Living the Hospitality of God, by Lucien Richard, O.M.I.

Book Review

lucien-richardTitle:              Living the Hospitality of God

Author:         Lucien Richard, O.M.I.

Publisher:    New York, Mahway, N.J.: Paulist Press, 2000

Reviewer:  Nell Becker Sweeden, Ph.D. Student in Practical Theology

Lucien Richard, in Living the Hospitality of God, provides an in-depth analysis of Christian hospitality to the stranger and reaffirms this practice as the necessary action of ushering God’s reign, particularly in light of contemporary situations of rampant individualism in America and the staggering reality of displaced peoples and refugees. Hospitality challenges one to accept the ‘other’ as other and the ‘stranger’ as one bearing strange culture to the observer. This encounter requires attentive listening and willingness to enter into another’s world and be transformed by this world. The welcome of hospitality, he argues, performs the transformation of oneself by the existence of the ‘other’. This transformation profoundly affects the body of the church and points it toward the Kingdom of God. It is this transformation of the body of Christ that I will highlight for the purposes of further ecclesiological investigation in hospitality.

Richard provides a thorough historical and scriptural analysis of the foundations of hospitality to the stranger in order to establish how the Kingdom of God relates to this hospitality. First, Richard highlights Hebrew and Christian scriptures as the foundation of God’s call to hospitality. These various stories become the impetus for the people of God to be attentive to the needs of neighbor, stranger, and enemy. Richard follows Israelite history and a people called to identify with the stranger because of its own strange origins. Beginning with God’s call to leave one’s homeland and enter into a strange land, typified in Abraham, Richard traces Israel through the desert wilderness journeying toward the Promise Land. In this sojourn, wilderness, homeland, and land become powerful symbols and reminders of God’s call to be strangers, as well as God’s accompanying grace, guidance, and provision in this journey. The identity of God’s people as strangers is something they are called never to forget. More still, the encounter with other strangers depicted in the Hebrew scriptures, also becomes an occasion for encounter with God. This identity and history, and the possibilities and responsibilities inherent within them, become central to what it means to be the people of God in present-day. This rich history guides the body of Christ today in continuing, embodying, and living into its identity and heritage. The narrative history and identity formed here become the foundation for the nature and mission of church.

Richard finds the longer tradition of ancient Israel essential to the body of Christ in understanding where the ethical responsibility for Christian hospitality originates. Next, Richard explores hospitality in the narrative of the Christian scriptures embodied in the life of Jesus Christ. Richard specifically highlights the nature of hospitality in: 1) Matthew 25:31-46 to welcome the stranger as Christ himself, for such a welcome bears on eternal destiny; 2) the Road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-25) as the reversal of the role of stranger and guest in the breaking of the bread; 3) the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:29-37) as the man who was a neighbor to the injured man offering him his own possessions; 4) the writings of Paul in connecting hospitality as the common virtue that unites the church as “family” or “household of God” in its early mission and expansion; and 5) in 1 Peter connecting hospitality with how those formerly outcasted are now welcomed as the elect and privileged people of God. These scriptures and narratives continue to shape the people of God as the body of Christ—a people both characterized and transformed by hospitality to the stranger, the social outcast, the neighbor, and the enemy.

These scriptural narratives call the people of God toward continual responsibility to the stranger—this is an essential component of the church’s identity and witness. It would be interesting to explore how the hospitality inherent within these scriptures is re-narrated and performed within a local congregation. In a particular Christian community, How is this identity and ethical responsibility shaped after the commands of scripture or the narrative embodiment of Jesus Christ?  How is the narrative of the Scriptures embodied and performed in a community of faith? How are these scriptures remembered and employed in action? Do the scriptures form the origin of the calling of the people of God to hospitality and/or the church’s continual motivation and memory? How do these scriptures carry over and continue to shape into the identity, life, and witness of the church?

Finally, Richard presents hospitality to the stranger as the work of the Spirit in unifying the household of God. The new humanity in Jesus Christ is always a “home-in-process,” and the people of God are partners in the building of the Kingdom (42-43). This is a home and place that never arrive. The new humanity is always moving as pilgrims toward the heavenly city. This constant movement of hospitality has important bearings on how the body of Christ understands possession and power within the world. In the hospitality of God in Christ, the Kingdom of God exemplifies the great reversal of power. The power of powerlessness in the life, death, and resurrection of Christ suggests a reversal of power and reorientation of possessions. The crucifixion exemplifies the letting go of everything for the other, while the resurrection offers the gift of life to the powerless (48). This new reality in Christ is embodied in the paschal mystery and celebrated in the Eucharist. These practices orient the people of God toward right attitude toward possessions, toward open welcome of all, and toward a life of interdependence, mutuality, and reciprocity within the household of God. Richard describes the household, kingdom, or reign of God as a verb that signifies God’s activity—God being with us and God in relation (39, 55). The church’s orientation toward this reign leads it to relation and hospitality on the margins of society evident in Jesus’ incarnation as kenosis, a radical impoverishment for the sake of another—that is, for all humanity (56).

This witness, way of life, and these practices are signs of a faith community’s identity in the hospitality narrated by the scriptures. One can begin to look for the signs of the reign of God evident within a faith community by investigating the narratives, images, and motivation that lie behind, before, and within such practices and visible witness. The scriptures call for certain actions toward and interaction with the stranger, which continue to shape the community into the body of Christ. In this sense, it is important to discern what narrative and which vision are shaping the identity and witness of the church, as well as what concrete practices and what visible witness are revealing that vision within the world. Borrowing from Luke Timothy Johnson, Richard finds that the vision of God’s reign “encourages a diaspora ethics of itinerancy, detachment, dispossession, solidarity, and endurance in suffering, rather than a homeland ethics of stability, engagement, acquisition, and human fulfillment in the present life” (79). Thus this question will continue to be explored, How is a faith community as the body of Christ living into the way of life that scripture imagines?