Guests, Hosts, and Images

Who does God look like? It’s not a question we often consider. Sometimes people are outraged that an elderly African-american lady is the personification of God, others are irked when He’s portrayed as Hindi or Egyptian. When I was growing up watching Joan of Arcadia – the premise was simple – this young woman could see God as just about anyone … a lunch lady at her school, a goth student, a guy on a bus, a guy who smokes – and these encounters with God would result in something marvelous happening if she heeds the advice that God gives her.
Now back in the day – thousands of years ago, hospitality was of the most important social obligations there was. Many stories coming from Greek culture involve proper hospitality or a breach of hospitality. The idea was that anybody could be a god in disguise, and the proper thing to do was to treat your guests well; were they ill-treated and actually gods – there’s no telling what horrors might befall your household. Were they well-treated and actually gods, there’s no telling what rewards you might be blessed with. Were they regular people and well-treated, you’d have won a friend. Were they regular people and ill-treated, you’d have made an enemy. But since the gods could disguise themselves as anyone, then you should make a point of it to treat everyone spectacularly well.
We see some examples of hospitality in the Scriptures, some better, some worse. Jesus happens to be walking under a tree, looks up and says to Zaccheus: “I”m eating over at your house tonight.” Guests could invite themselves over.
Jesus was eating at a house where the host had neglected to wash his feet – it was a common practice of the day to provide a bath, clean clothes, a meal – and that was before you asked a person what their name was and what they wanted.
Jesus was eating at another house and the dining room was just full of people – a woman walked in … spaces like dining rooms and living rooms were considered public areas of a house, areas like bedrooms were considered private and off-limits … can you imagine coming home to find a stranger on your couch?
Hosts were also expected to provide gifts for their guests. The benefits of having been a guest or host were often inherited. Say your grandfather hosted a guy decades ago – that would create a bond that would connect your families over time and across generations. A guests’ grandson might be expected to host a host’s grandson even though they’d never met and all they knew of each other was the story of the last visit and they had a token of friendship.
Bad hospitality – well, the most famous example of that was what happened in Sodom and Gomorrah, when some people were … discourteous … to Lot’s guests, things got out of hand. Greek stories were full of legends where an incident of bad hospitality resulted in the bad blood that started wars.
Zeus had a name – Zeus Xenios – he was the patron god of hospitality and the chief avenger of wrongs done unto guests. Hospitality was big.
Now Christians – the most the Bible says to them is that we ought to be hospitable for we might end up entertaining angels unaware that’s who they are. But that’s for a culture that really believed in hospitality.
As to us, angels are often seen as a relic, we don’t think just anybody could be an angel or a god – so we have less of an incentive to treat people better than anybody else. It’s a big step down – after all, from anybody could be a good, any man, any woman could be a god in disguise … now we’re all just people. Even worse, we think we know that God can’t look like those people – they’re the wrong gender (God would never look like a woman!). Or God can’t look like them, they’re (too this, too that …) So obviously, they don’t have to be treated as if they’re anything special as they’re neither God, a god, nor an angel.
And hospitality? It’s just not the same. Without the looming threat of offending some powerful deity who would do something unspeakably horrible to you for treating him or one of his representatives badly, there’s little point in rolling out the red carpet and going the extra mile – particularly since you don’t believe that you’ve got an angel sitting on your couch (these things just don’t happen.) Besides, there’s always a hotel down the road that is a part of the “hospitality industry” that takes care of these things for you.
It’s a shame too, because we’re supposed to all look like God – being made in his image and all. And If God were to look like someone, he’d look a lot like us. But when people say “image of God” they mean “having a soul” or “having a will” – not actually possessing a striking physical resemblance or being the “spitting image” or looking just like God and people can treat each other however they like because whatever they look like – they don’t look like they could be God. But let’s hope they remember the golden rule – because turnabout is fair play.


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