The Law of Desert Hospitality

The people of Israel understand that in their dry and mostly barren land it is impossible to survive without depending on others, for everyone will at some time find themselves in need of assistance. From this mutual need the law of desert hospitality was born, which requires you to welcome all who come to the door of your tent – friend, enemy and stranger – and offer them and their animals food, water and protection for up to three days with no questions asked and no explanation offered or required.

We experienced this Bedouin hospitality first hand when our group hiked a couple of miles into the hot and dusty northern Negev desert to a traditional Israeli Arab home where the men and boys still tend sheep and goats and the women manage household affairs, including cooking and caring for children. Upon our arrival and despite having little notice that our group of 48 would be coming for a visit, the Bedouin women immediately offered all of us a place to sit and rest in the shade of their tent while they quickly set about preparing and serving us fresh sage tea and flat bread cooked over a wood fire.

I was skeptical about the wisdom of drinking the unidentified dark liquid handed to me which had been prepared by these women without the benefit of indoor plumbing and clean, sanitary water. But after watching our group leader, Brian, drink from his glass and live, I followed the lead of our rabbi and tentatively sipped mine. Never before or since have I ever tasted tea so good and sweet. As we hungrily looked on, the Bedouin women then mixed and baked flat bread right before us over the fire they had prepared. They passed the warm and tasty bread around our group and we each eagerly tore off a piece to eat.

As I held the cup of tea in my dirty, sweaty hands and nibbled my bread, I looked around and began to understand, perhaps for the first time, what genuine hospitality looks like. Hospitality isn’t about a clean house, a beautifully set table, a perfectly cooked, delicious meal or looking presentable. True hospitality is much more basic than that.

Hospitality, at its core, is about helping others to survive in the wilderness of life. It is about caring, compassion, and service above self. Hospitality is about meeting the basic need of another at your own expense without expectation of compensation. It is about being willing to have your schedule and plans interrupted by another and seeing that disruption as a divine appointment. Hospitality is about face to face connection as we bless others and are, by God’s design, blessed in return. Just like in the desert, hospitality is necessary for life here, too.

As we left the Bedouin family that day, Brian reminded us that offering hospitality is central to our faith as followers of Christ. Jesus welcomed each of us when we did not yet know him and were indifferent or even hostile to the message of the cross. He offered us living water to drink and gave himself, the bread of life, for us so that we would not die in the wilderness of this life, but instead could live with him forever. We are called to be like our rabbi, Jesus, and to practice hospitality. Romans 12:13.

“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.’

 Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’

 The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’”

 Matthew 25:34-40.

This lesson from Israel on hospitality humbled and changed me. I used to panic if someone arrived at my door unannounced because what if – God forbid – my dishes were not done or I had unfolded laundry on the couch or my hair was a mess? If I was in the middle of doing something, I used to be slightly annoyed when someone interrupted my plans by dropping by to chat. Having people over for dinner was stressful, as I worried about whether the meal would turn out right and there would be enough to eat, whether I had enough matching, unchipped plates and whether my house was clean.

After experiencing true hospitality offered by strangers under a tent in the desert of Israel last summer, I returned home and began to extend it to others. I now see those unplanned interludes in my day as opportunities to give and receive the love of Christ. I count it a privilege, not a hassle, to stop what I am doing and make time for the precious souls God brings to the door of my home, or places before me in the grocery store, at a restaurant or on a walk. I offer them whatever I have in the fridge to drink and a place at my kitchen table or on my couch (next to the laundry) to sit and visit. I don’t wait until I have time to clean my house or plan a spectacular meal before I have folks over for dinner because if I did, I would rarely have company. It’s not about the food, it’s about the fellowship. I understand that I have limited time left on this planet to offer hospitality to others in the name of Jesus, and I don’t want to miss the remaining appointments God has scheduled for me.

Thank you, Lord, for continuing to offer me a place at your table. As I open your Word and partake of your hospitality, wisdom, love, forgiveness, peace, comfort and hope, I give thanks to you, the most gracious Host of all.

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