BIBLICAL REFLECTION FOR WELCOMING STRANGERS
One consistent theme in the Bible is the need for God’s people to welcome strangers. This emphasis naturally arose from the nomadic life of the ancient Near East, which was the setting of the Old Testament, and it continued as the Church spread throughout the Roman Empire, which was the setting of the New Testament. Travelers far away from home needed protection and provision in order to survive in often hostile environments. In both the Old and New Testament periods, hospitality to strangers was expected not only as a moral obligation but also as a sacred duty.
Three significant Scriptures for understanding this biblical man- date are Genesis 18:1–16, the Gospel of John, and Matthew 25:31–46. In Genesis 18, we read the story of Abraham and Sarah welcoming three mysterious visitors into their home. After receiving lavish hospitality from the patriarch and his family, the visitors return the favor with the good news that Sarah would bear a son in the coming year. This unexpected blessing was the result of divine presence in their midst through strangers who turn out to be heavenly visitors. The story draws on the ancient belief of theoxeny – that the gods visited the earth in disguise in order to test the generosity of human hearts. Thus, Abraham and Sarah receive divine blessings and the confirmation of God’s promises through an act of hospitality. This occasion is recalled in Hebrews 13:2: “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.”
In the Gospel of John, Jesus is depicted as the Stranger from Heaven par excellence.1 He came into the world through the Incarnation, yet the world did not know him (John 1:10). His identity was a mystery. Throughout John’s Gospel, we see how Jesus’ radical acts of hospitality reveal the presence of the divine and his true identity as the Son of God and Savior of the world.2
For example, at a wedding in Cana, Jesus is transformed from guest to host in his miraculous provision of good wine for the feast (John 2:1–11). By taking up the symbolic role of bridegroom, he reveals his glory and his disciples believed in him. On another occasion, Jesus boldly asks a Samaritan woman for water (John 4:4–42). Again, he reverses roles by offering her “living water” through faith in him as the long-awaited Messiah. The miracle of feeding the 5000 (John 6:1–14) provides yet another occasion for Jesus to extend divine hospitality. In offering the “bread of life” to the hungry crowds, he reveals himself as both source and content of the gift of eternal life to all who take and eat. Then, at his last meal with the disciples, Jesus performs an act of hospitality that shocks his followers (John 13:1–17). The job of washing the guests’ feet was normally done by slaves or servants, never by the host. In taking the role of a servant, he prepares his disciples for his sacrifice on the Cross, commanding them to love one another as he has loved them. As Joshua Jipp aptly puts it, “The mission of this heavenly stranger is to reveal God, to make him known to us, and to impart saving relational knowledge of God to humanity.”3
In the Parable of the Last Judgment in Matthew 25, hospitality to strangers takes on a new meaning for fol- lowers of Christ. Here the Son of Man as king is shown at the end times separating people into two groups like a shepherd dividing sheep and goats. The righteous are those whom he praises for taking care of him in his time of greatest need – “I was a stranger and you welcomed me” (v. 35). They are welcomed into the kingdom. When those on his right hand express surprise, asking when these reported acts of mercy were performed, the king responds, “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” (v. 40). Those on the left side are sent to eternal punishment for refusing to help the king in his time of greatest need. They too express surprise and claim never to have encountered him in such circumstances. The king answers, “Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me” (v. 45).
This passage is remarkable in its depiction of a theoxeny or divine visitation that is simultaneously positive and negative. Christ comes as a needy visitor to test the character of mortals, who are later judged according to their earlier treatment of him when he was in disguise. Those who pass the test will receive not only a reward, but eternal life. Those who fail the test will be punished accordingly. On the Judgment Day, actions taken will speak louder than words. American scholar Christine Pohl calls Matthew 25:31–46 the most important pas- sage for the entire tradition of Christian hospitality as it “personally and powerfully connects hospitality toward human beings with care for Jesus.”4