In the language in which the New Testament was written, the word for “hospitality” is literally “love of strangers” or “love of foreigners.” This seems like an oxymoron, for we appear wired not to love strangers precisely because they are strange, arousing a fear of the other precisely in their being different.
The stranger challenges “our ways of thinking and doing things,” asks uncomfortable questions, and threatens our ease. So the powerful protects his borders; the sectarian protects his so-called thinking; and the wealthy protects his holdings, all against the feared stranger. If this be true, then the appearance of the stranger is not merely an opportunity for us to exercise “charity.” The appearance of the stranger provides an opportunity for oneself to be freed from one’s own fears, insecurities, and provincial judgments.
The story is told of the 12th century Saint, Francis of Assisi. A young man from a wealthy family, he was terrified of the lepers who lived in the leper colony not far from his town. Riding his horse one day he came upon a leper with loathsome sores that filled Francis with revulsion. Overcoming his horror, he got down from his horse, gave all his money to the man, and kissed him.
This turning point in his life began his journey toward genuine liberty, a route to freedom seldom heralded: to sit at a table, or listen to the other, or share bread and wine.
Perhaps for this reason the Gospel account of Matthew does not say that when we clothe the naked we are being Jesus but that we are encountering God-in-flesh. Thus the host or hostess need as much for the child to come home, as the child needs to come home; it is part of the redemption of humankind that both the one serving the meal and receiving the meal come to know the mercy which we all so desperately need, and for which the human soul deeply longs.