More often than not, when we are invited to someone’s home, we will ask if we can bring something. A bottle of wine, flowers Cadbury ‘Roses’…?
It’s a hark back to the Abrahamic understanding of hospitality; that when hospitality is offered, the invited guest unexpectedly turns out to offer, or be, a gift to the host. However, as modern-day guests, we have slightly corrupted the paradigm by anticipating gift-giving to the host. In the Abrahamic tradition, the giving occurs spontaneously and responsively by the guest from their being, rather than the offering of anticipatory tokens – which can become like a kind of tit-for-tat payback – so we are all on the same power level! (or is that too cynical?)
Indigenous cultures are organised around cycles of the seasons and the natural world. So in the Biblical story of the birth of Jesus, some astrologers, who noticed a new star appearing in the sky, decided to set off toward it. For them, the appearance of a new star heralded the birth of a new king. So they took gifts with them, to show their respect.
They are full of wonder and excitement to find the new-born child. They offer their gifts. They are un-phased by mixing with smelly shepherds, who had also been given a miraculous vision of the birth-place. Shepherds were the dregs of society – unclean non-citizens, not allowed to vote, and marginalised to the fields by society – a cycle of exclusion. Maybe the homeless today might fit that cycle. The astrologers were elated at having fulfilled their vision, and went home with great joy (as did the shepherds)!
But there is a dark side to the story, preserved for our edification.
On their journey, the astrologers come to Jerusalem, the religious and political heart of Israel. They naively ask if anyone knows the whereabouts of the baby that will become the king of the Jews. (Interesting that no-one knows – maybe too busy and self-interested to keep an eye on the stars?) The reigning king, Herod, takes their enquiry as a threat. And so does the rest of the civil and religious establishment.
Herod makes some enquiries with the Department of Theology. They consult the literature and come back with the answer – Bethlehem.
One could pause the story here and reflect on the two presenting paradigms. One is nature-based, experimental, almost ‘crazy’. Who, these days, would decide to take leave of home to head off in the direction of a star, expecting to find what they believe the star signifies to them? A needle in a cosmic haystack!
But for Jewish readers today, this story resonates with the story of their ancestor, Abraham, who took off with his family on a ‘blind’ journey to Palestine – and the rest is history, as they say! Hard to believe that Abraham’s ‘craziness’ has led to where we are today with the state of Israel!
Both of these dreamers, the astrologers and Abraham are no colonialists! That strategy of exclusion and extinction was taken up by Moses and his successor, Joshua, coming after a period of setting up laws and principles that would establish their identity as a nation.
The other paradigm is of a different kind of authority – the exercise of power by institutions and hierarchies that comes from settlement. Their attitude is that following stars is for the fairies! Does not compute!
Institutions are constructed with certain purposes in mind. Boundaries (laws and principles) ensure the maintenance and progress of the institution. Such institutions invariably create a culture of protectionism. They might call it sustainability! Others might call it resistance to change!
And so it was, for Herod.
No doubt he was all smiles as he received the eastern visitors in his luxurious office to get the information he needed to eliminate the perceived threat to his kingdom. He holds a secret meeting with them (‘commercial in confidence?). He lies to get what he wants, feigning affirmation and collaboration: ‘Go and make a careful search for the child, and when you find him (sic), let me know, so that I too may go and worship him’. Crafty!
The astrologers leave Herod and go on to the achieve their mission. But they have a dream which tells them not to go back to Herod, and they go home another way.
Now the Herod Principle shifts to a new level. From the illusion of self-important status and its inherent hubris, comes the protectionism of the entitled that is capable of ruthless violence.
Ultimately, those who live in the joy of dreams and visions cannot be controlled. They go their own way. It may be because those who offer fake hospitality are not able to receive their gifts – they live outside the paradigm of unconditional gift-giving. Gifts are understood as bribes in this regime.
Desperate to maintain his kingdom, Herod has all the children in Bethlehem slaughtered – and in the immediate vicinity, to be on the safe side! But the dreamer parents have escaped with the baby, having being forewarned.
The Herod Principle – do what it takes to maintain power – is alive and well. Men over women, managers over subordinates, political parties, commerce…
But there are also dreamers, trying to evade the Herod Principle, who are looking for a better way!
I think that way begins with an understanding of radical hospitality – likely best understood by being ‘caught’ as well as ‘taught’.