The other day I wrote about pineapples, or at least mentioned them in passing. They came up again in a conversation with my wife about pineapples as symbols of hospitality. We have a large ceramic pineapple plaque hanging near our front door, symbolic of the hospitality we hope to offer to those who visit. So how is it that a pineapple became a symbol of hospitality, and what is hospitality?
The Internet is fascinating trove of useless information, and there is quite a bit about pineapples and hospitality. The stories vary but they tend to circle around pineapples from the Caribbean as the only tropical fruit that could withstand long voyages. Sea captains brought them home as treasured gifts presented with great fanfare at dinner parties celebrating their return. As I said, the stories vary, but they all agree that it didn’t take long for wealthy New Englanders to adopt the pineapple as a symbol of welcome carved into furniture, staircase newels, and incorporated into chandeliers. Now they are everywhere. Just look around.
So let’s turn to the question of hospitality. It’s an old word, and it means the same in every language: to welcome with grace and generosity. The hospitality symbolized by pineapples at colonial dinner parties was extended not to everyone, but pridefully in limited portions to wealthy friends. Certainly not to the community at large, even in a small community. The more generalized symbolism in carvings and chandeliers was likely not found in any but the wealthiest of homes for a very long time. I wonder if the original owners might have thought they were an attractive design that illustrated their knowledge of exotic things from afar, and were a wonderful expression of the idea of hospitality as long as it wasn’t taken too seriously, or trespassed on by the wrong sort of people. That’s the way with symbols.
Consider the hospitality offered to three strangers by Abraham who rushed to make them welcome and urged them to rest while his household prepared a feast for them. Or what about the Samaritan woman at the well who not only offered the hospitality of water to a stranger, a man, and a Jew at that, but continued by inviting a long, rather intimate, conversation with him. All four gospels tell of the feeding of the five thousand in which no one was deemed to be deserving or undeserving, only that they were hungry and tired. Then there is the parable of the wedding feast to which the hoi polloi were invited without discrimination when the right sort of people declined the offer of hospitality. Do you recall Christ’s teaching about what it means to offer the hospitality of water, food, and clothing to the thirsty, hungry and naked? This being Friday (as I am writing), I’m reminded of a collect in which we are urged to remember that Jesus stretched out his harms of love on the hard wood of the cross that everyone might come within the reach of his saving embrace. That’s radical hospitality. Is that what the plaque near our front door symbolizes? Probably not. We are a little more cautious than that. You probably are also. But what about the places we claim to epitomize hospitality, our churches for instance? How openly hospitable are they? How restricted? How fearful of being ill-used or having something stolen? How willing are we to open them to the risk of radical hospitality?
Those are questions we have struggled with for years, not always with success. Restricting access, having armed guards, and being more attentive to the wrong sort of person coming in, has become a subject regularly present in congregational and clergy meetings all over the country. It’s even been covered in The Christian Century. Without being able to answer our own questions about ourselves, we are now being asked to wade into the same debate on a larger scale, the one about refugees from the Middle East and immigrants from nearby countries seeking asylum and opportunity. To the examples of radical hospitality illustrated scripture, and the commandments of God to go and do likewise, we are inclined to say “Don’t be stupid!” Too often we are more like Joab and Abner, offering one another suspicion filled, hypocritical hospitality resulting in death. We may not have a hand in killing as such, but we establish and maintain conditions under which the life of the other cannot flourish. We do it in the name of not being stupid, not in the name of Jesus Christ. We can do better than that.
Got a pineapple anywhere around? What kind of hospitality does it symbolize for you?