Here is part of a sermon delivered at Westminster Abbey on July 9th by the Anglican priest Nicholas Sagovsky, who serves as Canon Theologian there. Fr Sagovsky’s texts are Deuteronomy 24:10ff (“For remember that you were once slaves in Egypt; that is why I command you to observe this rule”) and Acts 28:1-16 (where, speaking of Malta, St Luke writes, “The natives showed us extraordinary hospitality; they lit a fire and welcomed all of us because it had begun to rain and was cold”). He reminds us, “There is a delightful mutuality about hospitality,” a circle of giving and receiving that begins when we are “filled with gratitude to God for his generosity to us.” Here, then, is Fr Sagovsky on hospitality:
God’s way is set out in the reading we heard [Dt 24]. It is to be hospitable to others, remembering that God has been hospitable to them in giving them the land. [The Israelites] are to make space in their society for the needs of the poor and the vulnerable. If, because a poor person has nothing else to give as security for a loan, they give their blanket, this is to be given back at night time so they have something warm to sleep in. Poor people are to receive their wages daily so they do not starve. People are to be punished for their own wrongdoing not for the wrongdoing of their parents or children – something which has a contemporary ring, given what is happening at the moment in Gaza. When a field of grain, or an olive grove, or a vineyard is harvested, something is always to be left for the poor. There is to be nothing grudging about this care for those who have little or nothing. Twice, even within the passage we heard, we are reminded why this is. The text does not say, ‘Your ancestors were slaves in Egypt’. It says, ‘You were a slave in the land of Egypt and the Lord your God redeemed you.’ This is what it means to belong to a people: the experiences of the past become the experiences of the present, with the power to change attitudes and actions. As far as the Israelites were concerned, this inclusive hospitality for the poor, the needy, for widows and orphans, and this humanity towards strangers, was not an option. It was a command from God, a command which Christians have also taken to be a command for us.
The earliest Jewish Christians were told, in the Epistle to the Hebrews, ‘Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.’ It’s an allusion to the time when Abraham entertained three strangers who turned out to be angels (messengers) from God. Abraham was showing the hospitality that is cultivated as a virtue amongst people who know who they need food and drink and protection when they travel, and how reliant they may be on the generosity of others to meet these basic human needs. For the Israelites, there was a specially good reason to be generous to others: because God had been generous to them when they were slaves and exiles. For the inhabitants of Malta – those barbarians – we do not know and it does not matter why they showed kindness and generosity, but, like Abraham, they found that their kindness was repaid through the kindness of God. There is a delightful mutuality about hospitality. At times in our lives we find ourselves in deep need of such hospitality – one has only to think of our complete dependence on a mother’s love and provision as we enter this world. At other times we are in a position to give such hospitality, and at those times we must remember how much we have received.
The word hospitality has a Latin root. In Latin a hospes can be either a host or a guest. The same is true of the French word hôte. You have to look at the context to see whether the emphasis is on the giving or the receiving. In our first reading it was make clear that the inhabitants of Malta gave generously and received generously; in the second it we saw that because they inhabitants of the Promised Land had received generously they were to give generously. In all the major religions of the world hospitality is a key virtue. To be hospitable we have to be filled with gratitude to God for his generosity to us; then we can surely welcome others with the same spirit of generosity that we have experienced. Sometimes it works the other way round, perhaps as with the inhabitants of Malta. Either way, we are talking about the one generous spirit of hospitality and that is the Spirit of God.