NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY
Dr. Robert R. Seyda
EPISTLE TO THE ROMANS
CHAPTER TWELVE (Lesson XXXIV)
Paul certainly practiced what he preached when it came to caring for those in need. For instance, he sent instructions to the Corinthian church on how they should handle the offerings they were taking up for needy Christians living in Jerusalem.1 He also encouraged the Galatians not to grow weary in helping others, that God would supply their needs at the right time. So with that hope, Paul tells them: “Because of this, we should do good to everyone. For sure, we should do good to those who belong to Christ.”2 And in Hebrews we hear Paul again thank those to whom he was writing: “God always does what is right. He will not forget the work you did to help the Christians and the work you are still doing to help them. This shows your love for Christ.”3 And later he reiterates this same thought: “But don’t forget doing good and sharing with others, for with such offerings God is well pleased.”4
But again, Paul adds a qualifier. It is one thing to give and to share with those who are in need and cannot help themselves under the circumstances, but it must be done without bias. The Greek noun philoxenia Paul uses here, is generally understood as hospitality to strangers. It is used that way in Hebrews: “Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers and let them stay in your home. Some people have had angels in their homes without knowing it.”5 Hospitality is the word from which we get the terms “hospital” and “hospice,” which are homes or centers for terminally ill people who have nowhere else to stay. It is a comforting place where they receive palliative care from their hosts while living out their last days.
This kindness to strangers is what set Abraham apart. When Abraham was sitting at the opening of his tent by the oak trees of Mamre, he looked up and saw three men coming down the road. We are told: “Upon seeing them, he ran from the tent door to meet them, prostrated himself on the ground, and said, ‘My lord, if I have found favor in your sight, please don’t leave your servant. Please let me send for some water, so that you can wash your feet; then rest under the tree, and I will bring a piece of bread.”6 His nephew, Lot, did the same when two of these angels visited him in Sodom.7 This may have been what the writer of Hebrews was thinking of.8
When Paul wrote young Timothy, he gave him this advice for church leaders: “A church leader must be a good man. His life must be so no one can say anything against him. He must have only one wife and must be respected for his good living. He must enjoy having guests in his home.”9 Then to Titus Paul give these instructions about bishops: “He must like to take guests into his home. He must love what is good.”10 And when it came to helping widows, Paul wrote Timothy this about those who deserved his hospitality: “She must be known for doing good things for people and for being a good mother. She must be known for taking strangers into her home and for washing the feet of Christians. She must be known for helping those who suffer and for showing kindness.”11 Makes you wonder how some people would react today with the Apostle Paul as their pastor or bishop.
Although these words by Paul were in line with the manners and customs of his day, early church scholars endorsed, in various ways, what Paul said for their own era. For instance, Origen cautions that we must not look on needy saints as beggars. We should see them as people who have needs like our own. Furthermore, the practice of hospitality does not simply mean that we entertain only those who come to us. It means going out and inviting others to come in.12 Also, the Bishop of Tarsus believes that Paul’s point here is that we should not only honor the saints and help them until all of their needs are taken care of13 It is clear that these writers saw Paul’s words as applying to fellow members in the body of Christ. As odd as it sounds, there are some church members who give willingly to local food banks and homeless shelters for people they do not know, but fail to look around in their own congregation to see who they might help as their brother or sister in Christ.
Then Pelagius feels that believers should help provide services for others as long as they don’t neglect their own affairs for the sake of Christ. Practicing hospitality has been part of what God’s children have been doing from the beginning. Look at Abraham and Lot who even invited guests to come in who were reluctant to stay.14 And Bishop Theodoret notes that Paul is not just talking about being hospitable to saints, but also those, no matter who they may be or where they may come from, who are in any kind of need.15 Today, we often see this practiced when believers invite church visitors, their pastor, and family, or members they know who are disadvantaged, out for lunch after church is over. No matter what manner it may be practiced in, such hospitality should be shown only out of love, otherwise, it loses all the power that love can bring to such an act of kindness.
To understand this directive from Paul in its historical context, we must be aware that back when Paul wrote these words, anyone who identified themselves as a Christian, and then through disease, death of a spouse, or financial disaster found themselves in need of assistance, they could not depend upon either their fellow Jews or Gentiles to come to their rescue. So it was incumbent upon the church to be there for them in the time of need. That’s why Paul emphasizes that they were to focus on God’s people with their hospitality.
Martin Luther sees it in similar fashion. For him, those who are indifferent to the needs of afflicted believers are guilty of being against this command. For Luther, Paul is speaking here of those believers that needed help because they had suffered persecution and were deprived of all their possessions. But Luther said that in his day such saints were hard to find. Therefore, their needs were unknown. However, there are those who are oppressed by both society and the devil. Christians, therefore, must be available to them to provide help and comfort, to prevent them from suffering injustice. Luther continues by touching on Christian hospitality. He points out that today we often give or refuse hospitality to other believers without being aware of it. It must be remembered that when the Apostle speaks of hospitality. It is help and assistance that is offered gratis and out of love, without any expectation of payment. And Christians should be aware that even nonbelievers practice hospitality among themselves.16
John Calvin also speaks to this need for Christians to look out for each other. He notices that Paul returns to the power of love. One of the chief expressions is to do good to those from whom we expect the least recompense. But often, among those for whom this ministry is meant to bring help, are some who are despised because the people consider any help given to them will be wasted. But Paul feels that God recommends them to us as a way of learning. All we are being asked to do is prove that our love is genuine. Giving to such people as those for whom it seems wasted, is still an act of kindness.
Surely the rich man in Jesus’ parable thought that giving anything to the beggar Lazarus who lay at the gate of his estate was a waste of time and money. But the rich man could not see past the life Lazarus had in this life to the life that awaited him in Abraham’s arms. This then makes hospitality a very effective attribute of love. This is especially true when kindness and generosity are shown towards foreigners, runaways, travelers, and the homeless. For the most part, they are hurting the worst because of being so far away from home and friends. That’s why, the more neglected or shunned anyone is by others, the more attentive we ought to be to their wants.17
Adam Clarke takes for granted that Christians should be sensitive to the needs of those among them, not only in local congregations but in those who may be far away. But he also sees the need for believers to understand Paul’s emphasis here on hospitality, especially to strangers. This was a very needed virtue in times past when hotels and inns were exceedingly scarce. In Paul’s day, he as well as many other Apostles were considered itinerants preachers. And in many cases, Christians were fleeing from persecution and death threats. Of all people on earth, this virtue should be high on the list for those who call themselves followers of Christ.
This is especially true of churches, many of whom have the means of helping a fellow saint in distress. Also, organizing outreaches to those in the cities or towns who need help the most. That’s why Clarke feels that providing for strangers in distress is the proper meaning of the term Paul uses here. It should go well with the spirit of love and compassion that all believers profess to have. He bases this on the two important words in this phrase. First, believers are to respond to “needs” and “necessities,” not wants and wishes. Secondly, of the “saints,” meaning fellow believers. And thirdly, fellow believers who are “strangers” passing through.18
When it comes to hospitality in our giving, Robert Haldane takes a different approach than some who apply Paul’s teaching on hospitality to social interaction and sociability among neighbors. Real hospitality is hosting and entertaining of strangers far away from home. This was a special ministry during Bible times when inns and hotels were unusual. However, the change of times and customs does not mean we can disregard any of the precepts of our Lord Jesus Christ. Christians, by nature, should be hospitable and host their brethren coming from a long distance. After all, we are family, brothers, and sisters with spiritual mothers and fathers. In fact, Christians should go out of their way in manifesting love for their fellow believers. Did not the writer of Hebrews caution us: “Don’t forget to show hospitality to strangers, by doing so some have hosted strangers without even knowing it.19”20
1 1 Corinthian 16:1-4; See 2 Corinthians 8:1-4; 9:1, 12
2 Galatians 6:10
3 Hebrews 6:10
4 Ibid. 13:16
5 Ibid. 13:2
6 Genesis 18:2b-5a
7 Ibid. 19:1-3
8 Hebrews 13:2
9 1 Timothy 3:2
10 Titus 1:8
11 1 Timothy 5:10
12 Origen: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
13 Diodore: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
14 Pelagius: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
15 Theodoret of Cyr: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
16 Martin Luther: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., pp. 176-177
17 John Calvin: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
18 Adam Clarke: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., p. 245
19 Hebrews 13:2
20 Robert Haldane: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., p. 569