Hospitality: The Social Meaning
Hospitality is a significant aspect of honor-shame cultures. Many people know this through personal experience. When you visit someone from a Majority World culture, you receive a lavish and generous welcome. Besides the quality of hospitality, the quantity is also significant. People visit each other regularly, and “just sitting for tea” is common.
This post explores the social meaning of hospitality. What does it accomplish within a relationship? What is its social meaning? But first, let’s define “hospitality.” In the market economies of the West, hospitality often refers to “the business of providing food, drink, and accommodation for customers.” We even have the phrase “hospitality industry” (an oxymoron that is quite revealing!). This is not how hospitality operates in honor-shame contexts. Here, it has a more interpersonal meaning—“the friendly and generous reception and entertainment of guests, visitors, or strangers.” In many cultures, this is far more than a quaint meal around the table. Hospitality can involve the entire day, sleeping over, and even providing gifts to the guests as they leave.
From an economic perspective, hospitality is rather inefficient and illogical. Why would someone share food and resources, often at great expense, without receiving any payment in return? To answer that question, we explain the three social functions of hospitality.
1. Hospitality Produces Honor
Hospitality is an act of patronage. The host (a type of patron) shares resources with the guest (a type of client). In return, the host receives status and recognition. The meal functions as a gift coming from a generous person. Providing people with such gifts creates a positive reputation for the giver. “In the East, a man’s fame is spread by means of his table and lavish hospitality rather than by his possessions. Strangers and neighbors alike discuss tables where they have been guests. Such tales spread from one town to another and are handed down from one generation to another” (Lamsa, The Shepherd of All, 65). This quote explains how hospitality generates a cascade of honor across space and time.
The converse is equally true; not hosting people produces shame. This works in two ways. When rich people do not share food, it is an open shame within the community. But also at a personal level, when a person is too poor to host others, they feel shame. When the World Bank asked poor people about the nature of poverty, people noted the shame of being unable to offer bread and tea to others. I recall visiting such people, and the shame on their faces because they had nothing to offer was palpable and painful.
2. Hospitality Creates Relationships
Hospitality transforms the identity of the guest. The host receives honor from the event, and the guest becomes, in essence, a “new person.” Communing and sharing bread forms a relational bond between people. This is particularly true when hospitality is extended to outsiders and strangers. The guest, when a traveler or outsider, is a person without a social identity. They are unknown outside of their primary social group. But hospitality functions to reincorporate that person into the new, local community.
3. Hospitality Reveals Character
Hospitality functions as a moment of revelation. It exposes a person’s true heart. This social fact is evident in the climactic scene of Homer’s Odyssey (17.330–500). The hero Odysseus returns home after a long journey. He enters his own palace (now populated by other people) dressed like an old beggar in dismal rags in order “to learn which people were righteous and which unrighteous.” Their response to Odysseus would prove their true character, who they really were as people. Antinous was the main leader of those squatting in Odysseus house. He responded, “What malicious god has sent this plague to spoil our feast? Take yourself away from my table. You are simply a bold, brazen beggar.” Instead of welcome, he scolds and despises Odysseus (cf. Gal 4:13–14). All through Homer’s Odyssey, hospitality expresses one’s piety or impiety. This was a common sentiment in the ancient world, among Greeks, Romans, and even Jews. Philo of Alexandria commented about Genesis 18, “Abraham’s hospitality which was but a by-product of a greater virtue. That virtue is piety.” Jesus incorporates this idea when he sends out his apostles; they would recognize people who were “worthy” based on their level of welcome (Mt 10:11–15).
In sum, hospitality is so important because it accomplishes a lot socially. Hospitality produces honor, creates relationships, and reveals character. The next post will explore the NT connection between hospitality and salvation.