A Story of Generosity In Unlikely Circumstances
One day in the winter of 2012 I was out on patrol with an infantry unit in southern Afghanistan. The sun was low in the sky and the air was cold. The ploughed fields were crusty with frost, which crunched under our boots as we slowly made our way over them. We scanned the ground at our feet, the near distance and far distance repeatedly, vigilant and aware, looking for signs of hidden explosive devices or ready for the crack and thump of enemy gun fire. Our breath fogged the air, and our fingers felt numb against the cold metal of our rifles, but our heavy kit meant we were still sweating. The day was much like any other.
I was up near the front of the patrol, and because I speak the local language, I would often do the meeting and greeting if we bumped into locals. Up ahead a farmer was working on his thin strip of land with a few other men, his brothers probably, and a lot of children running around.
The men were old, perhaps. It’s hard to tell. Life is tough for a Helmandi farmer. Just because your face is deeply lined and you have very few teeth, doesn’t necessarily mean you’re over 40. When they saw us they paused in their work. One removed his turban and wiped his brow.
He shouted a greeting, “As-Salaam-Alaikum”
Our Officer responded, “Wa-Alaikum-Salaam”. I took over from here.
The men invited us to sit with them for a chat. One of them spread out his patu, a large woollen piece of material which is variously used as a shawl, scarf, bag and blanket. While most of the soldiers moved out in a wide circle facing outwards (for protection), a few key members of the patrol sat down on or near the patu. A child was sent running away to bring chai (tea) and sweets while we chatted about. There was much beard stroking and hand rubbing. We soldiers uncomfortably shifted our weight on the ground. It’s difficult trying to sit cross-legged as an adult under normal circumstances, but just try doing it in body armour!
The child returned with a tray, and others followed with small glasses (Afghans don’t drink out of mugs), some flasks of green tea and plastic boxes containing boiled sweets. We’d not been talking long when one of the farmers dropped a bombshell, figuratively speaking.
“These cups, this tea, these sweets,” he gestured with his hand and paused, “…yesterday we were drinking with the Taliban.” Instinctively I looked to the horizon, and pressed my ear piece closer to my head to hear what the soldiers were saying on the net. He went on, “Yesterday we were hosting the Taliban, today we host you. Melmastia.”
Melmastia is the Pashtu word for hospitality. It’s not just a word though, it’s a code of conduct. It’s a virtue ingrained into the Pashtun tribal psyche that is a point of deep honour. It requires the host to offer hospitality to any stranger, offered for free and without expectation of reciprocity. Or in other words, you’re offered a cuppa no matter who you are, even if you can’t return the favour. I was intrigued and delighted by this, even if it did make me feel very uncomfortable that the enemy had been sitting here only a day before. I’d had enough encounters with the enemy by now to want to avoid crossing of paths, even if it was over a brew.
A little while later, after I became a Christian, I read a passage from Luke’s Gospel (14:12-14) and it reminded me of this exact moment. Jesus is talking to a Pharisee, in whose house he is dining, about hospitality.
12 Then Jesus said to his host, “When you give a luncheon or dinner, do not invite your friends, your brothers or sisters, your relatives, or your rich neighbours; if you do, they may invite you back and so you will be repaid. 13 But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, 14 and you will be blessed. Although they cannot repay you, you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”
It seems to me that the themes of hospitality and generosity are very much linked. Because generosity isn’t just kindness, it’s above and beyond that. It’s more. It’s extra. And hospitality isn’t just meeting your guests’ needs, it’s making them feel welcome, giving them your best, getting out the fancy crockery. And clearly, to Jesus, who those guests are, requires thought and attention too. Jesus tells us not just to invite our friends and family but to think of those who don’t normally get invited. Just like the Pashtun tribe, hospitality is for everyone, even your enemies.
At the Lord’s Table, and by that I’m specifically talking about the altar when we receive communion, we are told we are all welcome. And this welcome isn’t merely about extending hospitality to strangers. What’s special about God’s invitation to His Table is that we’ve done nothing to deserve it, and can never do anything to deserve it. We acknowledge that we are the poor, the lame, the blind, the ones with complicated lives full of mistakes that Jesus is making right. Everybody is welcome to dine with Christ. His generosity extends to all of us because Jesus died for our sake, the ultimate gift.
There are people in our communities, perhaps on our street, who are lonely, who are poor, who don’t know they are loved or special, who are even homeless. I wonder if we could give the gift of hospitality, melmastia. Because the challenge for us Christians is…well, to be Christ-like. So who is welcome at our table? Put another way, who do we not extend hospitality to and why? What if we tried to think of our own table as the Lord’s Table, and to share with others as the Lord shares with us? Could we do something very generous, and find room for one more person at our table this Christmas. I wonder who that person could be.