We all remember the story of Mary and Martha. Mary was commended for her attentiveness, Martha admonished for her busy-ness. Many of us find it hard not to sympathize with Martha. After all, somebody had to cook dinner. She was trying to be hospitable!

Every culture in the world holds up some standard of hospitality as a basis for civilized behavior. The word shares the same root as hospital and hospice, both having to do with caregiving and healing. Hospitality is a form of healing: in extending food, shelter, rest, and good conversation, one is providing a place where people may be healed from the bruises and buffeting of a culture in which overcommitment has become a virtue and home a launching pad.

Students I know who have gone on mission trips to Mexico and Central America have invariably returned humbled and amazed at the generous hospitality of the very poor people they encounter. Some of them, somewhat to their dismay, have been given the only bed in the house while family members sleep on mats.

As middle-class consumers in the wealthiest nation in the world, most of us can extend hospitality without depriving ourselves. We give out of our abundance. We have guest rooms or foldout sofas, something on the shelf we can whip into a meal on short notice, or a deli around the corner we can call. But, reminded daily of crime, scams, and antisocial behavior, we are wary of strangers, and generally don't allow anyone in our houses but those we know and love—including the occasional difficult relative. I'm not necessarily suggesting we round up the homeless and sit them down at our tables, though such a gesture is not unthinkable. But I am suggesting that we take time to perhaps enlarge our notions about hospitality.

I was recently ...

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