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Greek Word Study - Hospitality

Despairing of life and limb, Odysseus threw off his robes and plunged into the raging sea. If this ancient hero had not finally reached the safety of a distant shore, Homer’s story of the Odyssey would have been a whole lot shorter! Cold, naked, and exhausted, Odysseus crawled into the shelter of some bushes where a river emptied into the sea. He covered himself with leaves and fell into a deep sleep.

Meanwhile, lovely Nausicaa and her maidens came to the river to do their laundry. As they finished, their songs and laughter wakened Odysseus. Creeping out with a leafy branch as his only clothing, he determined to discover what kind of people lived in this land. “Are they cruel, and wild, and unjust,” he asked himself, “or do they love strangers and fear the gods?”

In ancient Greece the “love of strangers” was considered a supreme virtue. The Greek word for this was philoxenia (phil ox seh NEE ah). (On the other hand, “fear of strangers” was xenophobia, a word still used in our own language.)

Philoxenia is usually translated “hospitality.” It is a required virtue in elders (1 Timothy 3:2 and Titus 1:8), and a practice urged upon all Christians (Romans 12:13). The root meaning of the word, however, reminds us that our hospitality should not be directed only toward our friends and family. Our “love of strangers” should reach out to include people we have not previously known.

Hebrews 13:2 warns us not to forget to “entertain strangers” (literally, “Do not forget philoxenia”). By practicing hospitality some people have even entertained angels without knowing it. Abraham, Lot, Gideon, and Manoah would be good examples of this.

Fortunately for ancient Odysseus, the people he encountered in that distant land believed in practicing philoxenia. They gave him food, clothing, and a golden flask of oil. On the other hand, how fortunate is it for needy strangers today when they encounter us?