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The people group we work with is rather famous for its culture of hospitality.  As "guests" in their environment, we've been the direct recipients of this on many occasions. I remember the first time I spent the night at a local home.  After a beyond-affordable feast (in which my host himself didn't partake as he was busy forcing more food onto my plate) the table cloth on the floor was rolled up to make room for a bed cushion underneath the home's only fan.  I was expected to stay the night. In what was a less-than-comfortable experience for a Westerner, my host watched me dutifully until I fell asleep, and when I woke up, he was there again as the first sight to greet me! Needless to say, we've given up trying to duplicate this kind of hospitality.

A common local proverbs states, "The guest is the friend of God," or even, "The guest is god." In other words, guests are to be treated like deity. Their every need is to be anticipated and met with a gush of extravagance. (To get a biblical picture of this, read the account of Abraham forcing hospitality on his angelic guests in Genesis 18).

I was recently explaining to a friend that Americans often instruct guests to "help yourself," and that it's normal among friends for guests to bring a dish to add to the meal.  He looked at me in shock and embarrassment. For a host here to receive such a contribution from his guest would be an utter shame. It would suggest that he's incapable of providing adequately.

This element of honor is at the heart of local customs regarding hospitality.  A friend was visiting someone in a rural area outside of the city when some urgent business called him away.  He asked leave of his host, but as it was lunch hour, he was refused several times. Finally the host pointed to an AK-47 leaning against the wall. He told the guest, "If you leave now, I will shoot you in the back.  You will not be seen leaving my house at lunchtime without eating first!"

I've come to see in this sort of extreme hospitality a beautiful and useful illustration of spiritual truth, but in order to get there, I think we have to turn the local proverbs on their head.  The guest is not God, requiring us to wait on him hand and foot like a pagan idol. "He is not served by human hands as though he needed anything" (Acts 17:25). In fact, this lies quite near the heart of humanity's fundamental misunderstanding of how we relate the God. We are the guests, and God is the host.  First in creation, and then in the cross, God has laid a feast for His people. He has anticipated our every need and met it lavishly at great self-sacrifice.  Before we serve him, he has served us.  To try to bring something of our own to his table - a good work, religious lineage or identity - is both unnecessary and dishonoring to Him.

We also can fall into the trap of playing host at God's table, imagining we have something to offer in exchange for his free grace.  Let God be God.  Freely receive what He makes ready, and as a representative of him, freely give.  Compel those who can't repay to the feast He has prepared for their joy and His glory (Luke 14:12-24).