The Improvisation of Hospitality

Helmut Thielicke (via Alan Jacobs):

You will never learn who Jesus Christ is by reflecting upon whether there is such a thing as sonship or virgin birth or miracle. Who Jesus Christ is you learn from your imprisoned, hungry, distressed brothers. For it is in them that he meets us. He is always in the depths. And we shall draw near to these brethren only if we open our eyes to see the misery around us. And we can open our eyes only when we love. But we cannot go and do and love, if we stop and ask first, “Who is my neighbor?” The devil has been waiting for us to ask this question; and he will always whisper into our ears only the most convenient answers. We human beings always fall for the easiest answers. No, we can love only if we have the mind of Jesus and turn the lawyer’s question around. Then we shall ask not “Who is my neighbor?” but “To whom am I a neighbor? Who is laid at my door? Who is expecting help from me and who looks upon me as his neighbor?” This reversal of the question is precisely the point of the parable.

Anybody who loves must always be prepared to have his plans interrupted. We must be ready to be surprised by tasks which God sets for us today. God is always compelling us to improvise. For God’s tasks always have about them something surprising and unexpected, and this imprisoned, wounded, distressed brother, in whom the Saviour meets us, is always turning up on our path just at the time when we are about to do something else, just when we are occupied with altogether different duties. God is always a God of surprises, not only in the way in which he helps us — for God’s help too always comes from unexpected directions — but also in the manner in which he confronts me with tasks to perform and sends people across my path.

Thielicke’s words on the parable of ‘The Good Samaritan’ bring two things to mind.

  1. Some time ago, I wrote on Ivan Illich’s interpretation of this same parable here. Illich makes the point that hospitality is not owed out of obligation, particular to ethnic constraints but is, rather, “A free creation between two people.” The sense of “a free creation” seems to suggest that hospitality is gift, an aspect of the given life. In this way, I find a great connection between how Thielicke talks of “This reversal of the question,” into “To whom am I a neighbor” and Illich’s “free creation”.

  2. The second thing might be joined to the first by tracing a theme of improvisation (more on this later). “God’s tasks,” says Thielicke, “Always have about them something surprising and unexpected.” In this way God calls us to improvise. Often we take the opportunity for improvisation as an inturruption to the planned form we fantasize our days to hold. Some time ago, I posted some quotations about ‘time managment’ here. one of those quotes came from CS Lewis who had a lot to say about how the present moment is the place where we make contact with eterninty and encounter the grace sufficient for the time. About work ‘interruptions’ he says this:

The great thing, if one can, is to stop regarding all the unpleasant things as interruptions of one’s ‘own’, or ‘real’ life. The truth is of course that what one calls the interruptions are precisely one’s real life – the life God is sending one day by day.

Poetics of Prayer @Izak