Editor’s note: BYU Studies is the university’s journal of LDS thought and scholarship. The upcoming issue features articles on the lost commandment of hospitality, early efforts to establish the city of Zion, Fawn Brodie’s use of psychology, and an in-depth look at a trial where Joseph Smith was the plaintiff (for a change).   To learn more, to go byustudies.byu.edu   To subscribe to the upcoming issues, click here.

Imagine in your mind’s eye that the Messiah were to visit your home. Suppose that a proclamation from a prophet has been sent to you certifying this fact. The Savior will meekly walk through your threshold, and dwell for a time within the walls of your abode. He who created the universe was to arrive at your humble cottage, as the proclamation states, the next day.

How would you react to such a proclamation? What would you do? First, you would likely glance around your home. It may be a fine home, but suddenly it does not feel adequate to house a King. You tidy up, and much more thoroughly than normal. Every artwork on the wall is nudged ever so slightly until perfectly straight. The floors are mopped and buffed. Everything is put in its place.

You would certainly review over in your mind every possible detail in preparation for his visit: What will be the first thing I say to him? Will he want something to eat? What food would please him? Will he desire a place to rest himself?

In anxiety, you might stay up late reading about those in the New Testament who hosted the Savior in their homes; in one passage, Jesus is invited by a Pharisee named Simon to eat with him in his home. As they sit down to meat, a woman comes into the home of Simon and washes Jesus’ feet with her tears, wipes them with her hair, and anoints them with ointment. Simon thinks to himself, “This man, if he were if a prophet, would know surely who and what manner of woman this is that toucheth him, that she is a sinner.” Then Jesus speaks to Simon, prefacing his comments with a somewhat wry and penetrating introduction: “Simon, I have somewhat to say to thee.” But Jesus does not speak on; Simon is left only with a dramatic pause. Finally Simon bids him, “Master, say on.” Simon probably wished he hadn’t invited his comments, for Jesus then proceeds to rebuke Simon for neglecting his duties as a host:

Simon, Seest thou this woman? I entered into thine house, thou gavest me no water for my feet: but she hath washed my feet with tears, and wiped them with the hairs of her head.  Thou gavest me no kiss: but this woman since the time I came in hath not ceased to kiss my feet.  My head with oil thou didst not anoint: but this woman hath anointed my feet with ointment.  “Wherefore I say unto thee, Her sins, which are many, are forgiven” (Luke 7:36-47).

As you ponder this passage carefully, the ramifications are sobering. The woman showed sincere hospitality to Jesus according to the customs of the day, and the Pharisee did not. The woman received forgiveness for her sins, and the Pharisee did not. That is the power of hospitality. At first glance, hospitality would seem to be wholly unconnected to the magnificent gift that is forgiveness of sins, and yet the fact remains that she did indeed receive the gift directly after this heartfelt expression.

Another illuminating passage is found in the Old Testament: Elijah is directed by the Lord to the widow of Zarepheth. The drought in the land is severe, and doubtless Elijah’s life is in danger. He is shown, probably in vision, a widow that is to give him food. Elijah travels to Zarepheth and finds the woman. When Elijah bids the widow to give him bread, she, in obvious distress and heaviness of soul answers, “As the Lord thy God liveth, I have not a cake, but a handful of meal in a barrel, and a little oil in a cruse; and, behold, I am gathering two sticks, that I may go in and dress it for me and my son, that we may eat it, and die.” Though most at this point would not wish to further distress a poor widow, Elijah shows great faith in the Lord’s promise and continues to press her: “And Elijah said unto her, Fear not; go and do as thou hast said; but make me thereof a little cake first, and bring it unto me, and after make for thee and for thy son. For thus saith the Lord God of Israel, The barrel of meal shall not waste, neither shall the cruse of oil fail, until the day that the Lord sendeth rain upon the earth.”

This is perhaps the most severe test of hospitality to be found in the scriptures. Despite the widow’s acute pangs of hunger, despite the many days of hearing her son desperately plead for food, despite the intense anguish as she watches her boy slowly waste away before her eyes, the woman is bidden to feed God’s servant before herself or the child.

They are on the brink of death; they feed Elijah anyway. “And she went and did according to the saying of Elijah; and she, and he, and her house, did eat many days. And the barrel of meal wasted not, neither did the cruse of oil fail, according to the word of the Lord, which he spake by Elijah” (1 Kings 17:8-16).

A little hospitality to the Lord’s anointed servant called down the powers of heaven, actuated a miracle, and saved the life of a widow and her son.

As you close your Bible, you feel a little more confident in how to serve. You can see what great blessings have come to those who have hosted Jesus and the prophets, and you marvel that you are to be afforded the same privilege.

The next day, all things possible have been prepared. You have rehearsed what to say and how to act. You stand in front of the window, waiting patiently to make sure you are ready at the very moment the Redeemer arrives. Finally, you see him walking up the path to the home. There he is, right before my eyes, you think. He has on a loose robe and sandals, and as he draws closer you realize that he looks much like a weary traveler. Sand sticks to his feet, and his garment is travel-worn. He carries a heavy burden upon his back. His face is drawn and his skin is dried and cracked from the constant sun and desert air. You may not understand completely why he would appear in this manner, but you are ready.

His countenance is mild; a certain joy and calmness grace his brow. As he nears your door, a strange feeling comes over you. There is a certain intangible glory or essence that envelops you as he approaches, which causes your heart to suddenly feel more contrite than at any other time. In a flash, your mind can see all the times that you felt his calming spirit throughout your life; the times you were given mercy and forgiveness; the dark and troublesome hours of life when he drew near to give you strength.

Though you have rehearsed again and again how to act, this time it is real, and a flood of feelings overcome you. As the door is opened to him, you fall down at his feet with your face downward to the floor and weep. It matters not how foolish it may look. It matters not what impropriety might be interpreted in this action. All you can comprehend at this point is the yearning to reach for his feet and give sincere devotion.

A few moments later, as you compose yourself, you realize that he is hungry, weary, dusty, and in great need of care and consolation. You sense the hallowed nature of the moment as you wash his feet and then anoint his face, head, and hands with pleasant emollients and fragrant spices. A banquet has been prepared. Many friends have been invited to honor the guest. He joins you at the table for a feast. He stays for quite some time, giving good conversation all the while, until he is fully refreshed. Before he leaves, he lays his hands upon you and all your guests. As he departs, he leaves a blessing of goodwill and merriment upon all those in the home.

Hospitality and the Hierarchy of Virtues

If this were to happen to any of us, we would likely say within ourselves, that was the most sacred experience of my life. However inadequate the writing of the above scenario may be, I think it fair to say that most, if placed in such a situation, would conclude that the virtue of hospitality is very high on the hierarchy of crucial virtues.

Peter Sorensen, Professor of English at BYU, writes on this subject in the next issue of BYU Studies. In his article, “The Lost Commandment: The Sacred Rites of Hospitality,” Sorensen reviews various ancient texts to make a strong case that hospitality was understood in ancient times to be a crucial and integral part of a covenant with God. Having studied the overwhelming evidence, Sorensen believes that despite our troubled times, we should still make a great effort to integrate these principles:  “No matter the situation, no matter the culture, no matter the name of the god, whether Jehovah, Allah, or Vishnu, none of us has any way to wriggle free: the penalties for inhospitable behavior are great – even of eternal, cosmic import – and the rewards of genuine hospitality, despite the very real risks, are deeply satisfying and represent the highest order of worship and reverence imaginable.”

I thoroughly enjoyed preparing this article for publication. I recommend it to anyone. Be careful, though. The article is so persuasive that your friends and family might be confused as to why you are suddenly so concerned that they are comfortable and have enough to eat. This happened to me a little. My wife wondered what had gotten into me. Visiting with others somehow took on a deep spiritual element. Having friends, family, even strangers in my home was no longer just “hanging out.” It became a communion, even a fulfillment of covenant.

As I carefully read through the article and poured over the source material, I became more and more convinced that hospitality is indeed a lost commandment – lost, as in forgotten. Modern society has forgotten hospitality partly because modern conveniences make for comparatively easy living; it is not so necessary to rely upon each other as it was in the days when the dangers of nomadic living were ever present, or when culture revolved around the harsh realities of farm life. We have largely forgotten the virtue and art of caring for weary travelers in our homes, or giving desperately needed refreshment to a laborer returning from the fields. Having lost the sense of sacred service that hospitality brings, we have thus lost the great joy associated with it.

When was the last time we invited someone into our home and insisted that they completely relax while we fed them and provided them every possible comfort? Sorenson cites Hugh Nibley, who refers to apocryphal accounts wherein Abraham, finding he has no guests, embarks out into the forbidding desert searching for someone to serve. Abraham took hospitality seriously. [i]

Two Golden Rules

So, in our modern circumstances, how do we go about being hospitable? How do we resurrect this ancient value? Though we have few opportunities to exercise ancient customs, good principles abound if we are looking for them. One principle, called golden, goes something like this: “Do unto others as ye would have them do unto you.” But if we transmogrify that golden rule a little, I believe we get another rule equally sacred in meaning and doctrinal depth: “Do unto others as ye would do unto the Savior.” This is the essence of true hospitality. If all Christians treated each other with the same love and respect that they would show to their Redeemer during a personal appearance, it is safe to say that hospitality, service, and kindly deference would overcome the Christian world like a universal flood.

This is not to say that we should be kneeling in reverent awe before our loved ones as they enter the house – certain actions should be reserved for God, and God alone – but we should take that same spirit and that same affection that we would show to God, and transfer it to those that are around us. After all, God is not with us, but his children are.

A little-known story from long ago, about a little-known pioneer from Moab, illustrates this point perfectly: Emma Somerville McConkie took it upon herself as Relief Society president to administer to a particular family, even though the husband was opposed to the Church. Emma’s son recounts the story: “[The husband] had married a Mormon girl. They had several children; now they had a new baby. They were very poor and Mother was going day by day to care for the child and to take them baskets of food, etc. Mother herself was ill, and more than once was hardly able to get home after doing the work at [their] home.

“One day she returned home especially tired and weary. She slept in her chair. She dreamed she was bathing a baby which she discovered was the Christ Child. She thought, Oh, what a great honor to thus serve the very Christ! As she held the baby in her lap, she was all but overcome. She thought, who else has actually held the Christ Child? Unspeakable joy filled her whole being. She was aflame with the glory of the Lord. It seemed that the very marrow in her bones would melt. Her joy was so great it awakened her. As she awoke, these words were spoken to her, ‘Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.'” [ii]

If the joys of true charity and true hospitality are to be fully realized, the whole crux of the matter lies in that verse: “Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me” (Matt. 25:40). What more can be said than that? Let us turn our affections, then, towards God’s children and start serving them like the potential gods that they are.

To learn more, to go byustudies.byu.eduTo get Professor Sorensen’s article on hospitality, subscribe by clicking here.

[i] Biographical documentary video, “The Faith of an Observer: Conversations with Hugh Nibley” (Provo: Brigham Young University, 1985).

[ii] Relief Society Magazine, March 1970, 169.