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A Parable of Hospitality

I am constantly trying to convince my husband that our nine dollar monthly investment in basic cable is worth every penny, even on our meager seminary students’ budget. Our arguments change very little each time we have this discussion: He argues that our money could be better spent elsewhere (perhaps on ice cream) and that television is simply a series of advertisements that subtly, but persistently, warp how we view the world. I attempt varying counterpoints–that television brings us information about what is happening in the world; that if we are to relate to people who live in such a media saturated culture, we too must know something about that media; and, when all else fails, I remind him that without our basic cable we could not watch Seinfeld reruns. While I have many arguments, the truth is simply that I like television because I am a junkie for stories. I become invested in the characters and their lives; they become my friends and I love hearing (and re-hearing in reruns) the stories that reveal their identities and destinies.

Our faith is full of stories that form the patchwork quilt of God’s grand story. Since the beginning, God’s people have told the stories of God’s work as the basis of who we are and what is happening around us. And I have found, through my own extensive research, that the stories of Scripture and the stories we find on TV are not always so far apart.

The teenage drama is a staple of today’s television and has been for many years. I admit to having fallen prey to this genre in many of its incarnations–Beverly Hills, 90210; Dawson’s Creek; and now, The O.C.The O.C. tells the story of Ryan, a young man with an alcoholic mother, an absent father replaced by short-term boyfriends, and a beloved brother who is in and out of jail. When Ryan lands himself in juvenile detention, his court-appointed lawyer, Sandy, enters the scene. We hear Sandy share his story of coming from a world much like Ryan’s, growing up in a hard neighborhood, but managing to escape. Initially, Ryan finds this pep talk very unimpressive, but when his mother kicks him out of her home for his behavior, Ryan finds himself with nowhere else to go. He calls Sandy, who, despite Ryan’s cool reception earlier, comes to his aid and invites Ryan into his Orange County home. Sandy welcomes Ryan into a new world and, with it, a new reality.

While the packaging of The O.C. is new, the theme of hospitality is not. In fact, it is deeply rooted in our faith. Israel, a man and a nation that seemed to be of little value, is welcomed by God, invited into God’s house, and adopted as God’s child. Just as they have received their place in God’s grand story, so the Israelites are expected to hospitably weave others into the fabric of their lives.

The story of Ruth, in particular, illustrates the importance of hospitality for God’s people. As a man who has been welcomed by God into God’s chosen people, Boaz is expected to respond in kind to those around him. This core expectation led to the common Israelite practice of letting those who had no food of their own and no way to provide for themselves, such as the widows Naomi and Ruth, to glean the leftovers in the fields. Not only does Boaz allow Ruth to glean in his field, meeting the legal requirements of Israelite farmers, but he also goes further in his efforts to welcome Ruth into the abundance he has received. Boaz secures Ruth’s safety by telling the harvesters not to bother her. He shares his food and drink with her, and he even instructs his workers to drop extra grain, enduring financial sacrifice for this stranger in his field.

Boaz and Sandy are men who gratefully recognize the blessings they have received, unearned, and choose to pass them along to a stranger in their midst. Sandy had been lifted up from his humble beginnings, and chooses then to extend a welcome to a young man who seems likely to bring difficulty to his life and his family. Boaz has been welcomed by God, despite his own shortcomings, and as he recognizes this about himself, he welcomes Ruth and Naomi to share in what he has received.

As unlikely as it seems, The O.C. functions in part as a modern-day parable, calling those of us who have received hospitality from God to extend whatever hospitality we can to those around us. The God who came to live and work within our human cultures continues to welcome us in surprising ways today, even inviting us through television’s melodramas to practice hospitality.

Sarah Van Zetten Bruins is a recent graduate of Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Michigan.