Cracking the Code on Hospitality
A review of Rosaria Butterfield’s The Gospel Comes With a House Key
When we first moved into our house, only one of our neighbors introduced himself. Gordy wandered over one afternoon and launched into a long, meandering story about how he had cemented a friendship with Alois, the former owner of our house. Every evening the two men would come out to work in their gardens and wind up sharing a beer while hiding behind our shed, careful to avoid the gaze of Gordy’s wife. Later, after Gordy’s wife left him, Alois’s wife would make an extra plate of food and slip it in through Gordy’s kitchen door most evenings.
Gordy carried on this tradition of neighborly kindness with us. He lent us garden tools and arranged fresh tomatoes on our deck all summer long. In the winter, he would occasionally surprise us with a freshly-plowed driveway in the mornings. We had brief backyard encounters when he would hint at his loneliness and we tried to share the gospel, but since he died I’ve been wondering if I could have been a better neighbor.
The Practice of Hospitality
Growing up in the church, I prioritized learning to defend my worldview against the vague, faceless secularism I feared I would face in my adult life. Instead, I met people—interesting, intelligent, hopeful people. People I wanted to befriend, not defeat. People who weren’t interested in coming to an “outreach event” but were more than willing to accept a dinner invitation.
The Gospel Comes With a House Key lays out a compelling case for a sacrificial life of constant hospitality. It cracks the code for Christians wondering how to build relationships that might lead to opportunities to bring the gospel to our neighbors, even in communities where everyone tends to stay within the boundaries of their neatly-mowed lawns.
This is no theoretical book. For Butterfield, this is a way of life. She chops vegetables for hours a day in preparation for her daily practice of open hospitality. In our technologically-induced culture, she stands behind her words like a prophet, a living example of someone who both rebukes and encourages us to examine our willingness to practice “radically ordinary hospitality.”
Her call to daily, open-invitation hospitality is not one that all of us can answer, and her book is best read as a memoir rather than a how-to manual dictating how others ought to deploy hospitality. What she describes is a posture of generosity, and I, for one, was grateful for the detail and honesty with which she revealed how this plays out in her household.
She takes hospitality seriously and has arranged her life and budget around feeding her neighbors because “only hypocrites and cowards let their words be stronger than their relationships.” In fact, Butterfield insists that “having strong words and a weak relationship with your neighbor is violent.” How easy it has become for social media and twenty-four-hour news cycles to make caricatures out of us all, tempting us with the ease of sharing, shouting, reacting, speaking up, and trying to fix the world through clicktivism. Surely I’m not the only Christian who has considered what great work I could do for the kingdom if only I had a larger sphere of internet influence. But instead of a platform, God gave me neighbors.
Neighborly hospitality serves several purposes in the kingdom of God. First, it helps begin the “transition from stranger, to neighbor, to family,” a transition that “does not happen naturally but only with intent and grit and sacrifice and God’s blessing.” While it sounds “domestic,” such hospitality “shakes the gates of heaven for the souls of people you feed, hold, and love.” There is nothing tame or ordinary about the meals that take place around the table of a Christian family dedicated to loving their neighbors sacrificially.
Hospitality also builds community, which can ward off the struggles and temptations that thrive in isolation. Butterfield uses examples from her own neighborhood to remind us that “people will die of loneliness before they die of cat hair in the soup.” She insists on a kind of hospitality that is “practical, unfussy, and constant” so that everyone feels welcome at her home at any time. Guests are invited to pitch in and help prepare the meal or ready the house for guests, and they are invited (though not required) to stay for family devotions following the meal.
Butterfield imagines hospitality as the the means of fulfilling Jesus’ promises in Mark 10:28–31: “Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for my sake and for the gospel, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and in the age to come eternal life.”
She lays down the challenge to Christians, saying, “the hundredfold blessing promised here in these verses is not going to fall from the sky. It is going to come from the church.” Throughout the book, she handles many common objections and excuses with grace, but without letting us forget for a moment what is at stake: the very souls of hungry sinners.
Such hospitality not only transforms the lives of our neighbors, meal by meal, but it transforms us as well. We learn how to “love the sinner and hate our own sin” as we recognize our own temptations in the struggles of our neighbors. We appreciate anew the powerful grace of God that has redeemed us and spared us from sin. We learn how to live the Christian life as a “calling, not a performance,” opening our doors to the needs of the people who live around us and finding ourselves instantly on the front lines of the great commission.
Cover image by Soroush Karimi.