Welcoming the Stranger

By Barbie Fischer

As we begin this journey of diving into the subject of hospitality, it seems fitting to start at the beginning. The origin of the word hospitality can be traced back to the Hebrew/Aramaic word הכנסת אורחים (hachnasat orchim) which literally translates to bringing in of strangers. Something that nowadays may give many of us pause, if asked to bring a complete stranger into our home. Yet, this was common practice in the days of Abraham and Sarah. We see the first record of hospitality in the Bible as Abraham and Sarah welcome three visitors.

The story is recorded in Genesis 18: 1-8, and states:

Abraham“Now the Lord appeared to him by the oaks of Mamre, while he was sitting at the tent door in the heat of the day. When he lifted up his eyes and looked, behold, three men were standing opposite him; and when he saw them, he ran from the tent door to meet them and bowed himself to the earth, and said, “My Lord, if now I have found favor in Your sight, please do not pass Your servant by. Please let a little water be brought and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree; and I will bring a piece of bread, that you may refresh yourselves; after that you may go on, since you have visited your servant.” And they said, “So do, as you have said.” So Abraham hurried into the tent to Sarah, and said, “Quickly, prepare three measures of fine flour, knead it and make bread cakes.” Abraham also ran to the herd, and took a tender and choice calf and gave it to the servant, and he hurried to prepare it. He took curds and milk and the calf which he had prepared, and placed it before them; and he was standing by them under the tree as they ate.”

To understand this story one must look at the cultural context. During this period people were seminomadic and there were no hotels or inns, no hospitality industry. It was deemed a social obligation of people in cities and encampments to care for travelers. Abraham and Sarah would have been accustomed to welcoming strangers.

It reminds me of our Mennonite Culture, as we are known for our homestays, and also of my time in Africa, I was never without a place to sleep. Yet, this is not common in our broader culture here in the states and nowadays even as Mennonites we might pause welcoming someone who happens upon our front door with no knowledge of who they are or where they came from. There was a time I was traveling and needed a place to stay here in the states. I mentioned to my friend, Bahati, from the Congo, I was looking for a place. He looked at me and said, “If we were in Africa, I would say come and stay with my wife and I, but we are in America, so I must say, let me check with my wife.” A sign of a respectful husband, but also of our culture, as perhaps his wife would not want a guest. Inviting a guest into the home is not a given in our culture. Yet, for Abraham and Sarah, it would be unthinkable to allow a person in need to pass by without offering them hospitality.

It makes one wonder, what is it about Abraham and Sarah that made them so open to being hospitable? Was it their upbringing and culture? Or something deeper? And what keeps us from being hospitable at times? Is it our upbringing and culture? How can we show hospitality like Abraham and Sarah in this day and age?

Stay tuned for more on Abraham and Sarah with the three visitors, in the next Intersectings edition.