Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it. — Hebrews 13:2, NRSV
I have a habit of which I have recently become aware. When I am nervous, uncomfortable, or emotionally hurting, I hold my right fingers in my left hand, gripping them firmly. It’s something I have done since I was a child because it made me feel safe. My love language is touch, and when I was a boy I would hug myself or hold my hands like this when I couldn’t sleep. Somehow, this habit has stuck with me even as I approach the age of 30.
In the Letter to the Hebrews, the author talks about showing “hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.” Often, we who have heard this passage taught year after year immediately flip to the interpretation that our kindness should be automatic because literal, heavenly beings might be spying on us. I suppose this carries some weight, but after thinking on this habit of mine, I came to the conclusion that there is another way to approach this idea.
Every person bears God’s image. We learn this in Genesis 1, when God says as much (1:26-27). Even without that text, we know that all people are born capable of incredible and horrible things. Often, their choice between these two depends on their upbringing and experiences.
So let’s consider that for a moment.
My own experiences led to far-reaching consequences in the form of holding my own hand and resisting relationships that could hurt me. My wife has graciously and bravely contended with my issues over the years, both acknowledging my scars and refusing to let me be defined by them. While I am better than I was, I have hurt her and others, a reality which now horrifies me.
Odds are, the same is true for you. It’s likely that you have been shaped by many things, both negative and positive, and your less-than-desirable qualities have roots that go deep into the pain you carry. If you don’t think you have less-than-desirable qualities, congrats, we just found one.
So what does this have to do with the passage from Hebrews?
Just as you and I have our issues that can be explained by our past pain, so do others. Sure, they may not hold their own hand or be afraid of relationships. Maybe they are just raging jerks or internet trolls. Maybe they are alcoholics. Perhaps they abuse drugs or bully others. They could also be strict or uncompromising. They could be a mass shooter or terrorist. The point is, every person we meet has been shaped by their world. While they may not respond to it appropriately or responsibly, they still merit compassion because they were once a child like you or I, with all the potential in the world.
In that way, they are undercover angels, hidden by the ugliness of the world.
I am becoming more cognizant of how I treat others, especially those who are difficult or negative toward me, even when they aren’t around. Odds are, it all comes from their own pain, and while I don’t have to take their crap, I also don’t have to add to it by imitating their expression of pain. Perhaps if we can all learn this lesson together and put it into practice, we can see a world transformed by the compassion of Jesus, who calls out to us all.
Peace be with you!