The word hospitality is connected to the latin word ‘hospes’ which can mean a guest or a host so there are two ways to experience hospitality. As a host we invite and welcome others into our lives, either our home or our community, or even nation as is the case with immigrants or refugees. As a guest we receive hospitality and enter the world of another which never feels quite like home.
The Letter to the Hebrews 13:2 says, “do not neglect to show hospitality to the stranger for by doing so some have entertained angels without knowing it”. This is likely to be a reference to stories such as that of Abraham in the Book of Genesis when he welcomes three strangers into his tent who turn out to be angels. These stories are not unusual in religion – there are many stories told in different religions where an unexpected visitor is a messenger from God or even God. Paul’s letter to the Romans 12:13-14 tells us what extending hospitality to strangers is about –“rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep, live in harmony with one another”.
Pope Francis often speaks of harmony and fraternity. He believes that listening is an essential part of hospitality. It is only by listening, he says, that we can respect the personhood of guests and know something of their history, their concerns and beliefs. Only then will a person feel at home, and we will recognise the spiritual gifts they have to offer us. What the Pope calls for is the cultivation of a hospitable heart which he believes is essential for interreligious dialogue and for world peace. In April this year he told a delegation of Buddhist monks “let us continue to work together to cultivate compassion and hospitality for all human beings, especially the poor and the marginalised.” During a recent visit to Iraq, he said “The journey to peace begins with the decision to have no enemies. “There will be no peace as long as we see others as them and not us.”
This separating humanity into them and us is obvious in the wars and conflicts throughout the world as well as in attitudes to people of different race, gender, sexual orientation, religions. It can also be seen in tensions within our faith communities where one denomination can often be suspicious of the other. This came to the fore in a recent series of programmes on British television about the troubles in Northern Ireland. People simply told their stories, about their experience of the conflict and the hatred between Catholics and protestants which eventually gave way to a desire for a peace that turned enemies into friends. This was the case with Martin McGuiness who served alongside his once upon a time enemy Ian Paisley as deputy first minister of North Ireland. One-time enemies they worked together and found they shared a sense of humour so that they were known as the ‘chuckle brothers’ – something that was very unexpected. At Martin McGuiness’ funeral President Bill Clinton spoke movingly of how he had reduced the ‘them’ and widened the ‘us. The situation in Northern Ireland, while not perfect, is both an encouragement that such a change is possible and an inspiration to make this a focus for our work of interreligious dialogue. It shows that hospitality of the heart can make strangers (and even enemies) into brothers and sisters. Nowadays we would want to expand this beyond the human of course to include all sentient beings and the very planet on which we all live and depend on for life.
In Matthew’s gospel chapter 25 Christians are told that it is not religion that will save us but how we treat one another. This is the yardstick for our relationship with God. What we need is a heart as wide as the world. It is surely this that will save the world and redeem it from the zenophobia, hate and suspicion that keeps us apart and ignites so much violence and conflict in our world.