I learned a new word this week and have already put it into practice. The word is XENIA. It is an ancient Greek concept of hospitality, translated as guest-friendship. The Greek god Zeus is sometimes called Zeus Xenios in his role as protector of strangers. We are much more familiar with the negative use of this word, as in Xenophobia, which is a fear or dislike of people from other countries or who are different from us in some way. But I prefer the positive use of the word.
Xenia is a big part of many Biblical stories. In fact, many times that we as modern western readers don’t understand a story, it’s because of xenia elements that are foreign to our culture. The story of the Good Samaritan is an example of this. We secretly wonder if we meet Jesus’ definition of a neighbor. Let’s consider several references to anchor the idea of xenia:
“Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by this some have entertained angels without knowing it.” (Hebrews 13:2) In the first century church, hospitality was included in the job description for leaders. Our western culture does not value this Biblical requirement for church leaders today, but what if it did? What if the church, specifically Christians, were where someone could go when they were a stranger in town or needed help? I don’t know if I’ve entertained any angels but I do know that every time I’ve shown kindness to a stranger, I’ve been blessed in some way.
Jesus said, “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; naked and you clothed Me; I was sick and you visited Me; in prison, and you came to Me.” In the story the righteous asked, “When did we do these things for you?” And Jesus answered “To the extent that you did it to one of these brothers of Mine, even the least of them, you did it to Me.” (Matthew 25:35-40) Truly this is one of the most sobering passages spoken by Jesus.
And going back even further in time, to the very beginnings of the Judeo-Christian faith just after the Ten Commandments were given, we read: “You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the heart of a stranger, because you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Exodus 23:9) So there it is, the foundation of xenia. We understand what it is like to be a stranger because we each have been a stranger in some context. We understand what it is like to be the new kid at school, starting a job, a stranger in a town. We understand being vulnerable, unsure, lonely, or insecure. We have been a stranger in some Egypt somewhere.
In California we walk right past people—at church, in our neighborhood, standing on the corner, shopping next to us. It would be odd to talk to a stranger. But in Idaho, we have had the privilege of being the new kids in town. The number of people we know in Hailey/Ketchum, Idaho can be counted on one hand. I decided to try out my new word, xenia. At the little 4th of July parade in town, I invited people on the street to come to our home afterward for a BBQ. The hilarious thing is that they came! It turns out many people around us feel like strangers. They are grateful for hospitality. Hopefully we have deepened their definition of Christian to include xenia, a kindness toward strangers. Either way, I’m happy to meet new friends!
Check out Romans 12:13 this week. At first glance it tells us to show hospitality, but if we dig deeper, we find it expresses a command to eagerly pursue hospitality. We are called to be a host, not a guest, in almost any conversation or encounter. Pursue xenia this week and see if you are not blessed!
Next week I’ll post my monthly mashup. Be sure to subscribe to my blog and visit www.MargaretAllen.org for resources. Please share your stories of xenia in the comments. Have a beautiful week, everyone!