Results tagged “hospitality” from Reformation21 Blog

Sodom's Great Sin?


Sodom. Arguably the most notorious city in Scripture. We cannot read or hear its name without our thoughts running to certain sins (most likely sexual in kind) that famously found a home there.

Given John Calvin's reputation for a certain moral rigidity and/or prudishness, we might expect him to find much fodder in the biblical narrative of Sodom's demise (Gen. 19.1-29) for pontifications against sexual perversion. Indeed, we might expect to find in Calvin's comments on Sodom moral judgments and consequent rhetoric applicable to our present day cultural setting, wherein certain sexual acts which Scripture denounces have been normalized if not glorified.

On both scores Calvin disappoints. Indeed, if we approach Calvin expecting him to guide us, with his comments on Sodom, into a parable of the modern West's moral failures and pending destruction at God's hand, we will walk away frustrated and -- best case scenario -- alert to the fact that Calvin, in the moral judgments he forms on the basis of Sodom's history, is pointing a finger at us more than our secular contemporaries.

It's not that Calvin is uninterested in the apparent attempt of Sodom's male populace to rape two visitors to the city. He labels that attempt "execrable wickedness" and "vial and outrageous barbarism." He deems it "diabolical" that "all [of Sodom's men] so readily conspired to perpetrate [that] most abominable crime." But his judgment of that "crime" is tempered by at least three convictions: firstly, that "it is probable that there were some" among Sodom's residents "who fanned the flame" more than others; some, that is, who were culpable above and beyond others for inciting the "collected troop" to propagate such wickedness. Secondly, that this level of wickedness in Sodom was "quite a new thing." Calvin supposes, in other words, that immorality in Sodom reached its peak at precisely that point when God sent his ministering Angels both to judge Sodom and rescue Lot and his family from the same. And thirdly (and most critically), Calvin believes the "execrable wickedness" on display in Sodom in Gen. 19.1-10 has roots which run much, much deeper than sexual perversion.

Calvin takes his cue in this regard from Ezekiel 16.48-49, in which text God reproves his bride, Israel, by likening her to Sodom, and in that process names Sodom's fundamental sin. "Now this," God himself says to his people, "was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy." Calvin comments: "Although Moses ... explains [in Gen. 19] the most filthy crime which reigned in Sodom, we must nevertheless remember what Ezekiel teaches, that the men of Sodom did not fall at once into such execrable wickedness; but that, in the beginning, luxury from an abundance of bread prevailed, and that, afterwards, pride and cruelty followed." Calvin judges this development of more heinous practices in Sodom an instance of that divine retribution for sin described in Rom. 1.18-28. "At length," he writes, "when they were given up to a reprobate mind, they were also driven headlong into brutal lusts." Nevertheless, there is notable continuity between Sodom's final and most brutal act of perversion, the attempt to rape strangers, and their earliest and fundamental perversion, the hoarding of food and wealth and reluctance to share the same with those in need. A lack of love for others is apparent from the beginning to the end of Sodom's moral slide.

Sodom stands in stark contrast, then, to Lot, who much like Abraham in Gen. 18, proves to be an exemplar of charity in the particular form of hospitality offered to Sodom's angelic visitors (Gen. 19.1-3). Sodom's citizens seek to exploit these strangers; Lot offers them accommodation, food (indeed, "a feast" according to Gen. 19.3), and -- at length -- protection (at rather considerable peril to himself). Lot receives much praise from Calvin in this regard: "It appears from the fact that Lot went out and exposed himself to danger how faithfully he observed the sacred right of hospitality. It was truly a rare virtue that he preferred the safety and honor of the guests whom he had once undertaken to protect to his own life. Yet this degree of magnanimity is required from the children of God: that where duty and fidelity are concerned, they should not spare themselves." In sum, Lot preferred the needs and desires of others -- even those who could not to all appearances reciprocate his kindness -- to his own, while his compatriots were happy to sacrifice the dignity and well-being of others on the altar of their own lust.

The crucial question for us, then, is this: do we more reflect the character of Lot (and Abraham, as like Lot a paragon of charity) or Sodom's citizens in our own lives? If we define Sodom's sin by its most extreme manifestation, we very likely lose the opportunity -- and it is, by God's grace, an opportunity -- to see that sin reflected in our own lives, and so to repent of it. But if, like Calvin (and following Scripture's own lead), we define Sodom's sin according to its root -- if we define it, that is, as arrogance and abundance coupled with disinterest in the plight of those in need -- we might find that we have more in common with Sodom's infamous citizenry than we initially supposed. Arrogance, abundance, and disinterest in the poor and needy can, after all, be found in persons and institutions that take the name of Christ as much, arguably, as they can be found in persons and institutions that don't.

"Therefore," Calvin advises, "let us cultivate temperance and frugality" -- as well, of course, as charity -- "and let us always fear, lest a superfluity of food should impel us to luxury; lest our minds should be infected with pride on account of our wealth, and lest delicacies should tempt us to give the reins to our lust." 

But in the midst of such warnings, Calvin reserves an implicit word of comfort and encouragement for those who find themselves without a superfluity of food and/or other necessities and goods: "Let us also hence learn that God best provides for our salvation when he cuts off those superfluities which serve to the pampering of the flesh; and when, for the purpose of correcting excessive self-indulgence, he banishes us from a sweet and pleasant plain to a desert mountain."

Somewhat curiously, Calvin judged "the great number of inns" populating the landscape of his day to be rather obvious "evidence of our depravity" -- the "our" in question being, in the first instance, early modern Europeans. What prompted such disapproval of something as seemingly innocuous, if not romantic to modern eyes, as the early modern inn? Early modern inns provided food and lodging for travelers, as well as a convenient place, especially in urban settings, for locals to gather, have a drink, and take in the recent gossip. Such being so, it's tempting to assume Calvin's disparagement of inns stemmed from simple aversion to drinking and gossiping as such. Or perhaps the innkeeper's wish to turn a profit in providing food, drink, and accommodation to others prompted Calvin's censorial comments. Calvin, after all, was known to take a swing now and then (cf. his commentary on Isaiah 58.7) at those who pursued their vocation toward the end of padding their pockets rather than serving their fellow man -- no matter the efforts of certain folk to enlist Calvin as a champion for modern day economies which make peace with, or even endorse, human greed.

But no. Whatever Calvin's views on (excessive) drinking, gossiping, and profiting/profiteering, his distaste for inns stemmed from other considerations. Calvin disapproved of inns because he believed that persons travelling -- i.e., those who frequent inns -- should be offered food, drink, and accommodation cost-free in private homes. Inns, simply put, testify to the failure of (Christian) folk to extend hospitality -- that is, food, drink, and accommodation -- to those in need. Inns, in other words, "prove...that the principal duty of humanity has become obsolete among us."

Calvin's admittedly brief tirade against inns and insight into what the same say about the ethical state of a culture follow from observation of Abraham's apparent zeal for hospitality as evidenced by the events of Genesis 18.1-8. In that text Abraham spots "three men" (vs. 2) -- three travelers -- making their way past his home and prevails on them to stop, rest, and eat. In doing so he proves to be the perfect model of hospitable behavior. And Calvin judges hospitality, in turn, to be utmost proof and the principal instance of charity towards others.

"Hospitality," the reformer writes, "holds the chief place among [the] services [of charity]" which one might perform in relation to another. Why so? "Because it is no common virtue to assist strangers, from whom there is no hope of reward. For men in general are wont, when they do favors to others, to look for a return; but he who is kind to unknown guests and persons, proves himself to be disinterestedly liberal." Abraham's actions toward the three passersby of Gen. 18 are, then, perfect illustration of the disinterested liberality which exists at the heart of hospitality: "Wherefore the humanity of Abraham deserves no slight praise; because he freely invites men who were to him unknown, through whom he had received no advantage, and from whom he had no hope of mutual favors."

So remarkable, in fact, is Abraham's apparent disinterested liberality in Gen. 18, that Calvin questions -- following other unnamed interpreters -- whether Abraham recognized those whom he served to be more than men. The biblical narrative, of course, eventually unmasks two of these three men as angels, and the other -- at least in Calvin's judgment -- as Christ in pre-incarnate human form (i.e., a Christophany). But Scripture also leads Calvin to reject the notion that Abraham recognized the genuine identity of the three persons before him. There is, firstly, the statement of Gen. 18.2 that Abraham looked and beheld "three men" before him. There is, secondly, the statement of Heb. 13.2 that certain persons in salvation history have "entertained angels unawares," which statement Calvin reads as a direct reference to Abraham and the events depicted in Gen. 18.

The angels of Gen. 18 were, then, "received by the holy man as by one who intended to discharge a duty towards men.... It was therefore a merely human and civil honor which he paid them." Of course, the fact that Abraham initially recognized (and fed) his guests as men doesn't preclude the reader from recognizing their true identity from the first, and so from asking -- as Calvin does -- how beings without natural (or permanent) bodies can eat food at all, or what happened to the food they ate when their temporary human bodies were discarded! Calvin seems to entertain the possibility that when these beings laid aside the human form with which they were temporarily entrusted, the food they had eaten remained, dropping to the ground in whatever state of digestion it had reached in those temporary bodies. But he concludes otherwise: "As God speedily annihilated those bodies which had been created for a temporary use, so there will be no absurdity in saying that the food itself was destroyed together with their bodies."

However speculative and ultimately unfruitful Calvin's thoughts on angelic digestion might be, his comments on hospitality (or the lack thereof in modern cultures) bear much practical import for present day persons. If Calvin judged early modern Europe depraved on account of the presence of numerous inns, what would he make of modern day America, with its cluster of hotel and motel chains competing for business at nearly every exit on the nation's freeways?

Whether the number of hotels, motels, lodges, and inns at any given location is really inversely proportionate to a nation's moral health is, of course, debatable. Regardless, Calvin recalls us to a virtue -- namely, hospitality -- which is decidedly biblical and, arguably at least, much neglected in the present. The author of Hebrews states our obligation rather bluntly: "Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers." Most of us, I'd wager, struggle to muster up the moral energy to extend hospitality to persons we don't know all that well in our own churches. Extending hospitality to those who occupy even more remote circles of our attention -- to those who genuinely have very little if anything, even appreciation, to offer us in return -- never crosses our minds. On this score we might take a lesson from Abraham, and from Calvin who highlights the patriarch's remarkable charity to what at (his) first glance appeared to be nothing but tired travelers -- persons least in a position to reciprocate kindnesses received. 

There are plenty of reasons why people leave churches. Some are legitimate and others are not. In this short series, I want to focus on illegitimate reasons why people leave churches. Here is one:

"I don't feel connected."

This can mean several things, but the way I am accustomed to hearing it means that very few in the church, apparently, have reached out to said person. She feels isolated as a result; relationships have not developed as quickly as she expected; and in all likelihood, she believes that if she stopped attending no one would notice.

It is a shame when someone legitimately feels disconnected at a church. As Christians, we are called to be hospitable and loving. No one should be left behind. We should be seeking to develop relationships in our churches, relationships that extend beyond the familiar (i.e., those with whom we have been friends for years).

I am fairly certain most would agree with the aforementioned; however, notice what I wrote in the previous paragraph. "It is a shame when someone legitimately feels disconnected." Most often, in my experience, when people feel disconnected at a church it is illegitimate. They have visited for several weeks, maybe a couple of months, and the quota that they envisioned was not met. In other words, they expected a certain amount of people to greet them and invite them into their home. That has not occurred. The result--I don't feel connected. 

The problem with this, whether you are newly visiting a church or you have been at a church for a bit longer, is that we often forget that hospitality and friendliness are two-way streets. Every Christian is called to love his brothers and sisters in this manner, which means even those new to a church are called to employ those attributes. Far too often, however, visitors to a church, or those who have attended for a bit longer, sit back and wait to be approached. Essentially, they are testing the church. They want to get a read on its friendliness meter. That is both immature and unfriendly.

Instead of waiting for people to approach you, introduce yourself. Invite people into your home. As the old saying goes, "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you." You should also consider that if you do not feel connected, perhaps the problem is with you. It is easy to blame a church for how you feel, and it is easy to use your feelings as an escape hatch from the church. Be steadfast. Extend hospitality. Love your brothers and sisters. These are ways to ensure, in most cases, you will be connected at a church.
The military is a place for both young and old to find their way in life. As a navy instructor in San Diego, CA, between 2005-2008, I saw numerous recruits--who recently graduated from boot camp--and long-time veterans, who were desirous to better develop the skills of their vocation, save money, travel the world, and, most importantly, find their purpose in life.

Veteran's Day is an opportunity to thank military personnel for their service. Many of the freedoms we have in the US is because military servicemen put their lives on the line to defend us. And yet many of the same military men and women who defend our freedom are some of the same servicemen who want to find their purpose in life. Is it simply to travel the world? Is it only to save money? Is it to better understand their vocation? While all of those things are good, one's purpose cannot be defined by how much money a person saves, her vocation, or where she's traveled in the world. Our purpose, ultimately, is found in the scriptures (cf. WSC 1).

Therefore, as you thank military service members for their service today, consider doing more. Consider extending hospitality to them by inviting them into your home and getting to know them. As a former servicemen, I can assure you that many of them will appreciate it. As it stands, I know many military members who feel under-appreciated in this nation. A home cooked meal, especially for new recruits, will speak volumes.

In addition to opening your home, consider sharing the gospel with them. I have had numerous witnessing encounters in the military, and most of the conversations were fruitful. Those with whom I shared Christ were searching for something. Most did not know the thing, or Person, for whom they were searching, but they knew there was something greater to be desired outside of military service, something that provided purpose. As you know, hope, ultimately, is found in Christ. Do not overlook the witnessing opportunities you may have with military personnel. God works miracles, as he has with you and as he did with me while I was in the navy.

It is Veteran's Day! Celebrate with military members! Be hospitable to them and be a witness to the gospel.