“For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink,
I was a stranger and you welcomed me” – Matthew 25:35 (ESV)
Each semester I guide my freshmen through the Iliad. I love teaching this epic because it depicts the play and conflict of so many fundamental human values: philos, the love binding households and comrades-at-arms; eleos, the rare but stunning compassion one warrior may show to another; and of course kleos, the fame that a Homeric hero values above life itself.
These ancient ideas also offer a number of compelling analogues for the work of scholar-teachers. In particular, it is all too easy to understand our vocation in terms of kleos. We know the thrill of seeing our name appear in a journal after months (or years!) of research and revision. We spend our days striving to captivate students with a brilliant lecture or memorable activity. Less loftily, most of us realize that our careers depend on these academic exploits. We strive for golden lines on our CVs, no less precious, perhaps, than the armor of Hector or Achilles.
However, amid the battles and intrigues of the Iliad, there are moments where the hero’s quest for glory gives way to a much stranger value, one with even deeper resonances for Christian scholars. This value is xenia, commonly translated as “hospitality.” Homeric hospitality staggers modern notions of welcome: when a stranger arrives at your door, you lead him to the finest seat in your house, lavish him with the best food, listen to the story of his journey, and provide a costly gift when he departs.
Through the Iliad, I challenge students to trace the faint but wonderful foreshadowing of the Bible’s call to hospitality. This call rings out most powerfully in Matthew 25, where Christ describes himself as a xenos, a stranger, one in need of xenia. Increasingly, I pray that hospitality, not glory, will guide my understanding of what it means to be a scholar and a Christian. While an academic life is hardly lucrative, we emerge from our studies with such wealth in terms of knowledge, experience, and (Lord willing) wisdom. How, then, can we practice hospitality as scholars? When we strive to make our knowledge accessible to freshmen, we invite them to a table rich with ideas. When our classrooms or books model rational, loving dialogue, we provide a resting place in world full of angry rhetoric. Perhaps most importantly, when we challenge our colleagues and students to use their learning to serve others, we give them a gift more valuable than any diploma: we teach them how to love.
In the coming semester, how might you practice hospitality in your academic work—not only in teaching, but in research? in writing? in academic service or administration?
God our Host, thank you for making a home for us in your Kingdom. Thank you for the riches we have received as scholars: the mentors, libraries, assistantships, grants, students, and more. As we read and write, study and teach, help us to practice hospitality. May our love baffle and delight our supervisors, colleagues, and students. Let the glory we gain come from our generosity and joy, and grant us the grace, always, to give that glory back to you. In Christ’s name we pray, amen.
Homer. The Iliad. Trans. Robert Fagles. New York: Penguin, 1990. Print.
Myrsiades, Kostas, ed. Approaches to Teaching Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey. New York: The Modern Language Association of America, 1987. Print.
Stählin, Gustav. “xenia.” Theological Dictionary of the New Testament. Ed. Gerhard Kittel. Trans. Geoffrey Bromiley. Vol. 5.1-36.
Featured in the Lamp Post, the Faculty Ministry Newsletter, in November 2016. For more on InterVarsity’s Faculty Ministry, click here.
About the author:
Bethany Bear is an Assistant Professor of English and Director of the Honors Program at the University of Mobile in Mobile, Alabama. She has published several articles on the relationship between literature and religion, and she is also interested in children’s books, allegorical traditions, and textiles in literature. She enjoys making a home for herself on the Gulf Coast, where the gardens grow year-round, and “safe harbor” is more than a metaphor.
Bethany Bowen-Wefuan says
Thank you for this encouragement!