For as long as I can remember, my wife and I hosted dinners—birthday parties for congregants, baby showers, Thanksgiving dinners for displaced New Yorkers, dinners to honor people, and many others. In 2005, I hosted a man I barely knew. I just knew that he was a missionary to China and played a role in the great revivals there.
Unknown to me, he was a giant of faith, a modern-day Paul, a person who would shape the trajectory of my life and all those around me. To think that he would accept my hospitality—an uncomfortable red convertible sofa and food from an untrained culinary hand—humbles me. Hospitality can be paradoxical. Often those who show it are blessed more than those who receive it.
The theme of theoxeny, the showing of hospitality to a god or gods—usually in disguise—is not a common one in Christian theological discourse. I’ve never come across this word in any commentary or theological book (perhaps an indictment on my shallow reading), not even in a footnote. The first time I came across this word was when I was working in Homeric scholarship.
Greek and Roman Examples of Theoxeny
In the Odyssey of Homer, the concept of theoxeny emerges clearly in book 16. Here Odysseus’ son, Telemachus, finally comes in contact with his father but he does not recognize him because he has been disguised as an old beggar. When Athena removes Odysseus’ disguise, returning his appearance to his heroic self, Telemachus grows afraid, not because of the sudden transformation itself (as we would expect) but because he is afraid that he did not show proper hospitality to a god in disguise. In his worldview, the gods are wont to test people’s characters by whether they show proper hospitality, or xenia. So, Telemachus fears that he did not pass the test; he did not lead this “old beggar” into his palace to entertain him.
Another example emerges in Odysseus’ subsequent interaction with the suitors. On one occasion, a more sober-minded suitor pauses to second guess the wicked action of the ringleader, Antinoös, saying that he did something egregious by striking a stranger because he might have struck a god. Of course, Antinoös reveals his hubris by dismissing this idea. A few lines later, Telemachus says: “Antinoös, beyond the rest, is like black death.”
If we theologize the Odyssey in broad strokes with some imagination, then Odysseus’ homecoming can be seen as a literary theoxeny. Odysseus is a stand-in for a god. After all, he is disguised as a beggar and observes, tests, and judges wickedness. Odysseus makes this point clear in book 22 when he says the fate of the gods punished these suitors on account of their lack of xenia. At the least, Odysseus sees himself as an instrument of divine judgment. From this perspective, the whole of the Odyssey is an extended story of theoxeny, a point that would not have been missed in the ancient world where the line between men and gods was permeable.
Moving from the Greek world to the Roman world, the idea of theoxeny is still alive and well. The most well-known Roman story which illustrates this is undeniably the myth of Philemon and Baucis, which is the centerpiece of Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Jupiter and Mercury come, disguised as peasants, looking for a place to stay at night. A thousand homes reject them, but when they come to a small cottage, the poor couple who lives there, Philemon and Baucis, receive the gods and show great generosity. They give out of their poverty and are even about to kill their only goose to feed their guests.
At this point, Jupiter tells them not to do such a thing. Instead, he bids them to flee because destruction will come upon the town for their exceeding wickedness. Jupiter is true to his word, and a flood destroys the town, but the humble cottage of Philemon and Baucis is turned into a temple. Moreover, Jupiter allows them to die together in their old age as they wish. He even transforms them into an intertwining pair of trees, one a linden tree and the other an oak, to symbolize their lasting love for each other and their hospitality toward the gods.
The moral of these stories is simple: the gods test the character of people through hospitality. As Homer states: “For the gods do take on all sorts of transformations, appearing as strangers from elsewhere … to see which men keep the laws, and which are violent.” It is no wonder that the Romans, who considered themselves the most religious people on earth, even had a religious rite called the lectisternium, which literally means “to spread a couch.” In this rite, the Romans prepared a table with food for the gods; more specifically, it was a rite of hospitality to restore peace with the gods. The Greeks and Romans believed that it was possible, important, and necessary to entertain complete strangers because they could be gods in disguise.
Theoxeny in the Bible
Given this motif in ancient Greco-Roman literature, it should not be surprising to find examples of theoxeny in the Bible. The thread of showing hospitality to God or angelic beings who represent God is stitched into Scripture as well. The flood narrative is the first example. While Genesis 6 does not explicitly say that God walked on the earth to examine the hearts of people, he did see, regret, and judge (Gen. 6:5–7). Moreover, he extensively communicated with Noah; after all, he gave building instructions for the ark. This is certainly speculative, but it is notable that all the flood narratives in Greek and Roman literature have the lack of xenia as the cause of the flood.
We are on firmer ground when we come to Abraham’s three visitors in Genesis 18. Genesis 18:1 makes it explicit that the three men are divine visitors because the text states that “the Lord (YHWH) appeared to Abraham near the great trees of Mamre.” However, Abraham did not know that this stranger was YHWH because he addresses the lead figure with the appellation adonai, an honorific title. Only later did Abraham realize that this figure was YHWH (Gen. 18:13–14).
Abraham’s virtuous character, therefore, is on display in his alacrity to show hospitality to these strangers. He bids them to wash their feet and rest under the tree. He then quickly makes preparations, offering his own food and shelter to his guests. He has Sarah knead dough and make cakes, and he has a servant pick a choice calf and prepare it while he gets milk and puts it before the strangers (Gen. 18:6–8). He honors them at his own expense. Unbeknownst to Abraham and Sarah, they have just engaged in theoxeny.
What makes Abraham’s hospitality more significant is the contrast with the following story of Sodom and Gomorrah. These cities were inhospitable in the worst possible way; the juxtaposition of stories makes this point as stark as possible. According to Genesis 18:20, the cry against these cities is so great that the mysterious visitors have to see the evil for themselves. When they arrive, only one man shows hospitality, Lot. At night the men of the city—young and old—come to Lot’s house and demand that the visitors come out; they want to rape Lot’s visitors.
The sin of omission would have been bad enough (neglecting strangers), but in this narrative the wickedness is so brazen that they want to violate these strangers in the most violent way. They make Odysseus’ suitors look like cheeky school boys at best, mere amateurs of iniquity. The wickedness of Sodom and Gomorrah is evident in their perverse disregard for showing hospitality to their guests.
Moving to Exodus, the bread of presence may be seen as an example of theoxeny, showing similarity to the rite of lectisternium among the Romans. In Moses’ elaborate instructions for the tabernacle, there is a lavishly appointed table, on which the bread of Presence should be placed (Ex. 25:23–30; Lev. 24:1–9).
While neither Exodus nor Leviticus explains the significance of this bread, it is reasonable to conclude that this bread shows the nearness of God and the hospitality that the Israelites can and should show to God by replacing this bread weekly. Even if God does not consume the food (Aaron and his sons actually partake of it), it was a gesture of dining in the presence of God.
Likewise, the sacrifices may be seen from this perspective as well. To be sure, the sacrifices are pregnant with theological meaning that far exceeds any theology of xenia, but good hospitality is certainly present: The people should only give their best to God. Malachi makes this point when he indicts the priests for offering blind, diseased, and lame sacrifices. He simply says: “Try offering them to your governor!” (Mal. 1:8). Governors would not look kindly on that type of giving. Why would God?
In the New Testament, the concept of theoxeny reaches a highpoint; God becomes man and walks among his creation. Every hint of theoxeny finds its fulfillment in the incarnation. John’s prologue says it best when it says: “He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him” (John 1:11). That there was no room for Jesus in the inn at his birth shows humanity’s failing, and it will continue.
At a dinner party in the Gospel of Luke, Jesus makes this very point: “Do you see this woman? I came into your house. You did not give me any water for my feet, but she wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. You did not give me a kiss, but this woman, from the time I entered, has not stopped kissing my feet. You did not put oil on my head, but she has poured perfume on my feet” (Luke 7:44–46).
As the story of the gospels unfolds, Christ is the long-awaited Messiah, who preached the good news, healed the sick, drove out demons, showed compassion, grace, and mercy. He was God in the flesh, but he was met with skepticism and rejection; he was mistreated and ultimately killed. He received no hospitality; anti-theoxeny. The power brokers of society got together and crucified him for a confluence of selfish reasons. All humanity, therefore, stands condemned.
Putting It All Together
The Christian hope, of course, is that none of this human sinfulness took God by surprise. God knew that humanity has been bent toward selfishness and sin since the fall of Adam and Eve. He also knew that Christ would be crucified.
Herein lies amazing grace. The triune God made a covenant to bless his people knowing perfectly well that blessings could only come from the work of a crucified messiah. God contemplated what it would take to bless humanity, and he did it. Moreover, if we take the words of John 14 to heart, then Jesus has gone ahead of us through his death and resurrection to prepare a place for his people in his father’s house (John 14:1–4). While we were inhospitable, like Sodom and Gomorrah, he showed us hospitality. Divine xenia, completely undeserved, for his people. Now through the pouring out of the Holy Spirit, humanity can show the hospitality that it was created to give.
If we take one more step, through the lens of theoxeny, we are living within an eschatological application of the parable of the wicked tenants (Matt. 21:33–46 and Mark. 12:1–12). According to this parable, a man has planted a vineyard and rented it out to tenants. When the time of harvest came, the owner sent his servant to collect some of the fruits. But the tenants seized the servant and beat him and did the same when other servants came. They repeated this mistreatment many times over and either beat or killed all the servants.
The landowner finally sent his son. He reasoned that they would surely listen to him, but the shameless tenants saw this as an opportunity to possess the land once and for all. They reasoned if they kill the son, the land will be theirs. The parable ends with a pregnant question: “What then will the owner of the vineyard do?” (Mark 12:9) What indeed!
If we are living within the framework of this parable, then this is a warning. Be faithful now and show hospitality now. This is wisdom in all of these stories, whether they emerge from the ancient Near East, Greece, Rome, or Scripture. Abraham went out of his way to bless the three strangers, and Philemon and Baucis, though poor, gave their best to Jupiter and Mercury, even willing to slaughter their only goose.
The call to faithfulness, particularly in hospitality, presses against us and is the irresistible conclusion of these stories and the grace of Christ. Furthermore, it is one of the best ways to live. As we habituate our hearts to this generosity of giving, we shall edify the church (3 John 8), some will entertain angels (Heb. 13:2), and all will be ready for the end of the age (Matt. 25:1–13).
Moreover, if we take Jesus’ words seriously, then by serving the least of these brethren, we actually serve him (Matt. 25:45). The great encouragement is that we are all capable of showing generosity not only because Christ took the punishment of our inhospitality on himself on the cross but also because he continues to demonstrate hospitality toward us. When we come to the table of bread and wine in churches all across the world, we are partakers of an eschatological meal of his enduring and sacrificial hospitality; a broken body and shed blood still speaks volumes.
We are moving into a season when great hospitality and generosity are needed more than ever. I pray that God will use these means of grace to open eyes and turn hearts to the fount of all generosity and hospitality, namely, himself. Through hospitality, we can begin to change the world.
John Lee is the head of the Upper School at The Geneva School of Manhattan, a Christian classical school. His most recent book is Paradoxes of Leadership (Elevate, 2017).