I love the 2006 comedy film RV starring Robin Williams. The film tells the story of Bob Munro (played by Williams) taking his family on a cross-country roadtrip in a giant recreational vehicle. While on the road, the Munros become the recipients of unlikely hospitality from an odd yet close-knit family, the Gornickes. Although the Gornickes seem quite strange compared to the supposedly “normal” Munro family, they practice a brand of traveling hospitality that is simultaneously humorous and heartwarming. Even as they demonstrate the nuances of handling sewage, it is ultimately these weirdos on the way who emerge as exemplars of hospitality.
Hospitality in Acts 8:26-40
The roadside assistance in RV might seem like a strange way to begin thinking about hospitality in the Bible and in our own practices. However, the hospitality depicted in the film is not so different than the hospitality that appears in Acts 8:26-40 where a “weirdo” on the road offers hospitality to an “insider.”
This text describes an encounter between the apostle Philip and a traveler on the road from Jerusalem. Prompted to go along a deserted way, Philip meets another journeyer, an Ethiopian eunuch in a chariot who is reading from a scroll. After Philip asks the traveler if he understands what he is reading, this unlikely “host” invites Philip to join him in the chariot to explain the text (8:30-31). Following Philip’s proclamation of the gospel, the traveler points out a body of water, and Philip baptizes him before being snatched off by the Spirit to another location (8:36-39). Though brief, this story depicts a brand of hospitality that contains wisdom for us today.
Although the passage begins with attention to Philip and his call to the wilderness road, the text shares far more details about the Ethiopian than it does about Philip. The Ethiopian is traveling from Jerusalem where he had gone to worship; he is the official treasurer of Queen Candace, and he is a eunuch. All of the details that the text provides to describe this person combine to paint the picture of someone who is radically different than the insider, Philip. In almost every way, the Ethiopian could have seemed strange to Philip.
Intended for a Christian audience, this story’s readers (both ancient and modern) might be inclined to identify with Philip. Christian audiences of the story might resonate closely with him as the Christian who promulgates the gospel and thus seems most familiar. Where the details of the Ethiopian eunuch serve to paint him as an “outsider,” Philip appears as the obvious “insider.” Furthermore, as a portion of the book entitled “Acts of the Apostles,” one might anticipate that the hero of the story would be the apostle Philip.
Given modern assumptions about how stories work, we might also expect this story to be about how “our” guy Philip offered kind hospitality to this stranger who is really different from “us.” In fact, we might even pat ourselves on the back a little because of what this suggests about how great “our” people are. But that’s not the story that we have here.
By the time we reach this episode’s conclusion, it becomes clear that Philip himself does very little. It’s the Ethiopian eunuch who actually drives the story’s action. There is only one invitation made, and it is an invitation from the Ethiopian eunuch to Philip, inviting Philip to join him in the chariot instead of running alongside of it (8:31). The Ethiopian eunuch is the host. Philip is the recipient of hospitality. The Ethiopian asks questions to extend the conversation (8:34) and suggests something to do, namely, get baptized (8:37). Philip largely takes his lead from the Ethiopian.
In short, the hospitality that the Ethiopian eunuch offers may at first look all wrong. It’s hospitality that is coming from a weirdo. It’s hospitality that is happening away from home, and it’s hospitality that doesn’t let us pride ourselves on doing something “nice.”
Like the Gornickes’ hospitality in RV, the Ethiopian eunuch’s roadside assistance may not be quite the model that we have in mind when we imagine exemplary hosts.
A weirdo’s lessons in hospitality
In these last months of the year, we are approaching the holidays and their seasonal emphasis on being the “perfect host.” Magazines explode with tips for hosting parties, and websites offer an array of recipes for the perfect appetizers. We might read this advice and imagine that we have all of the answers for practicing holiday hospitality. However, if we allow ourselves to enter into the story of Acts 8, we might discover that the Ethiopian eunuch offers two very different lessons in hospitality.
Lesson 1: Practice hospitality on the way.
When I imagine practicing hospitality, it’s almost always in the confines of my own space. I think about inviting people to my home, cleaning up my guest room and cooking in my kitchen. However, as the Ethiopian eunuch demonstrates, hospitality can take the form of roadside assistance along the way. The Ethiopian eunuch is not at home when he issues an invitation to Philip. Both are in the process of traveling to other lands.
Likewise, the holiday season often finds folks in grocery stores, boutiques, airports, train stations and roadside rest stops. None of these places are home, and all of them have an air of impermanence as they discourage lingering for too long. What does hospitality look like when it is practiced in these transient spaces? Yielding our spot in line? Paying it forward at the drive thru? Giving up a ticket when seats sell out?
The Ethiopian eunuch doesn’t give precise advice for bringing his principles of hospitality into the 21st century, but his practice of welcoming another, even in transitory spaces, offers a new take on hospitality that allows all to be able to practice it.
Lesson 2: Accept hospitality from weirdos.
It’s only natural to see ourselves as the heroes of our own stories. So, we might be readily inclined to act as hosts, even hosts in transit. However, the Ethiopian eunuch’s lessons in hospitality are not just for hosts; they are also for prospective guests. This story, as well as the story in the film RV, suggests that the warmest welcome may come from the wackiest weirdos.
Not only was the Ethiopian a stranger to Philip, but he may have even posed a threat to Philip on the grounds of cultic purity. Deuteronomy 23:1 includes precise instructions about the exclusion of men with certain physical characteristics. The Ethiopian’s status as a eunuch would have fit him squarely within that category. So, if Philip were to have prioritized cultic purity over relationship with this traveler, he would have missed out on an important opportunity to share the gospel. Instead, though, Philip took a risk and allowed himself to be welcomed by one he may have initially deemed a threat.
Philip’s acceptance of hospitality from a stranger can serve as an inspiration for us to be willing to accept hospitality from those that we might deem “weirdos.” Who are the folks that have invited us to share life in a way that looks different from our own? What are the new activities that we might need to try in order to relate to someone else? What off-putting food might we need to taste in order to build a relationship with a stranger?
Accepting the hospitality of weirdos can take us far beyond our comfort zones. However, if the Ethiopian eunuch in the book of Acts or the Gornicke family in the film RV have anything to say about it, then sometimes receiving hospitality from weirdos on the way can produce transformative and life-changing results. As we approach the holiday season, may we too be on the lookout for weirdos and the hospitality that they might have to offer.
Melanie Howard is assistant professor and program director of biblical and theological studies at Fresno Pacific University. She is a graduate of Messiah College (B.A.), the University of Notre Dame (M.T.S.) and Princeton Theological Seminary (Ph.D.) Along with her husband, Jeremiah, Howard is an active member of Willow Avenue Mennonite Church, Fresno, Calif., where she serves as the chair of the Worship Commission and a member of the church council, among other roles.