What Does It Mean to be Hospitable? (Dan Liu)

Anonymous icon painter, Hospitality of Abraham (Zakynthos, 15th c., Byzantine museum), marked as public domain, more details on Wikimedia Commons

Nowadays, when the casual Hong Kong citizen mentions the term “hospitality industry,” our imaginations easily wander toward gourmet dining or a fine hotel resort. Social media bombards us with ratings on the best restaurants and accommodations, and we all can be quite discerning in our expectations of the hospitality industry.

When we as Christians, however, begin to consider what the Bible says about hospitality, our perspective changes. At first, familiar practical guidelines come to mind: “…Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it” (Hebrews 13: 2). Paul’s direction to the Romans was more direct: “Share with God’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality” (Romans 12:13). I can recall many times when my wife and I prepared throughout a Saturday to host friends for an evening of food and fellowship. Many of those moments were significant and memorable, but is that all there is to Biblical hospitality? Might there be more to “being hospitable” from God’s point of view? In this blog I will survey briefly the Scriptures to expand on the notion that hospitality that pleases God is not simply what we do or whom we host but instead a mindset, a mentality that we carry in our interactions with others.  

Loving the Stranger

In both passages cited above, the Greek word for hospitality is φιλοξενία, ας, ἡ, and is transliterated as philoxenia, combining two words, “…5384/philos, “friend” and 3581/xenos, “a stranger” and meaning simply “love of strangers.”[1] So, hospitality is befriending a stranger. This prompts another question: Who then, is a stranger? Another Christian? In the letter to the Romans Paul seems to be writing in the context of Christian relationships, but one need not read his reminder as limiting hospitality only to other believers. Or a new acquaintance? Certainly that is the meaning behind what the Hebrews writer said. God expects us to love the stranger, practicing hospitality so that those who are initially distant from us may become friends and even family. As we survey (albeit briefly) the Bible on hospitality, we will discover more about whom God considers to be a stranger.

Three Old Testament Examples of Hospitality

Let’s begin in the Old Testament, as it provides us abundant examples of hospitality, both good and bad. Reading in Genesis we read a narrative “foundational to the tradition of hospitality:” [2]  Abraham, our father in the faith, entertaining three visitors, calling on Sarah to bake bread and preparing a “choice, tender calf” (Genesis 18:6-7). Perhaps the Hebrews writer had this encounter in mind when he wrote that one might entertain angels when practicing hospitality, for the narrative says that “The LORD appeared to Abraham near the great trees of Mamre” (18:1) and that the LORD promised to Abraham that Sarah would have a son within a year’s time (18: 10-14). And for sure, these visitors were new acquaintances to Abraham—their eating with him and Sarah was the first time that they had met.

Conversely, an example of inhospitable behavior is Nabal refusing David’s request for his men to receive anything from him.[3] As it turned out, Abigail compensated for her “wicked” husband’s folly (I Samuel 25:25), presenting to David and his men bread, wine, sheep, roasted grain, raisins, and pressed figs (25:18-19) We also learn that shortly thereafter, “…the LORD struck Nabal and he died” (25:38), confirming that a lack of hospitality demonstrates foolish and wicked behavior that ultimately meets judgment.

Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld artist QS:P170,Q703458, Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld- Ruth im Feld des Boaz, marked as public domain, more details on Wikimedia Commons

The Book of Ruth chronicles the journey of the Moabitess, a young widow, who found sheaves of barley to glean and physical security in Boaz’s field. Initially, he was practicing the expectation that God had for His people to share resources and kindness with a stranger in need:

When you harvest the grapes in your vineyard, do not go over the vines again. Leave what remains for the foreigner, the fatherless and the widow. Remember that you were slaves in Egypt. That is why I command you to do this.

Deuteronomy 24:21-22

Boaz’s welcoming of the foreigner Ruth into his company of harvesters is a wonderful example of hospitality, reminding us that God expects us to extend ourselves to strangers and others in need.[4] In addition, God called the Israelites to remember their own situation as “slaves in Egypt” when practicing hospitality. Finally, in Boaz’ case, his hospitality brought him personal benefit, as she became his wife and the mother of his son, Obed, the grandfather of David (Ruth 4).

Loving the Stranger in the New Testament

Let’s continue this brief survey of hospitality with a few passages from the New Testament.[5] Jesus often practiced and received hospitality. Once Jesus was enjoying a meal at the house of “a prominent Pharisee” (Luke 14:1). Knowing He was being watched, He taught them there that it was fine to heal on the Sabbath (14: 2-6). He also told them the parable about not “taking the place of honor” but instead taking “the lowest place” (14:10). At this moment, Luke records that

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.”

Luke 14:12-14

Jesus confronted the Pharisee’s motivation for hospitality. He called him to love the stranger selflessly, with an attitude of expecting nothing in return. The LORD admonished him not to entertain others to seek any personal gain or advantage.

Metropolitan Museum of Art, Johnston Fund, 1924, Separation of Sheep and Goats MET cdi24-144-4s1CC0 1.0

The call to selfless hospitality reaches a higher level in the passage on the sheep and the goats, found in Matthew 25: 31-46. In these scriptures “the King” observes how loving His subjects are to strangers and those in need:

“Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’

Matthew 25:34-36

First, we notice that the King identifies with those in need: “I was hungry…,” “I was thirsty…,” “I was a stranger…,” and so on. When the righteous wonder when did they see Him, the King replies: “‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me’” (25:40). However we interpret “the least of these brothers and sisters of mine”—whether as “…any person in need, to Christian missionaries and apostles, or to any Christian who is suffering,”[6] clearly “…they are persons in need of human care.”[7] As we consider this point, it’s helpful to remember that throughout the gospels Jesus was hospitable to a wide-range of individuals—the leper, the poor, and the sick, as well as the Pharisee, the Samaritan, and the rich.

Secondly, the practice of hospitality, viewed in these verses, is simple and straightforward—meeting the needs of others. The offerings mentioned—food, water, housing, clothes, care, and visits—could be extensive or substantial, but they are described in a basic, unpretentious way.

Thirdly, the King identifies Himself with those in need. This is reminiscent of the Old Testament admonishment to the Israelites to love the needy and the outsider because they had been slaves in Egypt and knew what it was like to be on the margins of the community. Taking on the meaning of all of these passages brings Jesus’ view of hospitality into a fuller light. Just as the LORD was among the trees of Mamre, so Jesus came to this world, hoping to be received and loved as a stranger:[8]

He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God— children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.

John 1:10-13

Our practice of hospitality means more if we believe that loving the stranger is serving the King or entertaining Jesus. And the benefits we receive from practicing hospitality for Jesus and with[9] Him exceed anything imaginable on earth.

Titian creator QS:P170,Q47551, Titian and Studio of Titian – The Supper at Emmaus, c.1545CC BY-SA 4.0


Consumer society today entices us to enjoy the frills and luxuries of the hospitality industry, but the Bible reminds us to practice loving the stranger, not just with appointments in our schedules, but as a mindset we take with us everywhere in our daily lives. We are to invite the stranger—the Christian, the new acquaintance, the poor, the one in need—into our homes and lives. Jesus takes our practice of hospitality personally, identifying with those on the margins or in need. God’s hospitality is selfless, unpretentious, and even fragile, for it has been refused time and time again in history, and can be refused again today. He has offered each one of us the ultimate “hospitality package,” making room for each of us to be with God in the future. He calls us to offer His hospitality to others.


Some questions or practical suggestions for you to consider:

1. We were all once strangers to God. How did He welcome you? Whom did He use to show you acceptance and love?

2. Who is “the stranger” in your life today? What need do you see that he or she has? Is it something material? Or perhaps a need for dignity or acceptance?

3. Often we schedule time to entertain others. When a need arises that goes beyond our schedule, how hospitable are we with our time and hearts?

4. Reflect on your current practicing of hospitality in light of Luke 14:12-14. How disinterested are you when you entertain others? Are you offering hospitality as Jesus describes? What can you change?

5. Read through the gospel of John and note how Jesus loved the stranger. For example, consider, his hospitality at the wedding at Cana (John 2), or how he offered breakfast to the disciples (John 21). What do you notice about Jesus’ hospitality? How can you grow in your own practice of entertaining strangers?

[1] Bible Hub, “Strong’s Concordance: 5381. Philoxenia,” found at https://biblehub.com/greek/5381.htm and accessed on April 12-13, 2023.

[2] Christine D. Pohl, Making Room: Recovering Hospitality as a Christian Tradition (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1999), 24.

[3] Christine D. Pohl, Making Room, 26.

[4] Teachings in Exodus, Leviticus, Deuteronomy, and Proverbs speak to God’s expectation that we treat the poor, the orphan, the widow, and the stranger hospitably.  

[5] Christine Pohl identifies Luke 14 and Matthew 25 as the two New Testament passages that have “shaped the distinction between conventional and Christian hospitality.” Making Room, 20.

[6] Christine D. Pohl, Making Room, 22.

[7] Christine D. Pohl, Making Room, 23.

[8] Christine Pohl, Making Room, 17.

[9] For more discussion on this posture, see Skye Jethani, With: Reimagining the Way You Relate to God (Nashville, Tennessee: Thomas Nelson, 2011).

Author: Dan Liu

Dan has degrees from Yale (American Studies), Harvard (public policy), and Rochester University (religious education). He serves as an elder in the Hong Kong Church of Christ. Married for 32 years, he has two sons, one daughter-in-law, and one grandchild. Email: danliu1961@gmail.com. Dan 擁有耶魯(美國研究)、哈佛 (公共政策)、Rochester University (宗教教育) 等院校學位。現時是香港基督教會長老。結婚32年,育有兩子及一兒媳、一孫兒。電郵:danliu1961@gmail.com

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