Welcoming the Stranger
Last month I talked about getting my face out of a book and learning to welcome the person standing in front of me. It’s been an adventure (and generally fun) to pay attention to the person standing in line with me and the person knocking on my door. (I’m still working on the telemarketer trying to make a living by calling me!)
The next step is “welcoming the stranger.” Not often listed as a spiritual discipline, this practice was one Jesus emphasized by how he welcomed all kinds of people and identified with them: “When I was a stranger, you welcomed me . . .when you did it for the least of these, you did it for me” (Matthew 25:31-35, CEV). Such welcoming is tangible and helpful, even offering them a cup of cold water (Matthew 10:40-42; see also Matthew 18:5 and John 13:20).
Who are our strangers? People appear to us as strangers for different reasons but they usually fit into one of these categories:
Outcasts. A person’s past didn’t disqualify him or her from being welcomed by Jesus. While most rabbis threw stones at lepers, Jesus welcomed them (Matthew 8:1-4). He touched the untouchables.
Wrong-doers The immoral past of the Samaritan woman did not disqualify her either. In fact, Jesus went out of his way to extend himself: he had to go through Samaria (John 4:4). He welcomed this person who was also a stranger ethnically and gender-wise. He should not have had a conversation with any woman in public but he not only did so but also invited her to enter into a deepened relationship with God.
People longing for home. At one time Joseph, Mary and Jesus were political refugees, running from King Herod. They had to leave their homeland by night. Imagine their fear as they slipped out of Bethlehem by night and made a two to three week journey on a route frequented by robbers. This Jewish couple mixed with non-Jews and had to trust God every step of the way.
Anyone who isn’t like me. When we see or meet people who differ from us politically, ethnically or theologically, a little “ping” may go off in our head that says, Ooh, Different. Step back. I wonder what Jesus’ disciple, Simon the zealot, thought when Jesus healed and then praised the faith of a Roman centurion. Simon would have viewed the centurion as a prime candidate for assassination.
A stranger may just be someone of a different economic class. In a church full of homeowners, an apartment dweller often feels like a stranger. A disabled person is a stranger in the midst of fitness buffs as is a non-reader among well-read folks. Military kids or missionary kids, parolees or drug rehab graduates may all qualify as strangers among those without that type of experience.
Anyone we’re tempted to exclude and ignore. Strangers are often people in power-down positions: “children as opposed to adults, women as opposed to men, minority races as opposed to majority races, the poor as opposed to middle-class, the middle-class as opposed to rich, lower-paid workers as opposed to highly paid workers, less educated as opposed to more educated, blue-collar workers as opposed to professionals.” The elderly are easily overlooked. When my quiet 80-year-old mother-in-law came to visit, our other dinner guests never engaged her in conversation. I wept later to think of the many times I had neglected to speak to an older person.
Or we may avoid pushy people, people who talk too long about themselves, those who scream and pout for what they feel they deserve, know-it-alls, or people who let their kids run wild. In any “us versus them” situation, “them” are the strangers.
The shocking thing about Jesus is that he did not merely tolerate such different people. Jesus offered himself to them in self-giving love. I am able to do this only when I ask Jesus to reach out to others through me.
Grace and peace,