If your mother ever taught you to say “please” and “thank you,” to wipe your feet before entering a house, or to have good manners when guests are over, then she was teaching you xenia, although not the same xenia that the Ancient Greeks practiced. But what is xenia exactly and do we still use it today? Does the Bible say anything about it?
Xenia, the practice of hospitality between the guest and host, was a fundamental part of Ancient Greek culture. Zeus, sometimes called Zeus Xenios, was as the protector of guests and strangers and sometimes disguised himself and sought shelter and hospitality from men. If he was shown hospitality by his host, then the host would be rewarded with many blessings. Thus the Greeks’ religion inforced their believe that they should show hospitality to any man if he sought it, and that hospitality was virtuous.
Both the guest and host had roles expected of them. The host was expected to welcome strangers into their home, meet their basic needs, not to ask them any questions until they are satisfied and comfortable, and give them a gift to depart with. The guest was to be respectful, entertaining, not outstay his welcome, and give a gift if it was possible. This helped greatly when making alliances. The xenos covenant was not only important to the Greeks. It had a big impact on the people of the Renaissance period, and is a popular subject among the classical arts as well.
But the xenos covenant wasn’t always followed as it should have been. In fact, all the problems in the Odyssey were caused by poor xenia. The reason Odysseus was even away was because he was fighting in the Trojan war caused by a break of the xenos covenant. When Odysseus is in Sicily, both his men and Polyphemus showed a lack of a proper guest-host relationship. The men ate Polyphemus’ sheep and he ate them in return. The reason Odysseus is lost at sea for ten years is because he angered Poseidon by blinding his son. Although the blinding of Polyphemus was justifiable, Odysseus entering his cave unbidden, stealing his food, mocking him was not an example of good xenia. When Odysseus lands on Circe’s Island, the men take advantage of her hospitality and in return are transformed into swine. After being warned twice of what is to come of them if they harm Helios’ cattle, Odysseus’s men are convinced by Eurylochus to kill and sacrifice the best of Helios’ cattle. The gods are angry and Zeus strikes their ship down as they leave. The suitors are probably the best example of what not to do as a guest. In fact, they weren’t even guests, as they entered Odysseus’ home uninvited, ate Odysseus’ cattle as they pleased, drank his wine, threw feasts using his resources, and tried to steal his wife.
But not everyone in the Odyssey forgot how to be hospitable. The Phaeacians, like Odysseus, respected the xenos covenant, and they showed him proper hospitality and helped him finally get home.
The Odyssey wasn’t the only book to have acts of xenia. The Bible is based around the grace and hospitality that God has shown us. Romans 5:8 says “While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” This is not seen through the crucifixion of Jesus but also when Abraham is told to sacrifice Isaac. As Abraham raises his hand, an angel stops him just before he kills his son and God provides them a lamb. Just as we were to die for our sin, God provided Jesus to die for us. All of this he did for us while we still hated him. In the parable of the good Samaritan, a man is beaten and robbed and left to die. After being passed by a Priest and a Levite, a Samaritan walks by. When he sees the beaten man, he feels compassion for him and helps him onto his donkey, takes him to an inn, mends his wounds, and pays for his stay. And Christ does the same for us: takes us as we are, heals us and pays for the price himself.
But what has come of xenia now in our modern day? In Homer’s time, traveling was done on either foot or boat and took much longer, meaning that there were more nights spent away from home. Unlike our modern world, they did not have hotels or inns they could use, nor could they afford to pay for every night they were traveling. Because we have such easy access to food and shelter we no longer have such a need to show hospitality to each other. Now we teach our kids to stay away from strangers, which isn’t inherently bad, but we begin to treat everyone as a potential enemy. With this mindset, we begin to separate ourselves as a community.
We teach our children to have good manners but not in the same way the Greeks did. You might not be afraid that Zeus might strike you down because you didn’t invite the homeless man into your house, but disrespectful behavior is still not acceptable in today’s culture. The xenos covenant was a major factor in the Odyssey and Homer wanted that known. The main theme throughout the bible is that God loved us before we loved him. Jesus was hated and cursed at as he lovingly died for us. It’s important to remember that everyone is our neighbor, not just our friends, relatives, and people who are kind to us, because in the eyes of Christ, we are all strangers whom he willingly takes in.