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Lost Commandment: Help Strangers

By The Rev. Howard Bess
November 8, 2009

Editor’s Note: History has shown us that it’s fairly easy to use religion to divide people, even turn one group in murderous rage against another. Christianity – despite its grounding in the gentle teachings of Jesus – has proven to be no different.

In this guest essay, the Rev. Howard Bess recalls that one of the neglected messages from the Bible is the commandment of hospitality:

I never cease to be amazed at the teachings of the Bible that are completely ignored. Typically preachers find preaching hobby-horses to ride and meticulously avoid some of the most important and difficult teachings of the Old and New Testaments.

At the top of the list of avoided topics is hospitality.

The roots of the practice of hospitality are ancient. Hospitality was seen as a necessity among nomadic tribes of the Middle East and is the seed of the Golden Rule and the second great commandment, love of neighbor.

The tent of a fellow sojourner was a place of safety in which food and friendship were shared.

To refuse hospitality brought the judgment of God. The city of Sodom was not destroyed because of sexual sins of some sort, but because of the refusal of the city’s leaders to show hospitality to the angels of God. 

When Jesus sent out his disciples, they were told that they should take no provisions with them. They were to depend upon the hospitality of the sons of peace.

As told in Luke 10, anyone who refused hospitality was in big trouble. Their judgment would be worse than the judgment on the city of Sodom.

In the moral teachings found in Romans 12, Paul gives a simple command, “Practice hospitality.” The showing of hospitality was a moral standard by which followers of Jesus were to live. 

Hospitality is at the heart of the Good Samaritan parable. The commitment to hospitality is repeated in I Timothy, Hebrews and I Peter.

Hospitality was the primary way in which social problems were addressed. Widows and orphans in particular were offered hospitality by devout practitioners of the Faith.

The final example of the hospitality standard is presented in John 1: “He came to his own people, but they did not receive him. But to as many as received him, he gave power to become children of God.”

The ultimate test of being a citizen of the kingdom of God is the showing of hospitality.

It becomes very apparent that Jesus and his early followers took the demand for hospitality from its ancient roots and applied it to their own day. Some historians believe the key to the growth of early Christianity was their ardent practice of hospitality.

They took society’s rejects and misfits and made them a part of their households.

The Bible demand for hospitality has shaped my conscience. Over the years my wife and I have had guests that range from homeless teenagers to men and women being released from prison. 

Many of those to whom we offered hospitality are now among our dearest friends. As a part of my ministerial calling, I have been involved in the building of appropriate housing for people who have special needs. 

Without exception, housing in which I have been involved has been facilitated by believing communities. Many hundreds of living units are a part of the legacy of the churches I have served. Hospitality works!

But how is the Bible demand for hospitality to work right here, right now, in Alaska where I live?

The Alaska State Department of Corrections currently controls about 11,000 prisoners, detainees, parolees, and probationers. Eleven thousand is 1.7 percent of our Alaska population. 

The Department of Corrections averages releasing 287 felons from prison every month. About 10 percent of those are released in our Matanuska Valley. Sixty-two percent of all male felons held by DOC will be released within one year. Seventy-six percent of all female felons held by DOC will be released within one year.

Currently about 10 percent of the felons held by Department of Corrections are housed in prisons in the Matanuska Valley. The first half of a planned 1,500-bed prison is now under construction in our Valley.

When the new prison comes on line, about one-third of all felons held by DOC will be imprisoned in the Matanuska Valley. Released prisoners tend to settle near their release point.

The current steady stream of released felons in the Matanuska Valley will in the near future become a flood. Many of those released will have no place to call home, and no one to welcome them back to healthy living. They will join the ranks of the Valley’s homeless. 

The challenge of the local police departments will be monumental.

Sixty-six percent of the felons being released will offend again and return to prison within three years. It seems obvious that the current system of imprisonment, parole and probation does not work. A new way to release offenders back into society is urgently needed.   

Half-way houses and shelters have proven to be terrible failures. It is my own argument that the best answer is to take Bible teaching seriously and offer hospitality.

Our offending friends need homes in our neighborhoods, welcoming seats in our church pews, access to education and training, jobs, and appropriate helping services. They can even become some of our best friends.

The alternative to hospitality is to build more prisons and hire more policemen. Wisdom falls on the side of hospitality.

The Rev. Howard Bess is a retired American Baptist minister, who lives in Palmer, Alaska.  His email address is           

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