‘The Gospel Comes with a House Key’
‘The Gospel Comes with a House Key’

What the Holy Family Teaches Us about Hospitality


By Matt Proctor

My wife, Katie, has the gift of hospitality. With six kids, our house isn’t always clean, but it’s always open. Katie’s smile, fun red chairs, and paper plates have welcomed hundreds of people.

Me? I’m not so good at it. I’m a professional extrovert but a personal introvert. I interact happily with lots of people in my work, but at the end of the day, I want to pull in my driveway, pull up the drawbridge, and enjoy some alone time.

Also: I’m not always good at welcoming people not like me.


Bumper Stickers and a Bible College President

Stacey is 22, my daughter’s friend from high school, and for a time last year, she lived with us. She’s bright, funny, and high energy, but after some bad decisions, she was kicked out of college and her house. Stacey slept in our basement, dropping Cheetos and occasional cusswords. She was an atheist with a fluid sexual orientation, but we loved her and prayed for her.

One Saturday morning, I drove Stacey’s car to Walmart. She had a job interview in St. Louis—a four-hour drive—and her old car needed a new tire. It wasn’t until I pulled into the parking lot, however, that the thought hit me: Oh no! Her bumper stickers!

Stacey is an activist on the political left, which is not exactly where I live politically. I live in a red state, in a deep red county, and my dad’s initials—honest to goodness—are GOP. The car I was driving was covered in Planned Parenthood, rainbow, and “Hillary for President” stickers. I’m the local Bible college president, and I always see people I know at Walmart. I had two thoughts:

  • What are all these people thinking? I was tempted to roll the window down and say, “This is not my car. This belongs to . . . the president of the Baptist college up the road.”
  • Proctor, what are you thinking? The Holy Spirit stabbed me with the realization that—for just a moment, in my head—I was distancing myself from the kind of person Jesus embraced. Not exactly a gospel move.

I’m still learning how to welcome people not like me. That’s why I need the Christmas story.


Hospitality and the Holy Family 

Hospitality is commanded in places like Romans 12:13 and 1 Peter 4:9, and Hebrews 13:2 says, “Show hospitality to strangers.” Biblical hospitality isn’t just for family and friends—it’s intended for outsiders. The Bible preaches a powerful message about our welcoming God. In a technologically connected but increasingly lonely world, it’s an effective way to build relationships with unbelievers. One aptly named book on hospitality says it’s The Simplest Way to Change the World.

Yet for one reason or another—busyness, laziness, fear—many Christians are reluctant to open their front door.

Especially for someone not like them.

That’s one reason we need the Christmas story. The story of the Holy Family is a story of hospitality. In children’s Christmas pageants, a bathrobed innkeeper roughly points Joseph and Mary away, a nameless example of inhospitality. But a careful reading of the biblical birth stories also introduces us to three nameless heroes of hospitality: someone in Bethlehem, someone in Egypt, and someone in Nazareth.


Bethlehem: Hospitality to Economic Outsiders

When Mary and Joseph arrived in Bethlehem from Nazareth, they had very little money. When they presented Jesus at the Temple after his birth, they made the sacrifice allowed for the poor—two young pigeons (Luke 2:24; Leviticus 12:8). The Holy Family was not middle class. They were a blue-collar, double-wide trailer, rusty car, ramen-at-the-end-of-the-month family.

Have you welcomed those of a lower economic bracket into your home? Someone in Bethlehem did.

Luke 2:7 says there was no room for the Holy Family in the kataluma—a Greek word translated “inn,” but more often meaning “guest room,” usually in a private residence. And while our 21st-century nativities include a stable, a manger in first-century Bethlehem was more likely to be found in a home.

Palestinian homes were a large single room, with an upper level where guests slept (the kataluma) and a lower level where family slept. Animals were brought in one end of the lower level at night, with hollows in the ground filled with straw where the livestock fed—mangers. So, many scholars believe Luke 2:7 means there was no room for the Holy Family in someone’s upper guest room, but Jesus was still likely born in someone’s home, on the lower level by the animals, and laid in one of these mangers.

Someone in Bethlehem opened their door to this near-broke family, and in so doing, welcomed the Savior into the world.


Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner

Many Christians serve the poor—typically backpacks for underprivileged schoolkids and community food pantries. But would you actually welcome the poor into your home—set a place at your table, even make a bed for them? How might your family or church include the “economic outsider”?

Every August, Katie and I take our kids to her hometown fair to ride the Ferris wheel and munch on fried Oreos. (“In the Midwest, drinking isn’t the answer to life’s problems . . . eating is.”) It’s a small town, so everybody greets everybody else . . . except the traveling carnival workers.

There is a common stereotype of a “carnie”—greasy ballcap, tattoos, cigarette, high school dropout. At worst, people view carnival workers as untrustworthy. At best, folks simply ignore them.

But First Christian Church of Lamar, Missouri, sees them. A few years ago, my wife’s home church started putting on a lunch for the carnival workers the day before the fair. The church ladies cook up roast beef, mashed potatoes, green beans, and rolls. Someone cranks homemade ice cream, and Cinda Miller makes her famous pies.

When the church first extended the invitation, the carnival manager responded in wide-eyed surprise, “No one’s ever done that for us before.” On a hot Wednesday afternoon, 40 to 50 church members welcomed 75 to 100 workers into their air-conditioned fellowship hall. They learned names, ate together, listened to each other’s stories, laughed, and showed family pictures. Unlikely friendships began, phone numbers were exchanged, good news was shared, prayers were prayed, faith was stirred, and the kingdom was advanced.

All because, like the nameless hero in Bethlehem, someone opened the front door.


Egypt: Hospitality to Ethnic Outsiders

When I walked up my front steps one evening last summer, a college-age girl greeted me with a European accent, “Ah! You must be the dad.” Keit and Reilika had knocked on our door, selling books to earn money for their university schooling back home in Estonia. When my wife learned these young ladies were staying at a motel, she insisted they live with us the rest of the summer.

So they moved in that afternoon . . . and I learned about it that evening. (I like the T-shirt I once saw: “INTROVERTS UNITE, separately, in your own homes.” My wife’s motto: “EVERYONE UNITE, together, in my home.”) Neither girl was a believer, and over that summer, our family introduced them to Jesus.

Have you welcomed those from other ethnic backgrounds into your home? Someone in Egypt did.

When King Herod plotted to kill the newborn king, Joseph was warned in a dream to escape to Egypt. The United Nations defines a refugee as “someone forced to flee his country because of persecution,” and the Holy Family fit that description. First-century refugees in Egypt were not always welcome. In AD 41, a government edict instructed Jews in Egypt “not to bring in or invite Jews who sail down to Alexandria” from Palestine.

Yet for perhaps as long as two or three years, someone in Egypt sheltered the Holy Family anyway. In a foreign land, they relied on the kindness of strangers.


All Their Belongings in a Walmart Sack

How could you practice hospitality to the “ethnic outsider”? Host an exchange student? Invite an international student from the local college to dinner? The single best resource I know: watch the video training series at theriseproject.com. It will change your church forever.

Hospitality changed Discovery Christian Church in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

“There’s a large Burmese population in Pittsburgh,” says founding pastor Toney Salva, “and we had a passion to reach these refugees. We would meet Burmese families at the airport, often straight from the refugee camp, and the entire family’s belongings fit in one Walmart sack.

“We would take them to their new home and show them how to use the electricity, the running water, the heat. We’d show them around their new neighborhood, offer English classes, and just love them. We helped start a Burmese congregation here in Pittsburgh, and today that church welcomes over 200 every week.”

All because, like the nameless hero in Egypt, someone opened the front door.


Nazareth: Hospitality to Moral Outsiders

When my wife, Katie, first saw Brianna, she was walking on the roadside one frigid December midnight. Katie offered her a ride, and a friendship began. Brianna is a single mother, and because of a volatile boyfriend, she and her twin girls sometimes stay the night at our house. She’s trying to make better choices, but even when she doesn’t, Brianna knows our family loves her and Jesus loves her.

Have you welcomed those with stained moral reputation into your home? Someone in Nazareth did.

Mary was “highly favored” of the Lord, and her pregnancy was not the fruit of any wrongdoing. Yet in her hometown of Nazareth, her pregnancy was a scandal. She was an unwed mother, and rumors hinted that Joseph was not the father. Though Mary’s character was godly, she was viewed as a “moral outsider.” The trip to Bethlehem provided welcome relief from the whispers and sidelong glances of judgmental village folk.

But when Joseph, Mary, and Jesus traveled back to Israel from Egypt, they followed the angels’ instruction to return to Nazareth—back to the whispers and stares.

Despite the family’s tainted reputation, someone welcomed them. Instead of a solitary home, they would have lived, like most people at the time, in a compound of three or four houses around an open courtyard with shared oven, cistern, and millstone. Though rumors of illegitimacy apparently persisted even into Jesus’ ministry (Mark 6:3; John 8:41), someone invited in this “questionable” couple.


‘Someone Opened the Front Door’

How could you extend yourself to the “moral outsider”? Volunteer at a crisis pregnancy center to mentor a single mother? Of the 1.6 million homeless youth in the United States, 40 percent are LGBTQ. What would you do if your high schooler has a friend like Stacey?

A tenured professor at Syracuse University, Rosaria Butterfield, was a lesbian feminist: “Christians scared me to death.” But in 1999, while doing research for a book she was writing against the religious right, Butterfield accepted a local pastor’s invitation to dinner. Ken and Floy Smith welcomed her to their table, and over the next few years, she ate hundreds of meals in their home.

“Those who live out radically ordinary hospitality see their homes not as theirs, but as God’s to use for the furtherance of his kingdom,” Butterfield says. “They open doors; they seek out the underprivileged. They know the gospel comes with a house key.”

Baked bread, book exchanges, playful banter, and Bible discussions—the Smiths’ hospitality slowly transformed Butterfield. She went from hating Christians to becoming one, and today she is a pastor’s wife and Christian author.

All because, like the nameless hero in Nazareth, someone opened the front door.

Maybe you wrestle as I do with welcoming those who are not like you, but the story of the Holy Family reminds us: Hospitality to the outsider is hospitality to Jesus.

By the way, Stacey and her bumper stickers were back in Joplin a few weeks ago. She’s still on a journey, but her text to us read, “Can’t wait to see you guys!! And I believe in God 1000000% now.”


Matt Proctor serves as president of Ozark Christian College in Joplin, Missouri, and he and his wife, Katie, have raised all six of their kids as St. Louis Cardinals fans.

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1 Comment

  1. Ralph Shead
    December 19, 2018 at 2:03 pm

    During my reading I smiled and I cried. This lesson on hospitality is something I needed to hear. It’s a fresh look at the arrival of God’s biggest gift and it involves the key to my front door. Thanks for writing.

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