“Let your foot be seldom in your neighbor’s house, lest he have his fill of you and hate you.” – Proverbs 25:17
I was visiting Nashville a few months before I moved there, and I found myself at an after-church lunch. After chatting with one couple for a while, as they scooped their baked beans and walked away, they threw a parting offer, “If you end up coming down here, we would love to have you for lunch, any time!” I was stunned. Such generosity. Such hospitality – to someone they had just met! I did not end up seeing that couple again, but after a few years, I realized that I couldn’t quite take that sort of offer at face value. There are complexities to the depth of Southern hospitality that take time to flesh out on a case by case basis.
But it’s not only Southern hospitality that takes wisdom to navigate. We all have our limits. On the one hand, we all want to be nice, or at least to be perceived as being nice. And there is something gratifying about being hospitable. Because we are made in God’s image, we find great joy and satisfaction in serving and loving others. But we also have limits. We have our own affairs to attend to, and our own families to care for.
The infraction being warned against in this proverb is trading off of and exacerbating someone’s good will. When you impinge on another person time and time again, you use up all the relational capital you have, and you start drawing from his good will and kindness towards you as another human being. That is not good territory. That means you have descended from the category of friend to the category of supplicant.
As much as we might wish this was not the case, and plead the contrary, we conduct all our relationships within a transactional frame. I don’t necessarily mean this in a crass sense, but it comes as a result of being finite. We have limited time and resources, and so no matter how much we might wish we were available to every person with a need, it’s simply not the case. We have to prioritize. A man who neglects his work, his wife, his friends, and his children in order to volunteer at a shelter is not being compassionate; he’s being a fool.
When we ponder this proverb, it invites us to appreciate God by antithesis. God is radically unlike us in this manner. We can never be in the house of God too often. He does not get tired of us. This, in fact, is one of the most startling and difficult attributes of His character for us to wrap our arms around. In every other relationship, we have to pause and consider: Am I asking this person too much? Am I going to him too often? Where do we stand in our relational balance? We should never ask those questions when we turn to the Lord. In a sense, we are already in his house. Everywhere is his house. The question when it comes to God is are we interested in connecting with him, or are we just raiding his refrigerator?