to our church? Is there a brother/sister who has suffered a crisis or loss? Imagine how much this kindness would contribute to lifting this person's spirit.

I will never forget the time an unsaved neighbor, Jim, told me his wife was having a baby. When my wife heard this she made a plan to give them a meal on the day Anne came home from hospital. Jim and Anne were deeply touched by this kindness. Prior to that my wife had never met Anne but from that day, their friendship grew in leaps and bounds. Soon they began to read and discuss the Bible. And within a few months, she became a Christian!

Ask the Lord whether he wouldn't open a door for you to invite your neighbor for a tea so you can get to know him/her better? Perhaps at Christmas time (or Thanksgiving) you could take them a plate of home baked goodies. Perhaps you could show poor people kindness by helping in a soup kitchen?

Maybe you work with a colleague who is a long-bearded Arab. You've never bothered relating to him. Now you're feeling convicted because you've been shunning him. Being a devote Muslim, you assumed he is unfriendly, a close minded person, a hard nut to crack, etc. Why not start showing a friendly disposition with a sincere smile and a greeting or looking for some small act of kindness or courtesy you could show him, in keeping with what Jesus taught in Matt. 5:16, 46-47?

... let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven. ... If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. (NIV)

The command, 'be perfect,' like so many Bible statements, seems to set the bar impossibly high. Does God really expect us to love our enemies? to pay back good for evil? to forgive seventy times seven? The list of 'impossibilities' goes on and on. (Recall the courageous examples of Gideon and the Amalekites, David and Goliath, etc.) Also you may recall the story of how Jesus faced a hungry crowd of 5,000 people who had spent much of the day listening to his teaching. Now the multitude was hungry and the disciples suggested sending them home. But Jesus said, “You give them something to eat” although he knew they couldn't do it. Evidently he was testing them. They found a boy who volunteered his lunch bag. Miraculously, Jesus multiplied it and fed the entire crowd with 12 baskets of left over food.

In our lives we also face challenges. We express our faith by singing, “All things are possible.” We encourage ourselves, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” (Philippians 4:13) And we know God “is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us.” (Ephesians 3:20) Yet we make excuses, “I can't invite strangers to eat in my home. I'm just not skilled enough at making conversation, especially with strangers.”

However, we overlook the fact that merely opening our home and giving a listening ear makes our guests feel valued and loved. In spite of our inadequacies, God uses us to encourage and bless others, more than what we could have imagined.

Conversational Witness

Speaking of engaging people in conversation, Paul instructs us in Colossians 4 to make the most of such opportunities, letting our conversation with outsiders be “gracious and seasoned with salt.” Jesus showed us how to do this in John 4 and 6. In both passages we see Christ conversing about physical bread and water. The conversation bridges, almost imperceptibly, into meaningful discussion about spiritual things, i.e. 'living water' and 'bread of life.' Not only so, the imagery of feasting at a banquet calls to mind Isaiah's prophecy of an era when death will be done away with. In God's kingdom death will be “swallowed up” i.e. destroyed. This vision of Isaiah 25:6-9 begins with a picture of the heavenly host spreading a feast for all peoples... If you want to explore these insights in more detail have a look at, Peace and Hospitality, Is Death the End? and Life's Great Riddle: Elusive Hope of the Hereafter.Hospitality in Heaven: Feasting in Paradise.

If you want to discuss hospitality or related themes please email me here.

All Bible quotes are taken from the New Living Translation unless otherwise noted.

Appendix 1:Practical ideas for showing kindness at Christmas:
Hospitality, Thanksgiving and Christmas

Scripture tells us, "God loves the foreigner, giving him food..." (Deut. 10:18) God wanted the Israelites (& us) to show this same love. Moses instructed the children of Israel to give thanks to the Lord for freeing them from slavery and bringing them to the Promised Land. This is what he told them to pray, “'And now, O Lord, I have brought you the first portion of the harvest you have given me from the ground.' Then place the produce before the Lord your God, and bow to the ground in worship before him. Afterwards you may go and celebrate because of all the good things the Lord your God has given to you and your household. Remember to include the Levites and the foreigners living among you in the celebration.” (Deuteronomy 26:10-11)

Why do I highlight foreigner? Because the biblical term, philoxenia, literally means love of strangers. Moreover, when we celebrate Thanksgiving Day (and Christmas) we usually do so with friends and relatives, but rarely with strangers.

Look carefully at our modern 'festivals' of Thanksgiving and Christmas. Do you notice a fundamental similarity with the OT festival of first fruits? Both these feasts focus on giving thanks. On the one hand, Thanksgiving acknowledges a harvest which comes from the ground, whereas, Christmas celebrates a gift from above – the all surpassing gift of God's Son.

As much as the Israelites in Moses' time included foreigners in their thanksgiving feast shouldn't we do likewise? Bear in mind, the huge influx of refugees/immigrants to so-called Christian nations! A very considerable percentage of them are Muslim, as much as a third or half.

Is it not true that there is a warm sense of bonding and joy around the table when choice food, special juice and joyful laughter are flowing? Not only so, foreigners can begin to appreciate the source of our joy as we share the reason why we are celebrating.

Speaking of WHY we celebrate, consider the profound implications underlying the Qur'anic & Biblical accounts of the nativity story, not the least of which is how God himself chooses the name for this miracle son. It isn't hard to imagine a Muslim sitting around the table becoming curious as we pose the question, "Why do you think God chose the particular name, Yeshua/Isa, for the virgin born baby?" "What does it mean and how is this name reflected in Jesus' actions and personality?"

Two pocket style booklets which ask questions similar to the above are available online. They are titled, A Dialog about the One True God and Signposts to Paradise. You may like to check them out here.