John Lee: Entertaining More Than Angels

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.

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SOURCE: Christianity Today