The word “civilization” has become controversial nowadays – but one aspect of civilization that we can still agree on is hospitality. Hospitality is a welcome that goes far beyond friendship: in fact, it reaches its peak not among friends, but when we extend it to the stranger, someone unfamiliar and perhaps even distasteful to us. Hospitality is recalled in the ancient Christian tradition of showing special consideration to beggars, often going so far as to invite them to the family table. For even beggars were seen as messengers of God – or (who knows?) perhaps God himself in disguise!
When he was approaching the country of the Phoenicians, Ulysses, having survived a shipwreck, thought it prudent to disguise himself as a beggar before entering the palace grounds. Antinoos, one of the king’s guests, struck him with a stool, after welcoming him with these words: “What deity has brought this pest here, this scavenger of meals? Stay in the middle, away from my table….” As it happened, it was Antinoos, and not the mendicant, who incurred the reproaches of the assembly: “You were wrong to strike this wretched mendicant, o pernicious, wicked man; he might be a god come down from heaven. The immortal ones travel the cities in the guise of strangers. They take many forms, seeking to know for themselves the violence or the justice of humans.”
Homer, The Odyssey