Stranger encounters: The biblical example of welcome
Written by Jane Fisler Hoffman
December 2008 - January 2009
Ida's faith was tested when a stranger came to the door of her home at the end of a country road. She looked out at the white man, quite noticeable in her largely black community, and saw his gray jumpsuit. She was sure he was the convicted murderer the radio said had escaped from the prison several miles away.
Ida had several choices, including the rifle she kept in the corner for shooting squirrels. But instead, she chose to open the door. The whole story merits a longer telling, but here's the crux: At first he was threatening, but Ida fed him and listened to his fears and anger, and spoke to him like the mama he had hardly known.
She insisted on praying with him, and he wept as he remembered a long gone childhood faith. Eventually, the state police surrounded Ida's home. Between the man's renewed fear and the police's intensity on his capture, the situation came to a dangerous moment. But Ida talked to both parties, and brought them to a point where the man could safely be taken into custody.
As they began to put him in the car, he turned to her and said simply, "Thank you for your hospitality, ma'am." And the stranger was gone.
It was a stranger encounter. It was a moment of biblical proportions because the Bible is filled with stranger encounters and with the same tension Ida faced: what to do when confronted with a stranger, someone unknown and different from you?
The stranger (aka alien, foreigner) moves through Hebrew tradition from the exodus through the exile. An overview of the texts reminds us that at times the "stranger" is seen by Israel as a threat, and there is tension in the relationship.
The tension was most evident when Israel felt at its weakest, politically and spiritually, as in the book of Ezra (chapter 10.) The stranger and their strange gods are seen as a danger to the purity of Israel after the exile. At another time, "strangers" are the instruments of God's anger (Ezekiel 11:9).
But those are the minority reports in the stranger encounters of Israel. The overriding affirmation of God is to welcome, protect, share with and, interestingly, identify with the stranger because of the shared experience of having been stranger/alien themselves. Over and over, as God guides the people of Israel into a community, as told in the books of the Pentateuch, we hear this theme:
"When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God" (Leviticus 19:34; Exodus 10: 17-19).
God's expectations of Israel with the stranger even go beyond non-oppression and charity (e.g. leaving gleanings in Deuteronomy 24:19, 21).
In Numbers 15 and 19, the stranger/alien is seen as being responsible to the same law, with the same privileges and responsibilities, as the people of Israel. The equality of status extends all the way to the throne of God: "You and the alien shall be alike before the Lord" (Numbers 15:15).
In the story of Ruth, God makes a radical move by taking a stranger and making her a mother of the new nation of Israel through her great grandson, David.
Then in Jesus, God makes the strangest move of all: embodying, becoming the stranger in our midst. In the perhaps too familiar text of Matthew 25:35, Jesus identifies himself as the stranger to be welcomed.
Familiarity risks robbing this statement of its amazing power, but the urgency of life in a world of strangers requires us to receive its impact. In this story from Matthew, Jesus first acknowledges his identity as "the Son of Man [who] comes in his glory, and all the angels with him." There Christ is, reigning sovereign and savior of the world.
It is astounding, then, that in his very moment of glory Jesus identifies himself with the risky stranger - for strangers were seen as threats to a religion of purity and a nation oppressed by empire. The sovereign Jesus says starkly, "I was a stranger and you welcomed me..."
The savior is stranger, the stranger is savior. To welcome one is to welcome the other. It is an astounding statement.
Clearly the dominant urging from our long faith tradition is hospitality, equality, care for and identification with the stranger. Those are the constant commands of our God, the one who came as a stranger in our midst and with whom we are "strangers and foreigners on the earth" (Hebrews 11:13b).
This is the God who, in Jesus Christ, welcomes and transforms us all so we are "no longer strangers and aliens" but "citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God."
As our nation struggles with immigration issues and the enduring sins of racism, sexism, homophobia and the chasm between rich and poor; and as the nations of the world engage one another across hostile lines, we who follow Jesus, the stranger-savior, have an urgent mission to live this stranger life with him.
The opportunities set themselves before us in diverse ways, great and small - from learning to greet our neighbors in a second language to giving sanctuary to the refugee, as several UCC congregations from New York to California are doing.
One of the last references to strangers in the biblical canon (Hebrews 13:1-2) gives a final encouragement for our stranger encounters: "Let mutual love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it."
Or all the more, we may encounter Jesus himself, our stranger-savior.
The Rev. Jane Fisler Hoffman is interim Conference Minister of the Southern California / Nevada Conference.