The passage in question is found in Matthew 10.14-15 and reads, "And if anyone will not receive you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet as you leave that house or town. Truly I say to you, it shall be more tolerable on the day of judgement for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah than for that town." Hospitality wasn't just an important issue to the ancient Israelites, it was critical.
Hospitality was critical to the people of ancient Israel because it was a matter of survival. In the early days when Israel was little more than a wandering band, traveling was done only on an as-needed basis. Because there were no hotels, motels, restaurants, or inns, travelers had to count on the hospitality of their fellow Israelites for lodging and board. The customary provisions of hospitality included food and beverages for the guests, water to wash with, staples for accompanying animals, and protection for about three days.
The Israelite epitome of hospitality is demonstrated by the patriarch Abraham in Genesis 18 when angels of the Lord stop by on their way to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah. Abraham implores them to stop for a time of refreshment. First, he offers them water to rinse their feet, then he offers them protection (from the sun as he seats them beneath a tree). Next he offers a "morsel of bread," but instead of a lite meal he serves a fatted calf, bread, milk, and curdsa veritable feast in the Middle East. All this in the name of hospitality. However, it isn't Abraham but his nephew Lot who is named righteous because of hospitality (2 Peter 2.78). In the next chapter, Genesis 19, these same angels travel to Sodom and Lot offers amenities as his uncle did (he was obviously raised well!). However, when things turned ugly there in Sodom, Lot was compelled to protect his guests. Thus his hospitality became a model of righteousness.
The Old Testament in replete with many fine examples of hospitality and, indeed, it is clear these examples were the norms for Israelite society. However, scripture also recounts examples of those who did not demonstrate appropriate hospitality. In Exodus 2.20 Reuel chastises his daughters for not inviting Moses to their home after Moses watered their flocks. In 1st Samuel 25, Nabal's lack of hospitality to David nearly cost him his life. And we read in Genesis 18-19 that even though the wickedness of Sodom had virtually sealed the city's fate, God agreed to spare the city for the sake of ten righteous folk. However, the city was so inhospitable that its destruction took place before the search for the ten could even take place (Josephus, the first century Jewish historian, wrote that Sodom "hated strangers.")
Although the ideal of hospitality was an issue of survival for the early Israelites, as time passed these customs became the basis for much of Israel's theology. God became, not a traveling God before the tribes of Israel, but the host to the people in the promised land. Psalm 39.12 reads in part, "Hear my prayer, O Lord. For I am your passing guest, an alien, like all my forefathers." Indeed, the eschatological pictures of the Day of the Lord feature a banquet table and feast with God as the host, an image Jesus used regularly in his parables.
The importance of hospitality to the culture and society in Jesus' own heritage clearly influenced his teachings. As we consider our role as hosts to those in need, let us remember the proverb in Hebrews: "Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares" (Hebrews 13.2). Happy hosting!