"So what does hospitality look like in the twenty-first century? Will I know it when I see it? Is it still an obligation or just a nice option? Not everything that calls itself hospitality would pass the test with Benedict or Paul. Ruthless business is often conducted over carefully prepared and elegantly served meals; shallow and impersonal cordiality is epitomized by the 'hospitality suite' that has become an ubiquitous part of any conference or convention. There is the careful balancing of indebtedness, not just for food and drink but for favors granted and received — Is it my turn to pick up the tab or yours? God forbid that you should pay for my modest lunch two times in succession. To be sure, there are the obvious acts of hospitality, the easy, effortless ones. When I share a meal with a good friend, I am enriched by our time together, no matter who picks up the bill. The give-and-take of friendship is a win-win situation: both parties have given and received, and the line between host and guest becomes pleasantly blurred. But true hospitality is costly and does not depend on how we feel. It might mean letting go of inflated ideas of our own worth and moving to a place at the table where no one else wants to sit. Jesus reminds his friends of this: when you are invited to a party, sit in the lowest place; if that is the wrong spot for you, it will get sorted out. Your job is to be there and to be open to what might happen — perhaps you will receive and perhaps you will give.

"True hospitality also means that we extend welcome to the most unlikely guests: 'the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind' (Luke 14:13) — the very people, Jesus says, who cannot repay us. This kind of hospitality is relatively easy so long as we can assure ourselves that it is a temporary situation and that, after we have done our charitable duty, we can retreat to our own place of comfort. The identified poor are easy to spot: they live on the street, they are shabby or even disheveled, and they do not always smell very good. They are nothing like us, of course — or are they? What if this passage means extending our generous, unself-conscious hospitality to the spiritually poor, impaired, and blind among us? What if it means welcoming those among us whom everyone else is avoiding? What if it means — here Benedict is dangerously radical — meeting everyone we encounter as if they were Christ? . . .

"It is easy and tempting to sort out our priorities: this person is worthy of my attention, this person might be helpful to me as I move upward and onward, this person might at least be properly grateful, this person might be the worthy recipient of my charity while this person is quite disposable. Yet we are promised — or warned? — in Jesus' story of the incognito king that things are not what they seem and that God's standards are not the world's standards.

"The unnamed author of the letter to the Hebrews knew this: 'Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it' (13:2). This word of advice can be comforting or alarming, depending on where we are, spiritually and geographically, at any given moment. It is hard for me to believe that I might be entertaining an angel when the volunteer for a local public television station interrupts me at the dinner hour with a phone call requesting money, or when the supermarket clerk refuses to make eye contact and leaves me feeling that I have intruded upon her space. But many times we might be entertaining angels when we are too busy to notice. These hospitality angels, like the Holy Spirit, can be very subtle. Of course, sometimes they are hard to miss, but all too often we just pass them by.

"Dee, who answers my doctor's telephone, is one of my hospitality angels. I'm not sure that I would recognize her if I met her on the street, but just the sound of her voice makes me feel better. Then there's Veronica from Ghana. She is one of the checkers at the wildly eclectic discount grocery store up the street from the elegant gourmet shop. Her perfunctory colleagues do their job just as efficiently, but Veronica's broad smile, her collegial expressions of gratitude when I help bag the fruits and vegetables, her inquiries about my whereabouts when I am on the road — all make my encounters with her at the cash register occasions of true hospitality."