Hospitality is a big deal. At Small Group Spring Training a couple of weeks ago, Anna brought up how difficult it was to create an experience of community in a Small Group if you didn't have a house or apartment to invite people into. Without hospitality, Small Group shinks to just Bible Study and before long becomes Another Meeting I Have To Go To. The warmth of a home, food and drink and snacks, a softer space makes a ton of difference.
This value of hospitality isn't some new, nerfy, post-modern thing we're pushing on Small Group Leaders to help them connect with a lonely generation (well...it's not just that). The cost of being inhospitable has always been high.
In the Bible, being inhospitable was enough to separate you and your family from the big things God is doing in the world and in history.
The Book of Ruth, especially the second chapter, contains a great deal of thoughtful discourse on hospitality. Namely, Boaz shows hospitality to Ruth and, through Ruth, to Naomi.
Naomi returned from her time in Moab, widowed and without sons, bitter. Here's what probably should have happened when she returned:
- The community should have provided for her. Deuteronomy 10 says that God feeds and clothes widows (and so should his people).
- Her relatives (like Boaz) should have visited her (it was a small town).
- A male relative should have sheltered her. Deuteronomy 25 has instructions about that.
This is one of those cases where it's very helpful to pay attention to ethnic identity. Naomi returned with Ruth in tow. Ruth was from Moab. As a Moabite, she faced stiff resistance from law-abiding Israelites. In Deuteronomy 23 we read that noone from Moab is allowed to enter the assembly of the Lord, in part because they refused hospitality to the Israelites when they were wandering in the desert.
Did people shun Naomi because of Ruth? Maybe. If they wanted to obey the law, Ruth's presence created a tension. For all intents and purposes, she shouldn't have been there. Or so it seemed.
I love to read about Boaz' care for Ruth in chapter 2. Hungry, she follows behind Boaz' field-workers and collects the grain they miss or leave behind. The Old Testament commanded that field-owners allow the poor to glean from their fields, but many people ignored that law. They wanted to get maximum productivity from their limited land. But not Boaz. He let Ruth glean. He encouraged her to glean.
When he noticed her in the field, he asked his foreman who she was (remember, he hadn't been to visit Naomi, even though she was a close relative). The foreman identifies her a primarily as a Moabitess, who came back from Moab with Naomi (he doesn't even use her name). Rather than focusing on her origin, Boaz focuses on her destination. He shows her respect and wishes her well. Actually, he wishes her better than well. He asks that her hesed toward Naomi would be repayed by the Lord, "under whose wings she has come to take refuge."
I love that he notices and appreciates that, that he notices and appreciates that she is taking refuge under the wings of the Lord. He doesn't see her as a foreigner or an alien, but as a refuge-taker. And so, he shows hospitality. He does his duty, at least, in part.
The chapter ends with this tension: will Boaz, who was a close relative to Naomi, do his duty and marry Ruth? It's one thing to open up your home for a Small Group dinner. It's another thing to get married (and have your new mother-in-law come and live with you).
Our culture doesn't place that expectation on us. I'm not obligated to marry anyone if anyone dies. That's not what hospitality looks like anymore. But this doesn't remove the need for hospitality, for opening up your life to the people God has given you the opportunity to serve.
The rise of third places and virtual community in our culture has left a lot of us starved for the deep connection that comes from sitting in someone's home. Coffee shops are great, but they're still so public. It's hard to really be yourself, warts and weirdness and all if you know that some stranger might be listening in. And for college students, this hospitality-starvation is even more extreme. A dorm or a frat house is one of the least homey living environs imaginable. Something happens to college students when they get into a living room, when they wander into a real kitchen. I remember it happening to me.
I came alive when I went over to Joe's house when I was a student. When I spent time over at Harsha's. When the families from church had us over for lunch. I came alive in those living rooms. It had nothing to do with the living rooms. It was about someone opening up their life to me and inviting me into it. The living room was a symbol.
We need to be wildly intentional in our attempts to interweave hospitality into our Small Groups. God isn't calling us to do any crazy obligation-marrying any time soon, but he is calling us to open up our lives. We must find ways to do this and do this well if we're going to have the sort of communities we long to see.