We all know how important a role hospitality plays in our communal life. When someone is hospitable toward us we feel welcomed and acknowledged, and when someone is not we feel invisibilized. The act of hospitality accords or denies dignity to a person. In the Gospel of Luke 10:1-23, one can find a rather interesting story of Jesus sending out the Seventy, or in some translations and manuscripts the Seventy-two, as forerunners to both Jewish and Gentile places.
During Jesus’ time hospitality was not just an ethical imperative for communities but also, and importantly, a divine command. Violation of this divine command did have serious consequences, and Jesus, in the text, is seen making reference to one such context – the wrath against Sodom. The sin of Sodom was not homosexuality – a popular belief within Christian conservative circles – but rather inhospitality. This is implied in the text and further expressed in Ezekiel 16. So hospitality, even as Jesus seemed to understand, was vital to Jewish communal and spiritual life. However, we see something very different in the narrative: Jesus isn’t telling the seventy to be hospitable. Instead he instructs them to acknowledge, receive, and embrace hospitality from those that willingly offer. Now, this is easier said than done.
We are all aware that communities are divided over many things and one such thing is food. Food forms and defines the identity of peoples and communities. And because of this, we have been conditioned to associate certain kinds of food with certain racial and ethnic groups, which unfortunately have contributed to furthering discrimination against such groups. An on-the-surface study of dietary regulations of Dalits and those belonging to dominant castes is enough to suggest how distant communities are from each other when it comes to food. Take for example what some of us would have for the fun of it: beef. Beef for Dalits forms an important part of their dietary; while for those who belong to dominant castes, beef is ‘detestable.’ People have been lynched by Hindu Nationalists on the suspicion of having eaten or having made attempts to have beef.
Furthermore, a person belonging to a dominant caste would not accept anything offered by a Dalit, for Dalits have historically been perceived as ‘impure.’ And because of this narrative, people of dominant castes continue to believe that to come in contact with a Dalit or their food (not to mention their shadow) would end up polluting themselves. This form of discrimination is (not so) subtly highlighted in the 2018 Tamil Movie Kalaa where Hari Dhadha (Nana Patekar), politician from a dominant caste, upon visiting the house of Kalaa (Rajinikanth), a Dalit, refuses to have a glass of water that was offered. In fact, he is seen conversing outside the house, thereby reaffirming the need to maintain social boundaries.
Likewise in the biblical text, the Jews and Gentiles never quite got along. Now compound this hatred with the cleanliness rituals that Jews had to follow before having a meal (remember when Jesus’ disciples were execrated by the Pharisees for not washing their hands before eating?) Even though Jesus, a Jew, is aware of this he tells the seventy to eat and drink whatever is offered. Jesus is basically telling them not to be picky about where they are going to stay and what they are going to eat. The seventy by all means were sent to Gentile towns, and if we are to take Luke’s version seriously, Jesus envisioned Jews eating with Gentiles. With such acts taking place Jesus’ mission blurred social boundaries and broke walls that separated one from the other. Jesus, like B.R. Ambedkar did centuries later, identified the act of eating together having a justice dimension, where there is a genuine intermingling of guest and host, where there is an undoing of privilege, and wherein lies the possibility of eliminating prejudice.
The divine command to be hospitable is layered with another charge – to embrace hospitality from the margins. The seventy had to set aside their superior ethnic identity and had to be willing to open up themselves to be touched, impacted, and nourished by a people that in many ways were different to them. The hierarchy between the one who is serving and the one who is receiving had to be eliminated. This was Jesus’ method of recognizing the divine in the other. No wonder he says in v. 16, “Whoever rejects you rejects me,” also implying that whoever welcomes the seventy welcomes Jesus himself.
In v. 4, Jesus commands the seventy to carry no purse, no bag, and no sandals. I find Jesus’ instructions to be very unreasonable. Yet, I believe Jesus places these “restrictions” so that the seventy – the messengers, the evangelists – would learn to ‘rest and rise’ upon the welcome, generosity, and kindness of others. Jesus’ theology is deeply relational where each one finds meaning and purpose in the other, even more so in the disenfranchised.
Even as you read and imagine the scene who do you identify with – the seventy or the welcoming hosts? If you choose to identify with the seventy, are you willing to open up yourself and let the other change and define you? Would you be willing to break the walls, symbolic and material, and receive what is offered, even if it makes you uncomfortable? Or, if you choose to identify with the hosts would you receive the sent, even if they leave you restless by disrupting your space? Honestly, this would take some un/doing. We would need to risk ourselves for Christ’s sake. Remember Jesus can come in the form of a priest, a messenger, a vulnerable stranger, an orphan, a homeless, an immigrant (from “shithole countries”), and an asylum-seeking refugee. Would we be willing to recognize the divine in them? Or perhaps Jesus – the man who had no place to lay his head – challenges us to receive what the stranger, the homeless, and the refugee might want to offer us. Would we with open arms?