Of “Welcoming the Stranger”

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There are many things in scripture that are nuanced, ambiguous; some things downright contradictory. In Proverbs the scribe admonishes us to look before we leap (yes, that’s where that comes from), and then just a few lines later we are told that “he who hesitates is lost.” Which? Job challenges the conventional wisdom of Judaism, that being: If the people are faithful to the one true God then they will be blessed. Job is the quintessential faithful servant, an ardent adherent to the Law, and yet he is tormented with suffering. His forty chapter diatribe begs the question: If God is good, then why suffering and evil in the world. The issue never gets resolved. God, since the beginning, promised Israel a land of promise, and yet that dream is never fulfilled. The monarchy doomed to failure. Paul states that the Law given by Moses at Sinai is a gift, and yet he declares that the new disciples of Christ are free from the Law. Jesus extols as virtuous the actions of the dishonest steward in one of his parables. In the Sermon on the Mount he says that he doesn’t bring peace but a sword. Jesus himself is baptized by John in the Jordan for the remission of sins. But he is the Son of God, the sinless one, right?. The list of ambiguities and contradictions goes on and on.

But there is oddly one theme that keeps rearing its head throughout the sweep of our sacred lore, both in Hebrew scripture and New Testament literature, a golden thread that binds the stories and genres of the Bible. It is incisive and unambiguous. And that is the admonition to welcome the stranger. In most translations the stranger is described as the ‘resident alien,’ the immigrant. In many cases the stranger turns out to be an emissary from God. Abraham’s encounter at the oaks of Mamre, Jacobs wrestling with a stranger in a strange land. Lot’s encounter with the three men in Sodom, The young man in the tomb in the Gospel of Mark, pointing the way to the future, are but a few examples. We often think of the command to welcome the resident alien, the stranger, to take care of the orphan and widow as something on the periphery of the practice of the faith, but because of our being reminded over and over again from Genesis to Revelation, this admonition becomes consistently central, vital.

It is as if the scribes of scripture have recognized something profoundly important about human nature. That the ‘fight or flight’ predisposition of our species, buried deep in our DNA, perhaps at one time necessary for the survival of the species, has run its course. Perhaps these sages have recognized that ‘fight or flight’ ultimately results in self-interest, fear, and violence. Perhaps they have recognized that our innate xenophobic tendencies, which may have once served us in our evolution, now have run their course, have become destructive and dangerous. The writers of scripture are calling us to choose a new way… a maturing new way, a new order for the human community; a way in which salvation, that is, the well-being and dignity of the human community, is dependent on embracing the other. That the future of our very species is contingent on our empathy for the ‘alien’ among us, even our perceived enemies. Jesus said as much. In the climax of Matthew’s Gospel, when God is judging the world, God asks the question: “When was I a stranger and you welcomed me in?”

So we have so-called Christian legislators supporting the recent executive order to ban immigrants. They cite security concerns as the reason for such action. We of course know that security is not the real issue here. Refugees, now mostly women and children, we know historically don’t commit acts of terror. Refusing a safe haven for these the dispossessed of our world is a far more dangerous proposition than receiving them as brothers and sisters. This recent action is not Christian. The vision of the Gospels holds that through hospitality and welcome the world is transformed. That peace, Shalom, is nurtured through the loving care of the other; that the fear of the stranger is our undoing. If we of the Jesus movement won’t stand for that, who will?

Call or write your legislators. Hold them accountable. Remind them of what it means to be a follower of Jesus. Be a witness to the faith, the movement into which we are baptized. This is important. This is vital.

 

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