“Xenos” -- Welcoming the Stranger, in the Bible

Patrick Rogers c.p.


Intro: Relative ease of mobility

Treatment of Strangers in the Old Testament

  • Signs of xenophobia in the Old Testament
  • Migrants, foreigners and Hebrew origins
  • Abraham, welcomed and welcoming
  • Moses and David: welcomed as refugees
  • Joshue and Samuel: Seeing the other as enemy
  • Ruth: blessings brought by a stranger
  • Torah regulations about immigrants
  • Some indications from the prophets and Psalms
  • Austere rabbinical advice about the “outsider”

Strangers and neighbours in the New Testament

  • Jesus’ radical call, to love without limits
  • His own welcoming of outsiders
  • People who generously welcomed Jesus
  • The Kingdom of God -- a very costly ideal
  • Peter opens the doors of the Church
  • Paul feels responsible for all of humanity
  • Hospitality among the early Christians
  • Practical limits, that hospitality be not abused
  • Even a glass of cold water... “as long as you did it..”


Relative ease of mobility

Part 1 reflects on the Old Testament treatment of strangers ; the second half notes some things hat we can learn about it from Jesus and the New Testament writers. If our time limit requires it, we can omit parts of the New Testament section, to allow for some dialogue. At any rate, our page outline provides the headings under which I prepared this input, and these can feature in our discussion afterward. Some printed copies of my full text will be available to whoever wants to read it; and of course the text is online here. First, let’s note some current issues with which we are all familiar, which make the challenge of relating to strangers and foreigners an urgent moral imperative today.

The ease of interacting with people of other nations and other languages than our own has never been greater than today. While various kinds of migration –  whether to seek a better life or to avoid oppression, or even to invade other lands – go back to the beginnings of history, until the age of steam- and petroleum-powered travel, most people seldom ventured beyond their parish boundaries, apart from the exceptional motive of pilgrimage, war, crusade, or romantic quest.

Most citizens of prosperous countries nowadays, have travelled, or at least aspire to travel abroad to see other parts of our world. People like to talk to their friends about where we have been and what we’ve seen. The easy access to interesting places that is made affordable by our economy airlines, and that TV and other media portray as desirable, seems to many an essential component of the good life. Indeed, one of today’s greatest ethical challenges is to put limits on this thirst for such recreational travel, in order to reduce our carbon footprint and spare the environment from the looming tragedy of global warming.

Still, refugees from war and from economic or social misery at home have more urgent and critical motives for seeking to move to a foreign land. The chaotic situations caused by so many proxy-wars whether in Syria or Libya or Iraq or elsewhere, are driving many to seek a safe haven and a better life abroad. We’re all too familiar with scenes from refugee camps where people live in cramped discomfort or even squalor, waiting to gain access to some peaceful foreign land where they can made a new start. Two of their most anxious questions are: Who will allow us in? And under what conditions? Will we find food, work and somewhere to live? And can we keep our own culture, language and religion?

Apart from war-refugees mainly from the middle East, there seems to be no end of economic refugees from Africa, desperately trying to cross the Mediterranean to Europe, even in the most dangerous, unseaworthy of boats – and paying for their passage with their life savings. The countries of the EU have tried various ways to stem this tide of would-be immigrants, while also providing a life-line to save from drowning many thousands who were shipwrecked. In this scenario, Italy has borne much more than its share of the burden; while Angela Merkel’s Germany has been the most generous in offering refugee status to people fleeing from Syria. And of course, both the Italian and German governments have been struggling to cope with the influx of foreigners, and of providing for their future.

In this session we’ll list a variety of biblical texts with a bearing on group identity and on the ethical treatment of foreigners and strangers, in order to  sharpen our focus on the moral duty of hospitality, for the Christians of today.

  Treatment of Strangers in the Old Testament

Much of what we can learn about the attitudes and values of the Hebrews in Old Testament times comes from narratives, whether of war and conquest, the exodus journeys, the ambitions and progress of kings, the threat of invasion or the return from their great Exile. We also find some explicit ethical teaching about kindness to strangers in the prophets and the Wisdom writings.

Signs of Xenophobia in the Old Testament

Since this seminar is surely meant to have some inspirational value, our main texts to consider will be ones that imply some measure of humanity, compassion or kindness towards the Other, the “Xenos” (Greek; in Hebrew: ger or nokri). We will sensitive to anything pointing toward the Gospel ideal taught by Jesus. However, it must be candidly acknowledged that the hebrew Scriptures also show signs of a vigorous xenophobia: fear (or hatred) of strangers or foreigners.

No modern reader can truly admire the zeal with which Moses and Joshua seek to destroy other nations, to allow the Israelites take possession of the land of Canaan. “My angel will go ahead of you and bring you into the land of the Amorites, Hittites, Perizzites, Canaanites, Hivites and Jebusites, and I will wipe them out.” (Ex. 23:23), or the blame heaped by Samuel upon king Saul, for not destroying every last man of the Amalekites. Indeed, for the crime of keeping king Agag of Amalek alive after the battle, Saul was deposed from the throne (1 Samuel 15). Even the usually prayerful, contemplative Psalmist can express glee about Israel’s defeat of their enemies. We blush when he praises God who “drove out nations before them, apportioned them for a possession and settled the tribes of Israel in their tents.” (Ps 78:55); or when he says of mighty Babylon, “You devastator! Happy shall they be who pay you back what you have done to us!  Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock!” (Ps 137:8-9).

Apart from warlike feelings toward enemy nations, another major Old Testament thread of xenophobia comes in the period following the Babylonian exile, the period of the Second Temple (from c. 500 BCE.) The returning exiles, wanting to make a fresh start in the land of Israel, under Ezra and Nehemiah, were urged to keep to themselves, to avoid contact with people of other races and religions, outlaw intermarriage with outsiders and shun all the fertility-cults of the native Canaanites. While the devotional  Book of Tobit idealises this exclusivist trend in post-exilic Israel, the ironical Book of  Jonah offers a much more positive view of foreigners: even the warrior Assyrians could turn back to the true God, if only the narrow-minded Jonah would preach in Ninive!

Polarisation in the Hellenistic age

In middle of the 2nd century BC, in the latter half of the Hellenistic age, the relationship between Jews and foreigners was drastically polarised, in reaction to the efforts of the Syrian king Antiochus to force all of his subjects to conform to the Greek cultural and religious forms he admired. The two books of Maccabees narrate the fierce Jewish resistance to this persecution, which produced a strong sense of xenophobia among the embattled upholders of the Torah.

Migrants, foreigners and Hebrew origins

“A wandering Aramean was my ancestor, who went down to Egypt and traveled there with very few family members, yet there he became a great, powerful, and populous nation.” (Deut 26:5. International Standard Version). This text from their harvest liturgy reminded the Jews of each generation, that their forebears came as foreigners into the fertile, promised land. Offering to the priest a basket of the first-fruits of their gardening and tillage, they remembered their nomadic past and could find motivation to be kinder to foreigners than the Egyptians had been to them, when they “treated us harshly and afflicted us, and imposed hard labour on us.”

While this evocative memory at their thanksgiving liturgy might spur some of them to show mercy and hospitality in their turn, the people of Israel could also find in their collective memory motives for a more hostile, suspicious attitude towards strangers. As on so many matters, the Biblical resonances are multiform, so that the church and the individual person must discern which texts and lessons to treat as normative and which to regard as merely echoes of a more primitive, less developed ethical standard.

 Abraham, welcomed and welcoming

Foremost of the ancestors to whom Israel looked back for inspiration, was the nomadic Abraham, their father in faith. During his God-prompted journeys from Ur of the Chaldees, first to Haran in northern Syria, then south-west to Canaan (or Palestine), then further south to Egypt and finally back to Canaan, at various times he both experienced and practiced hospitality, in ways that are evocative and inspirational.

On his arrival into Egypt, and seeking to avoid being envied by the local rulers, Abram deceptively told Sarah to describe herself as his sister rather than his wife (Gen 12:10–20). Enamoured by her beauty, the Pharaoh "dealt well with Abram for her sake” – so that he prospered, owning “sheep, and oxen, and men-servants, and maid-servants, and camels.” Only when Pharaoh wants to marry Sarah does the deception end; and with it the welcome Abram had enjoyed Now the Pharaoh says brusquely, “Here is your wife, take her, and be gone" (10:19).

Much better for Abram’s image is his mysterious encounter beside the Oaks of Mamre (Genesis 18:1-8) with the three Heavenly Visitors. His warm, immediate response sets the biblical norm for hospitality. The text says that “When he looked up and saw three men standing near him, he ran from the tent entrance to meet them, and bowed down to the ground.” Abram’s famous words of welcome are, "My lord, if I find favor with you, do not pass by your servant.  Let a little water be brought, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree.  Let me bring a little bread, that you may refresh yourselves, and after that you may pass on..."

Even today, the nomadic Bedouin in Israel and elsewhere continue this tradition of welcoming strangers with some food and drink. After Abram and Sarah have prepared a fine meal for the visitors, they are promised the great blessing they had always hoped for… "I will surely return to you in due season, and your wife Sarah shall have a son."

 Moses and David: welcomed as refugees

Since the Mosaic Pentateuch (or Torah) lays down specific rules for welcoming the stranger, we should note how Moses himself found a welcome in his time of need. Exodus 2 tells how he fled from Pharaoh, then settled in the land of Midian, and found hospitality with Jethro, the priest of Midian, who later gave Moses his daughter Zipporah in marriage. Later, when she bore him a son, Moses named him Gershom; for he said, "I have been an alien residing in a foreign land" (Ex 2:22). The Hebrew ger sham, means a “stranger there” or a temporary sojourner, and serves to highlight that Moses has experienced that condition for himself.

Another Old Testament hero, king David, experienced the dangers and hardships of being a refugee, both before and after winning the throne as Saul’s successor. After the women’s dangerous song of praise drove king Saul mad with envy (“'Saul has slain his thousands, and David his ten thousands” 1 Samuel 20:11), we read how “David arose and fled that day from Saul, and went to Achish king of Gath.” While on the run from Saul’s wrath, David also found help and respite from various others, including the king of Moab (1 Sam 22:3), the priest Ahimelech who “gave him the holy bread; for there was no bread there except the bread of the Presence” (1 Sam 21:6) and Ahimelech’s son Abiathar, whose life David promised to protect from then on (1 Sam 22:23).

After becoming king, David showed a base side of his character by engineering the death of his foreign-born officer, Uriah,  in order to marry Uriah’s beautiful wife, Bathsheba (2 Sam 11:2-27). The prophet Nathan pronounced God’s judgment on the king for this (1 Sam 12:1-15), and years later David duly found his own life threatened, when his son Absalom rebelled and usurped the throne (2 Sam 15:13-16). David again had to go into hiding, and rely on the kindness of strangers. His life was saved by the priests Zadok and Abiathar and by a married couple from Bahurim, who had a well in their courtyard where David hid from the assassins that his son had sent to kill him (2 Sam 17:18-19).

 Ruth: blessings brought by a stranger

Among the many Old Testament instances of respect and kindness shown to a refugee foreigner, one of the best loved is the case of  David’s great-grandmother, Ruth, as told in the short book bearing her name. Her husband, Mahlon, was a Judean born in Bethlehem, but was  brought by his parents (Elimelech and Naomi) into exile in Moab, to avoid famine in Judea. After Elimelech’s death and that of their sons, the widowed Naomi wants to return to her own country, and Ruth pledges to go with her. At first Naomi urges the younger woman to stay behind in Moab and re-marry, but Ruth makes the famous reply: “Wherever you go, I will go; Wherever you lodge, I will lodge too; your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Wherever you die, I will die – and there will I be buried.” (Ruth 1:16-17).

To reward the warm compassion shown by this young Moabite woman toward her widowed mother-in-law, God’s special providence is shown towards Ruth. In his “Ode to a Nightingale” the poet John Keats imagines Ruth as deeply homesick for Moab (“Perhaps the self-same song had found a path /Thro' the sad heart of Ruth, when, sick for home,/ She stood in tears amid the alien corn.”) The actual Biblical text has her busily working for a living, with no mention of homesickness. While she was gleaning corn in the fields at the harvest-time, the land-owner, Boaz, takes a kindly interest in her and says these warm words of welcome: “May the Lord reward you for your deeds, and may you have a full reward from the Lord, under whose wings you have come for refuge!" (Ruth 2:12). At Naomi’s advice, Ruth responds to the kindness of Boaz, and in due time he proposes marriage, which she gladly accepts.

Ruth represents the fullest example of a foreigner integrating into Israel’s national story. On their wedding-day, Boaz says to the elders and all the people, "Today you are witnesses that I have taken Ruth the Moabite, the wife of Mahlon, to be my wife” and the people reply with a prayer of blessing: “May the Lord make this woman who is coming into your house like Rachel and Leah, who together built up the house of Israel. May you produce children in Ephrathah and leave behind a name in Bethlehem.”

 Torah regulations about immigrants

As one would expect, the Mosaic Torah has some fair and humane guidance about how strangers and migrants should be treated by God-fearing Israelites. Typically, they are reminded of their own nomadic past, and then required to treat the stranger as they would wish to have been treated. The Hebrew word Ger is variously translated as “stranger” or “alien” and would correspond to what we would today call an immigrant.

Here are two significant prohibitions from the book of Exodus, chapters 22 and 23: “You shall not wrong or oppress a stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Ex 22:20) and “You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt” (Ex 23:9)

The term Ger (alien/stranger) occurs in several significant texts of similar tone, in the Book of Leviticus. Perhaps the best known is this: “When aliens resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress them. The alien who resides 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.” [Lev 19:33-34].  

Later in this book we read, “When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest; you shall leave them for the poor and for the alien: I am the Lord your God.” (Lev. 23:22). And in the following chapter we find what might be called a basic declaration of human rights: “You shall have one law for the alien and for the citizen: for I am the Lord your God.” (Lev 24:22).

The obverse of this, of course, is the obligation on foreign residents in Israel to observe Jewish religious practices. In regard to the Day of Atonement, for example, we read: “In the seventh month, on the tenth day of the month, you shall deny yourselves, and shall do no work, neither the citizen nor the alien who resides among you.” (Lev 16:29).

To underpin all their ethical obligations, whether to their own nation or to foreigners, they had two great moral principle in Leviticus. The first is “Consecrate yourselves and be holy, because I am holy.” (Lev 11:44,) and the other: “You shall love your neighbour as yourself: I am the Lord.” (Lev 19:18).

Earlier this year, 2017, a young Jewish Rabbi, Ari Hart, after visiting a  centre for Syrian refugees on the Greek island of Lesbos, wrote an eloquent piece on their behalf, called "Paradise Disturbed: The Torah on Strangers." He writes:

"Some of the laws appear once, some appear a few times, but just one stands out from all the others. It's a law repeated so many times that it borders on a divine obsession, a law that according to the sages of the Talmud appears at least thirty-six times in the Torah! It is this: to love the Stranger. Some of the laws appear once, some appear a few times, but just one stands out from all the others. It's a law repeated so many times that it borders on a divine obsession, a law that according to the sages of the Talmud appears at least thirty-six times in the Torah! It is this: to love the Stranger.”

To the question, Why does the Torah hammer this command home, over and over again? He suggests that “This repetition emerges from biblical trauma. The children of Israel experienced two hundred years of oppression, slavery, and genocide in ancient Egypt followed by forty years of vulnerability, struggle, and fear in an unforgiving desert. Perhaps it comes from knowledge. The Torah says several times to not oppress the stranger, because you know the soul of the stranger. This knowing is not just embedded in our sacred texts and stories, it is in our family stories. In my family, we were refugees fleeing from murderous pogroms, and fleeing from the Holocaust.” (patheos.com/Topics/Immigration-and-Refugees/Paradise-Disturbed-Rabbi-Ari-Hart).

The treatment of Strangers, in the Prophets and the Psalms

This sense that God wills his people to treat aliens and strangers with compassion can be found occasionally in the prophets and in the Psalms. They are surely meant to be included in Isaiah’s call to repentance which we read in our Lenten liturgy:

“Learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow. Come now,  says the Lord: though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be like snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool.” (Is 1:17-18).

Towards the end of the prophecy, in Trito-Isaiah, we find the joyful prospect of foreigners taking a full and equal part in the life of God’s people: “[In those days] the foreigners who join themselves to the Lord, to minister to him, to love the name of the Lord, and to be his servants, all who keep the sabbath, and do not profane it, and hold fast my covenant - these I will bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer.” (Is 56:6-7)

A similarly charitable attitude toward the outsider is echoed in Psalm 146, where it says,

The Lord watches over the strangers;
he upholds the orphan and the widow,
but the way of the wicked he brings to ruin.” (Ps 146:9)

 Austere advice to the Diaspora, on treating the “stranger”

On the other hand, after the disastrous Jewish war in 66-70 AD, and the dispersal of many of the survivors to various parts of the Roman empire, it is understandable that their rabbinical leaders would focus more strongly on how Jews should hold on to their religious identity in the diaspora, than on how to treat strangers in the land of Israel. However, the more zealous of them sought converts to Judaism in other lands and insisted on the converted “ger” conforming fully to Jewish ways. In a halakha on Leviticus, seeking to interpret the “stranger” of Lev 19:33-3, we read “just as a native born (citizen) accepts the entire Torah, so too does the convert accept the entire Torah.” (Parshat Kedoshim, 8:1-4).

Rabbi Haim Gottschalk, curator of Judaic material at the Library of Congress in Washington D.C.,  noted  that “The Sifra, (midrash on Leviticus) by detailing how we should accept the ger, is teaching us a lesson. As long as the  ger is serious about becoming Jewish, we must accept  the  ger wholeheartedly and treat him equally. The  ger is treated like a native  born, according to this understanding [of the text], because he has a  historical spiritual connection to other Jews and in converting is just now  discovering his Jewish heritage.” (Jewish  Bible Quarterly Vol. 37, No. 4, 2009).

Britain’s former chief rabbi, Jonathan Sacks, has written more generously on this subject. On his website http://rabbisacks.org/, under the rubric “Covenant & Conversation” he says, “It is terrifying how seriously the Torah took the phenomenon of xenophobia, hatred of the stranger. It is as if the Lord were saying with the utmost clarity: reason is insufficient. Sympathy is inadequate. Only the force of history and memory is strong enough to form a counterweight to hate.

Why should you not hate the stranger? – asks the Torah. Because you once stood where he stands now. You know the heart of the stranger because you were once a stranger in the land of Egypt. If you are human, so is he. If he is less than human, so are you. You must fight the hatred in your heart as I once fought the greatest ruler and the strongest empire in the ancient world on your behalf. I made you into the world’s archetypal strangers so that you would fight for the rights of strangers – for your own and those of others, wherever they are, whoever they are, whatever the colour of their skin or the nature of their culture, because though they are not in your image – says the Lord – they are nonetheless in Mine. There is only one reply strong enough to answer the question: Why should I not hate the stranger? Because the stranger is me.”

Strangers and neighbours in the New Testament

Jesus’ radical call, to love without limits

Among the moral guidelines attributed to Jesus in the New Testament, whether implicly in his parables or explicitly as instruction, the quality he most strongly and consistently urges on his hearers is to love, to show generosity, to practice the same kind of agapé as Jesus himself. In his sermon on the Mount, indeed, in Matthew’s version, Jesus calls us to “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Mt 5:48). St Luke interprets this special form of perfection as mercy: “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.” (Lk 6:36). The Greek text has, Γίνεσθε οἰκτίρμονες καθὼς καὶ ὁ πατὴρ ὑμῶν οἰκτίρμων ἐστίν. This adjective describes the person who practices oiktirmos – variously translated as compassion, pity, or mercy.

All three Synoptic Gospels have the conversation between Jesus and a Jewish lawyer, about which is the most important moral obligation upon human beings. In each case, when the lawyer is asked what is his own view, based on the Torah, he correctly names the dual commandments: “Love the Lord your God…” and “Love your neighbour as yourself” (Mt 22:36-40; Mk 12:30-31; Lk 10:25-28). Luke alone reports the lawyer’s follow-up question, “And who is my neighbour?” – to which Jesus responded with the Parable of the Good Samaritan (Lk 10:30-37). Not for him any narrowing of the term “neighbour” to the members of one’s own family, tribe or nation. If one of the detested Samaritans proved to be a better neighbour than either the priest of the Levite, then the call to “love-thy-neighbour” must surely extend to everyone we encounter, without distinction.

While inviting his followers to a warm-hearted, generous response to people in need, Jesus adds the promise that such behaviour will bring its own reward. He tells us to “let your alms be given in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you” (Mt 6:4); to “give and it will be given to you… for the measure you give will be the measure you get back” (Lk 6:38) and that “Anyone who gives you a cup of water in my name …will certainly not lose their reward.” (Mk 9:41).

Perhaps the most dramatic expression of this Gospel teaching is in the way Jesus describes the final judgment, in Matthew chapter 25, where he states the golden standard by which our lives will be judged: “Just as you did, or did not do it to one of the least of these, you did, or did not do it to me.” He has totally personalised the notion of how we should treat the other, the stranger in need. “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 visited me.” (Mt 25:35-36). Of special relevance to our topic is Jesus’ identifying himself with the stranger – the xenos, the one with whom we have little or nothing in common. And the Lord says that by welcoming the xenos, “you welcomed me.”

Jesus not only taught about the value of welcoming the stranger – he himself lived the experience of being a stranger in need of a welcome, some food and drink, and a bed for the night. When speaking of the austere life-style that awaited those would-be disciples who wanted to travel in his company, he put it bluntly: "Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head." (Lk 9:58; Mt 8:20)

 His own welcoming of outsiders

As you well know, this ideal of boundless love and compassion is perfectly mirrored in the behaviour of Jesus himself, as reported in the Gospels. Classic instances of this would include his kindness toward the penitent woman in the house of Simon the Pharisee (Lk 7:36-50), his healing of the ten lepers (Lk 17:11-19), or the even more surprising fact mentioned in all three of the Synoptics, that when a leper came to Jesus and said “if you choose, you can make me clean,” “Moved with pity, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, and said to him, ‘I do choose. Be made clean!’" (Mk 1:41 Mt 8:3 Lk 5:13). Also, the willingness of Jesus to grant the favour requested by the Roman official for his servant (or his son: pais) (Mt 8:5ff; Lk 7:1ff) seems more typical of him than his apparent unwillingness (at first) to respond to the Canaanite mother’s plea on behalf of her daughter (Mt 15:22ff). We must imagine a hint of amusement in his voice irony when he quoted the Pharisaic maxim "It is not fair to take the children's food and throw it to the dogs" (15:26) – before proceeding to do for the outsider what he regularly does for others: "Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish." And her daughter was healed instantly.

But the Gospel evidence suggests that it was often while dining at table, as a guest in other people’s houses, that Jesus most memorably showed his welcome for people whom the strictly orthodox Pharisees despised as “outsiders”. On the day when he had invited Matthew, a revenue officer for the hated Roman occupiers, to become his follower, Jesus and his disciples sat down to dinner with Matthew’s circle of friends. Some Pharisees noted this breach of propriety and were indignant that their cherished religious boundaries were being ignored. But when they protested: "Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?" his answer made clear that those boundaries were obsolete. "Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick.” “I have come to call not the righteous but sinners." And he bases this new priority on the express will of God: 'I desire mercy, not sacrifice.' (Mt 9:9-13). A somewhat equivalent dynamic applied when Jesus was dining in the house of a Pharisee  named Simon, as reported in Luke 7:36ff. A headstrong woman of that town sought him out, and despite her reputation for immorality, Jesus calmly let her approach him, kneel down, and pour out her devotion over his feet, firstly in tears of repentance and then by anointing his feet with ointment. Once again the Pharisee recoils at Jesus’ failure to observe religious apartheid. "If this man were a prophet, he would have known what kind of woman this is who is touching him - that she is a sinner." But the Lord stoutly defends both the woman’s right to come to him with her sins, and his own power and desire to forgive her.

 We should note in passing that Jesus’ welcoming spirit was sometimes matched by  good people who generously welcomed him into their homes. In the Prologue of the fourth Gospel we read that “He came to was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who did receive him.. he gave power to become children of God.” (Jn 1:11-12). On his nomadic life as a preacher, he was dependent for food and shelter on the charity of others. St Luke mentions a group of women, including Mary Magdalene, Joanna, the wife of Herod's steward Chuza, and Susanna, who “provided for them out of their resources.” (Lk 8:2). He later reports the joy with which Zacchaeus of Jericho welcomed Jesus to dine in his house (Lk 19:6). But the place where he most often sought hospitality was in the village of Bethany, near Jerusalem. There, in the house Martha, Mary and their brother Lazarus, he could be sure of a warm and affectionate welcome. They even let him adjudicate on the relative importance of getting the evening meal ready and listening to what Jesus had to say (Lk 10:38ff).

The Kingdom ideal: one great family, where all are welcome -- a very costly ideal

Summing up the teaching and practice of Jesus about welcoming the stranger, it appears that his ideal was that people would interact as one great family, where all are loved, welcomed and helped. This is what God the Father wills, and this kind of welcoming network would characterise  the “Kingdom of God,” to the forming of which Jesus devoted his life.

Through various provocative parables he challenged the religious social and economic apartheids of his time, all of which classified people into separate groups: whether “worthy vs unworthy,” “dominant or subservient” “haves and have-nots”. In the Kingdom of God, such artificial roles would be reversed. There, the workers of the 11th hour would receive a living wage, and the first shall be last (Mt 20:16).

The kind of relationship urged by Jesus was not a purely market economy, where each one’s worth could be judged by standards of achievement, productivity, or even of ethical norms. But while his message offered  joy and healing to many, it also provoked fierce hostility from critics who were comfortably entrenched in the status quo.

All of the Gospels highlight the resistance Jesus had to face, for being so liberal. Some objected when, walking through the grainfields on the sabbath, he made no objection when his hungry disciples began to pluck heads of grain and eat them (Mt 12:1-8). Here too, over the Pharisees’ Sabbath regulations Jesus made appeal to a higher norm that expressed God’s will in more general terms: 'I desire mercy and not sacrifice' – a fundamental principle quoted from Hosea 6:6. In Mark’s original telling of that story, Jesus affirms that "The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath” (Mk 2:27). Other critics were enraged that he worked as a healer on the Sabbath day… In the synagogue, one sabbath day, he saw a man who had a withered or paralysed hand (Mk 3:1-6). His copponents watched to see whether Jesus would cure this man on the sabbath, so that they could accuse him of breaking the law. Mark tells how Jesus was grieved at their hardness of heart” and challenged them with the rhetorical question, "Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to kill?"; then he answere his own question by healing the man’s hand.

As the Evangelists make clear, this liberal welcome shown by Jesus to people in need came at a high cost to Jesus’ own safety. Very early in his ministry, some were plotting to silence him as a dissenter who undermined their religious traditions. Already in Mark, chapter 3, directly after the angry exchange about healing on the Sabbath, we hear that the Pharisees went and “conspired with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him.” (Mk 3:6). It is along the same lines that, shortly before his arrest and execution, we hear the advice given by the High Priest Caiaphas that “it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed." (Jn 11:50).

The Passion of Jesus is the ultimate expression of his welcome for the stranger, since he pays with his life for the principles of human value and dignity that he had defended against all his critics. St John has the extraordinary insight that when Caiaphas spoke about the need for this one man to die, “he prophesied that Jesus was about to die for the nation, and not for the nation only, but to gather into one the dispersed children of God. (Jn 11:51-52). Years later St Paul would write that “For our sake [God] made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” (2 Cor 5:21). In other words, Jesus became a stranger so that we might become friends of God. And then in Ephesians he writes, “So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone.” (Eph 2:19f)

 Peter and Paul open the doors of the Church

After the resurrection, when his followers had recovered from the numbing shock of his Passion, they went out on mission in various ways, to spread Jesus’ vision of the Kingdom of God as a place of welcome for all. First we see them gathered in Jerusalem, in a family spirit of prayer, mutual caring and shared property, where they “spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.” (Ac 2:46f). Such was their spirit of sharing and community, that many of the diaspora Jewish pilgrims in Jerusalem were drawn to join them.

Quite soon, the number of converts grew to the point that a new provision was needed to ensure that none of the needy in that community would be neglected in the daily distribution of food. This led to the ommission of the Seven Deacons, when the community chose Stephen and six others and had them stand before the apostles, who prayed and laid their hands on them. (Ac 6:6). Luke adds that “The word of God continued to spread; the number of the disciples increased greatly in Jerusalem..” (6:7)

Soon afterwards, it became clear that the welcoming church needed to spread outward from Jerusalem. The parting words of Jesus at his Ascension had been, “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth." This mandate provides the main structure for the Book of Acts, which reports mainly the valiant efforts of the Apostles Peter and Paul and their companions as they travelled to various places, commending the values of Jesus and drawing outsiders into his company.

The story of Peter’s missionary activity begins very modestly; Acts 9:32 tells how he “went here and there among all the believers” and that he “came down also to the saints living in Lydda” (near modern TelAviv), where he brought back to life the charitable widow, Dorcas. It looks as though he has left the Jerusalem Christian group in the care of St James, since from Lydda Peter moved on to Joppa (Jaffa) on the Mediterranean coast. The fact of his choosing lodgings with a tanner named Simon suggests that, like Jesus, the apostle was not fastidious about either his material comfort or the company he kept. And it was at this, possibly malodorous address that Peter took a huge step towards opening up the doors of the Jewish Christian community to people from other nations and religions. Acts 10 describes Peter’s momentous and courageous act of welcoming the whole Roman family of an officer, Cornelius, into the church through baptism. After seeing tangible signs that these pagans were truly open to the influence of the Holy Spirit, the apostle looked around at his colleagues, circumcised Christians who had come with him, and asked, "Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?" (Ac 10:47).

After taking that bold step at Caesarea, it is not surprising that a few years later, at the Council of Jerusalem, Peter was to lend his full support to St Paul’s project of welcoming well-disposed pagans into the church by baptism, without requiring of them the Jewish ritual of circumcision. Peter began by reminding the others that from the start he was selected as “the one through whom the Gentiles would hear the message of the good news” (Ac 15:7). He declares that Holy Spirit is cleansing the hearts of the Gentiles by faith, and goes on to assert his confidence “that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will." (Ac 15:11)

This takes us into the kind of faith that was so characteristic of Paul, the Apostle of the Gentiles. Not only was the zealous man from Tarsus convinced that salvation is open to everybody, but he felt  personally responsible to bring that message to the whole of humanity. two decades later he explains to the Christians in Rome why his nomadic preaching ministry took him on many journeys: “I hope I may reap some harvest among you as I have among the rest of the Gentiles. For I am a debtor both to Greeks and to barbarians, both to the wise and to the foolish; hence my eagerness to proclaim the gospel to you also who are in Rome.” (Rm 1:14f) In another place he describes the kind of compulsion he feels to welcome more and more converts into the church: “A necessity is laid upon me. Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel!” (1Co 9:16)  and he goes on, “I have made myself a slave to all, that I might win the more…. I have become all things to all men, that I might by all means save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.” (1 Co 9:22f).

Again, the practical ethics urged by Paul on his fellow Christians was very much modelled on the unconditional love taught by Jesus himself. They are to “love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. … Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.” (Rm 12:10ff). He urges the Corinthians to seek the common good; to bear in mind the effect that their actions may have on others in the community. Yes [he admits], “all things are lawful, but not all things build up.  Let no one seek his own good, but the good of his neighbour.” (1 Co 10:23). And when he invites them to “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ” (1 Co 11:1) it is because he, Paul, is trying so hard “to please all men in everything I do, not seeking my own advantage, but that of many, that they may be saved.”

Hospitality among the early Christians

There are several New Testament texts that exemplify some of what we’ve been talking about, by mentioning the hospitality that has been or should be shown to specifically named visitors. A good case in point is the welcome shown in Philippi to Paul and his fellow missionaries by Lydia, a devout woman, described as “a dealer in purple cloth” Acts 16:14-15). She appears as an insistent hostess, for “When she and her household were baptized, she urged us, saying, ‘If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come and stay at my home.’ And she prevailed upon us.” A few years later, writing to the Philippians, Paul fondly remembers the great support he received from them. “You Philippians know that in the early days of the gospel, when I left Macedonia, no church shared with me in the matter of giving and receiving, except you alone.” (Ph 4:15). He had the good fortune in Corinth to be the welcome guest for over a year in the house of Aquila and Priscilla, who like himself were tent-makers (Ac 18:1-3); and when, later on, the couple became Gospel missionaries, he could return the favour by warmly praising them to the Christians in Rome. “Greet Prisca and Aquila, who work with me in Christ Jesus,  and who risked their necks for my life, to whom not only I give thanks, but also all the churches of the Gentiles.” (Rm 16:3). He also writes an interesting little note of recommendation in Colossians 4:10: “Mark the cousin of Barnabas, concerning whom you have received instructions - if he comes to you, welcome him.”

 Another interesting example of an individual being commended to the hospitality of another community is in the case of a convert named Apollos, a missionary whom Paul felt was even more learned and skilful than himself. When Priscilla and Aquila heard Apollos speaking in the Ephesus synagogue, “they took him aside and explained the Way of God to him more accurately. And when he wished to cross over to Achaia, the believers encouraged him and wrote to the disciples to welcome him.” (Ac 19:24ff)

Sometimes it was felt necessary to establish some practical limits or norms, so that the hospitality of a local church would not be abused. St Paul encouraged the Romans to “Welcome one another just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.” (Rm 15:7). But this was no invitation to an indefinite stay at other people’s expense. Paul clearly taught the value of working for one’s keep – citing a proverbial Old Testament rule: “You shall not muzzle the mouth of the ox that treads out the grain” (Dt 5:4; 1 Cor 9:9). And to the Thessalonians – or someone writing in Paul’s name – goes on to add a sharp note of caution against freeloading: “If anyone will not work, neither let him eat” (2 Th 3:10).

The Johannine church (which the late Ray Brown called The Community of the Beloved Disciple) seems to have had clear rules about who should and who should not be welcomed to live and teach in the community. The writer is keenly on guard against heresy, for “Many deceivers have gone out into the world, those who do not confess that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh!” He warns against visitors who do not abide in the teaching of Christ: “Do not receive into the house or welcome anyone who comes to you and does not bring this teaching; for to welcome is to participate in the evil deeds of such a person.” (2 Jn 7-10)

A milder caution towards visitors is recommended in the early-2nd-century text, the Didache, which has guidelines for the welcoming of charismatic preachers:

“Let everyone who "comes in the Name of the Lord" be received; but when you have tested him you shall know him, for you shall have understanding of true and false. If he who comes is a traveller, help him as much as you can, but he shall not remain with you more than two days, or, if need be, three. And if he wishes to settle among you and has a craft, let him work for his bread. If he has no craft provide for him according to your understanding, so that no man shall live among you in idleness because he is a Christian.” (Didache XII).

Perhaps we have illustrated enough the various ways that the theme of Welcoming the Stranger occurs in the Bible and the early Christian Church. In our reflection as individuals and as a group, we can now give thought to how the Biblical guidelines on hospitality might apply today and in our own lives.