Teaching & reflection material based from Romans 12:13

Why is it with some people, if we share something, we come away feeling we’ve sorted something in our heads? But with others we come away still troubled? Amongst other factors in the first case there will be a spirit of Hospitality. We often don’t think of hospitality in this way because it’s been distorted by thinking it’s about ‘entertaining friends’. The image we have is of doing a Mary Berry cake, or a Paul Hollywood bake, or even a Jamie Oliver  five course dinner part. While all of those may create a lovely experience, none get to the heart of what hospitality is. The New Testament mentions the idea of ‘hospitality’ on three occasions – Romans 12:13; Hebrews 13:2 & 1 Peter 4:9. It was clearly an important practice in the early Church. But even those brief mentions don’t lead us to the insight of what I call ‘a secret of the kingdom.’ Rather it’s to be found in understanding the ministry of Jesus as he announced God’s hospitality in his preaching of the kingdom.

But as we explore this I want you to hold in your mind the image of a slim 28 year old woman walking between huts on sandy heathland. The huts are bounded by wire. It’s a vast transition camp some miles out of Amsterdam where people are herded for deadly purposes. See her as she walks through the camp talking to this one, then that. Listening to one person’s deep sorrows, then moving on to encourage someone overwhelmed with anxiety, and so to another who has just heard they’re on the next transport. Hold her image in your mind. Back to Jesus…

Playing with the symbols

One of the features of Jesus’ ministry is the amount eating and partying going on. He has a reputation of being ‘the glutton & drunkard’ (Mt 11:19/Lk 7:34). His practice is to have meal with dodgy people, ‘sinners’, on the edge of society (Matt 9:9-15). He imagines God’s kingdom as a banquet to which some very unlikely people are invited (Matt 22:1-14; Matt 25:1-13 etc.) He teaches directly about how people should behave at a dinner occasion (Luke 14:1-24). He allows himself to be anointed by a woman of dubious reputation at another dinner party (Matt 26:6-13). And of course there’s the final meal with his disciples that Jesus made so special for his followers – the Lord’s final supper (Matt 26:17-30). What’s going on here?

Around that time the Pharisees had at least two groups who followed either Hillel or Shammai. Some of their sayings have come down to use through later rabbinic writing. The interesting thing is that no less than two-thirds of those sayings are about food and eating. By that I mean – what you should eat or more important shouldn’t eat! With whom you should eat or more important shouldn’t eat. Some scholars have said that the Pharisees were a sect obsessed about ‘table-fellowship’. What do they mean? A meal was not just food – like going into McDonalds (God forbid!) or Pizza Express etc. It was part of the politics of the day. The Pharisees used meals to develop a pattern to resist three things: Greek culture which surrounded them; Roman imperial power thrusting itself into everyday life; and fellow Jews who compromised with these. Jesus lived in that symbolic world and he tore up the Pharisees’ eating rule-book. Jesus doesn’t live by those rules. He flouted them. Why? His vision of God’s kingdom was different. People were important, even marginal outsiders. And he lived this out by eating and drinking with them. It made the Pharisees mad! But in these little actions of Jesus we can see what true hospitality is and what it’s capable of doing.

The heart of hospitality is…hospitality of the heart

So let me tell you a story of precisely that, and how true hospitality arises from our hearts. We’ll see how hospitality needs a breaking of our hearts if we are to provide space for people to find safe shelter.

It was just another day! The same old stuff. More hours at the ledgers! More negotiating! More screwing the best deal out of his minions! Just another day! But then one of those minions came in. ‘He’s coming!’ He knew who he meant. In one of those unusual moment when he let his guard down, he said he’d love to meet that man up north who had been causing a stir by his teaching, his actions and powerful wonders. ‘What ! You mean him from up north?’ ‘Yup! He’s passing through town on his way to Jerusalem.’  ‘Really? Amazing! In this godforsaken town!’, but tried not to give away his heart had missed a beat. When his under-worker had gone, after a moment’s pause, he sprang into action as though something had triggered within him. He walked down the street – backs turned – sniggers –  chats once loud trailed away to silence, while the body language shut him out. He had hardened himself over years of unpopularity – ‘Roman collaborator!’ spit in into the dust. He walked on. Occasionally on the wind his ‘name’ wafted into earshot.  ‘Mi…dg…e’ He was used to it. In the distance he could make out through a thin cloud of dust, a throng of people where the northerner was clearly engaging the crowd. He thought, ‘Not much chance of seeing him when that crowd comes by. And for me – no chance!’ He quickly looked round. His stature with his low centre of gravity had always made him a good climber & within seconds he was insecurely lodged in the canopy with the branches waving drawing attention. Some minutes later the man from up-north passed beneath the spreading shadow of the tree where he was perched. And it was those eyes…those eyes… such knowing love…such compassion, acceptance. He was disarmed. Everyone avoided his own gaze – the gaze of a poker player, practiced, immobile, non-revealing. It stood him well in negotiation. But the gaze of Jesus penetrated through his defences and insecurities he’d long since managed into non-existence – or so he thought.  ‘Home – Zacchaeus. I want to stay with you a while.’ … and the rest is history as they say.


There then unfolded first an unfreezing of a heart that had hardened to his neighbour. Then its breaking at how he had used the power he had over people to make himself rich. And a bigger heart began to emerge – space for others and a heart of hospitality.

No person better exemplifies the growing of a hospitable heart than Etty Hillesum, the twenty-something young woman in Westerbörk transition camp – a place where human, Jewish misery was rounded up & loaded onto cattle wagons for days of journey to Auschwitz. You can eavesdrop on her journey from sexual libertine to saintly encourager as she served her frightened fellows in their days of desperation – a truly inspirational tale told in her diaries: Etty Hillesum – an interrupted life. Here’s an extract.  And we’re invited on that same unfreezing and breaking of hearts so they become larger hearts able to be a sanctuary for others. This is the hospitality of the heart that is the heart of hospitality – we’re all called to it.


  1. Share experiences of good hospitality and those when it’s been anything but hospitable!  What feelings do both provoke? What happens to your personality in each?
  2. Hebrews 13:2, drawing on Genesis 18:1-15, talks about being taken by surprise when being hospitable. Have you met an angel when meeting a stranger? ‘Angel’ literally means ‘messenger’ [i.e. from God]
  3. There are some people to whom it’s easy to be hospitable, but others might bore you or even worse! How do we cope with such people? Consider how Matthew 25:44-45 may help in such encounters.
  4. How did Jesus create space for people to feel comfortable and so able to express themselves? Consider Matthew 26:6-13 as an example of this, and any other incidents that come to mind.
  5. Look at the experience of Zacchaeus (Luke 19:1-10). Go over the story above as far as it goes. Then in quietness, spend time imaging the scene, starting at the moment when Jesus looks up at him. Then in your mind’s eye imagine the conversation they have from that moment on, and what led to his outburst to compensate others. Give time for this imaginative exercise. And then – if in a group – share what you imagined taking place.
  6. Psalm 51:17 says, ‘The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.’ Why may a broken heart be necessary for a new, open, hospitable heart to emerge?
  7. Share your stories of those people who have given you space and the freedom to be & express yourself, to explore even your doubts.
  8. Spend time thanking God for those people who created a hospitable environment for you to grow – some will be Christians, but others may not be.
  9. How is your understanding of ‘hospitality’ growing in the light of these reflections?

To hear me talk more about this, you can listen back to the podcast from the sermon.