Let’s begin with facts. Syria is a mess. People want out. The Bible and Jesus address the stranger. And based on what I’m reading in the news, hearing in conversations, and observing in social media, that’s about all I’m confident we can agree on.
Because of a sermon I preached on November 8, I recently did research on welcoming the stranger and biblical hospitality. How was I to know this would become such a huge issue on Friday? God knew and so I will share. I hope it will help you have informed and constructive conversations meant to problem solve, not name call and stereotype, about our current world crisis.
The Biblical Lesson
Today, we view hospitality in regards to our family and friends. In biblical times, however, hospitality was solely focused on receiving the stranger. It was a matter closely linked to honor, one of the core values of the Mediterranean world and the Bible.
When a stranger was received, it occurred in three stages.
- The stranger must be tested. They pose a threat to any community, because they could be anything we can think of. The community must determine how they might fit in and whether they subscribe to the community’s norms. In scripture, we see examples of officials and citizens testing strangers. In Joshua 2:2-3, officials of the king are sent to question men believed to be spies. In Genesis 19:4-5, concerned citizenry seek out Lot’s guests to assess their adherence to community norms. We also see strangers asked to leave. In Mark 5:17, the Gerasenes ask Jesus to leave. An invitation to speak can also serve as a test. In Acts 13:14-15, Paul speaks to the synagogue and as a result is allowed to stay. Another form of testing is letters of recommendation. This appears in Romans 16:3-16, where Paul lists numerous “fellow workers in Christ Jesus,” that the church in Rome is to receive. And in 2 John, 3 John, and I Thessalonians 5:12-13, characteristics of those to be received are discussed.
- The stranger takes on the role of guest. Since strangers lack customary or legal standing, they need a host. The host/guest relationship has rules. The guest must 1) refrain from insulting the host, 2) refrain from usurping the host’s power, and 3) refrain from refusing what is offered. The host must 1) refrain from insulting the guest, 2) protect the guest’s honor, and 3) attend to his guest. Jesus was frequently a guest and his actions demonstrate the rules’ application. In Matthew 9:10 and Luke 5:29, he eats with sinners neither accusing them of being sinners or asking them to change. In Mark 1:30-31, Jesus waits until asked to heal Simon’s mother-in-law to do so. In Luke 14:8, he teaches about where to sit at a feast, in a lower position. In Luke 10:40-42, Jesus refuses to command Mary in her own home. In Mark 6:10 and the parallels, Jesus instructs the disciples how to behave as guests. In Luke 10:8, Jesus instructs the disciples to eat whatever is put before them. Jesus also reveals where hosts fail. In Luke 7:36-50, Jesus notes that Simon failed to wash his feet, kiss him, or anoint him. When Simon calls the woman sinful, he acknowledges his own failure to protect his guest, Jesus, from unwanted and uninvited company. In John 2:1-11, when Jesus performs his first miracle, he is a guest and does not act until asked. This narrative also illustrates how a failure to offer the best one has is an insult to the guest.
- The stranger never leaves with the same status. They become either friend or enemy. In I Thessalonians 1:9 and Philippians 4:15, praises of a new status of friend are shared. In 3 John, the discontent with Diotrephes is clear.
The majority of this information is quoted, paraphrased, and extrapolated from an article, “Hospitality,” authored by Dr. Bruce Malina, in the 1998 book, Handbook of Biblical Social Principles, edited by the same. Dr. Malina’s work focuses on the social world of Jesus. (If you are interested in the social world of the Bible, this is a great place to start!)
As evidenced above, Jesus and the early Church fathers were familiar with the social rules of the time and followed them. Both spoke of receiving the stranger. Jesus said:
For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you came to visit me…Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me. ~Matthew 25:35-36, 40b (NRSV)
Welcome on another, then, just as Christ welcomed you, for the glory of God. ~Romans 15:7 (NRSV)
As you read through the wealth of information offered by Dr. Malina, I hope you found it helpful. The words of Jesus and Paul are deeply rooted within the culture of the time.
Syria and other nations in similar turmoil are of global concern. We have innocent men, women, and children suffering and dying. And it’s wrong! They want what we, in all our first-world, internet-using luxury, have- freedom and opportunity. And I am bold to say, they have a right to it.
My hope for our world, and one I believe you share, is for mankind to have basic needs met, to have an opportunity to learn, grow, and find success for themselves and their family, and to find their passion and live it. In my eternal, God-given optimism, I believe that an over-whelming majority of Americans truly want that for each other and the world. Where we differ is the means to the end.
Some believe we should welcome the stranger with open arms in any country they wish to travel with no questions asked. Some believe we should welcome the stranger in communities most familiar to them in other Muslim countries. Some believe we should vet them and let them come legally. Some believe it is a States issue. There is no easy answer.
My Plea to Christians
As you listen, speak, and these days type and re-post, please be mindful not only of those who see the situation the way you do, but also of those who see the situation differently. Welcoming the stranger is biblical, as is a period of testing. There is nothing wrong with the theology of either. Welcoming the stranger is biblical, as is asking someone who doesn’t adhere to community standards to leave. There is nothing wrong with the theology of either. Welcoming the stranger is biblical, as is reporting them when they cause problems. There is nothing wrong with the theology of either. Welcoming the stranger is biblical, as is parting as enemies. There is nothing wrong with the theology of either.
As you throw the weight of the Bible around, please be mindful that it is always more complicated than one verse. The biblical world is not one of fifteen-second soundbites and memes; it is one of deep tradition and history, one of cultural and societal norms so different from the one we live in today. It is one of a complex and loving God, who we can not fully comprehend.
I am tired of seeing articles, posts, and memes that suggest someone is less or more of a Christian because of their political beliefs. I suspect you are too.