Today’s post in the series Hospitality: Opening Doorways to the Kingdom is written by Meredith
I live a little over an hour’s drive from Lakewood Church, Joel Osteen’s mega-church that meets in a former sports arena in central Houston, Texas. Each Sunday, over 16,000 people attend the main campus, while thousands more attend satellite campuses and even millions more watch Osteen from their televisions in at least 100 different countries. Osteen’s first book, Your Best Life Now: 7 Steps to Living at Your Full Potential ranked #1 on The New York Times Best Seller List and sold over 4 million copies. What is Osteen’s message and what makes it so attractive to people all over the world?
Osteen promises we are due God’s blessing of success- safety, health, and wealth when we give our resources over to God. The message is prosperity gospel, which requires not only our financial resources, but a positive attitude, especially in the midst of hardship. Prosperity gospel claims healing when faith is strong enough. It focuses on our lives now as we wait in eager expectation for things to come together for us, where we finally get our big break, our chance to shine. Prosperity gospel is about today, rather than eternal life to come. It’s a promise of control and who wouldn’t like a little more control over their lives? An extension of prosperity gospel, I would argue, is vending machine gospel, as my husband likes to call it. Vending machine gospel uses the same principal. Like a vending machine, if I put my coins in (praying hard enough, tithing, or giving the last of my resources, for example), I am guaranteed my candy bar of safety, health, and wealth.
Where do Osteen and others like him get their idea that we can turn to God with an open hand after doing a little good? If preachers of prosperity or vending machine gospel look to scripture for examples, I admitthere are instances of God’s people prospering as a direct result of their hospitality. The story of the prophet Elijah and a widow come to mind. A generous widow shares the last of her flour and oil with Elijah who had been entrusted by God to warn King Ahab of a great famine in Israel. Ahab had introduced to his people Baal, a false god who was said to provide rain. God protects Elijah by commanding him to hide in a ravine, drinking from a brook near the Jordan river and eating meat and bread brought to him each morning and evening by ravens.
When the brook dries, God commands Elijah to find a widow to supply him with food. Elijah obeys and when he asks the widow for food, she shares with him that she was gathering a couple of sticks so that she could go home and prepare it for herself and her son, so that they “might eat it and die.” You can sense the desperation in the widow’s response. She was quick to bring Elijah a little water, but when he asked for the last of her food, she found herself afraid. I imagine the widow wasn’t thinking of herself, but of her son. How could she share her son’s last meal with an unkempt stranger from the wilderness? Elijah promises that if she shares with him, God will ensure that her “jar of flour will not be used up and [her] jug of oil will not run dry until the day the Lord gives rain on the land.”
Following prosperity gospel’s logic in the case of Elijah and the widow, we seek opportunities to show hospitality; to share even the last of what we have because we too could be greatly rewarded like the widow. In fact, Elijah goes on to live with the widow and her son. Food is provided each day for the three of them for years to come. Later on, God even brings the widow’s son back to life when he falls ill and dies. Things worked out great for the widow, but how many of us want to raise our hands and share our own experience or the experience of watching another who was generous and hospitable, or who maybe prayed fervently for something, but who still suffered, despite their living (in the words of Osteen) their “best life now”?
At the age of 21, I took a semester off of school to try teaching in rural Tanzania. I saw the best life; a life of children playing under trees and not one neighbor going hungry. I also saw pain. It was estimated that over seventy percent of the people in Igoda and its surrounding villages had HIV or AIDS. One student in particular, Eliza, was known as caretaker to her sick, widowed mother who lived villages away. When I heard Eliza’s mother, or Mama Eliza as locals would call her, needed a blanket, I jumped at the chance. I bought a wool blanket the day before from a local shop and followed Eliza on her weekly journey to visit her mother. When we arrived, Mama Eliza demanded we rest ourselves inside her grass-roofed home. Her few possessions were arranged neatly on the dirt floor- a straw mat, a few spoons, knives, bowls, and a large woven basket.
After we gave Mama Eliza the blanket and had a few pleasant exchanges which exhausted my knowledge of the local language, Mama Eliza spoke firmly to her daughter, pointing to the woven basket. Eliza nodded and turned to me. “Teacher? My mother says that you must stay for dinner. My mother does not have much food. Her crop is not good right now. See in her basket? She has only a few potatoes and greens. But she will only be happy if she can share her crop with you.” I knew I could not refuse the meal because it would devastate Mama Eliza, but how could I eat the few calories her body so desperately needed? Then it occurred to me. Mama Eliza, the sick, poor widow, was giving the last of her food to be hospitable, to say thank you.
Mama Eliza was “living her best life now,” but was not given the same promise as the widow Elijah encountered. She was not motivated by safety, health, or wealth, but simply because it was what you do. When someone has traveled all day to bring you a gift, you invite them in and you feed them. You host. I do not know what became of Mama Eliza, but my guess is that she passed away years ago as she was without proper medication or care for her illness. I could not go on to live and provide for Eliza and her mother, much less bring anyone back to life like God empowered Elijah to do. Mama Eliza’s hospitality towards me was risky. Unlike the widow in 1 Kings and unlike the promises of prosperity gospel, Mama Eliza was probably without food in the following days because she had shared with me.
So why be hospitable?What’s in it for us if we might turn out like Mama Eliza- hungry and without? Perhaps it is in the act of hospitality itself, especially when it’s uncomfortable or even painful, that makes it worth it. Worth it, not because there is always a gain or because we feel good about ourselves afterwards, but worth it because we become more like Christ in the process. It’s worth it because we are shaped by our giving.
Christ showed us the ultimate act of hospitality when he came to the earth, our home, and lived as one of us. Christ extended his hospitality to the cross where he died despite his life of generosity, love, and miracles. Our life experiences show us that we are not guaranteed happiness, safety, health, or wealth when we are hospitable. Even when we give the very last of our resources, no matter how sacrificial or painful, we are not promised our time to shine or as the vending machine gospel would say, our candy bar. What we can count on; however, is knowing ourselves better and maybe even knowing Christ more intimately than before. Perhaps when Mama Eliza gave the last of her crop to a stranger, she was thinking of what Jesus says in Matthew, that whoever welcomes another is welcoming Christ himself. We are hospitable, not to be one step closer to success or to reap in the world at hand, but in the words of the Nicene Creed, we are hospitable so that we may better look to the life of the world to come.
Meredith Griffin lives on Galveston Island in Texas. She enjoys spending time outdoors with her husband and two young children. She holds a Bachelors degree in English Literature and Education as well as a Masters in Counseling from the Episcopal Seminary of the Southwest.