My daughter and I were enjoying a lovely summer sunset on the porch when an evening stroll struck our fancy. We stepped off the porch and headed down the sidewalk under a blue sky. Just a few moments later, however, the sky began to turn. I recall saying, “I think it’s going to storm. We probably shouldn’t go too far” before we had gotten to the end of our block. Before we turned the corner, the sky was completely dark. I’ve never seen weather change so rapidly. We turned around quickly, running for home—but already tree branches were falling around us, the wind roaring with the train-like sound of an approaching tornado. Though we were just down the street from home, I began looking for lights on in the houses we ran past.
We made it home safely, looking out from the protection of our window at the street already lined in fallen tree branches, wondering how the sky had gone from lovely to deadly in just a few minutes. I told my daughter that I almost ran into a stranger’s house instead of trying to make it home. She was dumbstruck: Running into the house of a stranger is not allowed. Yes— but if the alternative was being hit by a tree or swept up in a funnel cloud, I was willing to risk impropriety.
In ancient times, nearly every culture had sacred traditions and laws about hosting strangers, some of which remain today; most of us feel confident our fellow humans would extend compassion and care if it were desperately needed. There was good reason for this practice back then: If you were traveling before electricity, gasoline engines, and Holiday Inn, you had to think quickly when the sun went down. It might be safe to pitch a tent and light a fire along the road, but extreme temperatures, wild animals, and robbers made camping in the open incredibly risky. Plus, you could only carry so much food and water in your bags, and then what? There was no 7-Eleven or McDonald’s along the route.
Being away from shelter and community wasn’t safe. So, if a stranger came to your door in need of food, water, or shelter, you gave it. To decline— while certainly the safer and more comfortable option for you and your family— might directly result in the death of your would- be guest. And almost certainly, you and your loved ones would find yourself in a similar position one day, depending on strangers to uphold their end of this sacred calling.
In ancient Greece, this universal calling to human decency was called xenia, or guest-friendship, a sacred obligation all people had to those traveling far from home. So hallowed was this duty that the Greeks believed the gods would perform quality-control spot checks, showing up disguised as a poor or sickly person to see if the homeowner would provide shelter and supplies. These stories acted as incentives, for there was a chance the stranger at your door might secretly be an angel or a god, and a reward or punishment might depend on your decision.
Xenia makes sense of one of the final stories Jesus told before his death. Asking the crowd to imagine the King on his throne, coming to judge all humanity, Jesus says that people will be separated into two groups as a shepherd separates sheep and goats. One group the King banishes from his sight, sending them away to eternal punishment; the other he invites to himself, offering the reward of eternal life. When members of each group questioned how they came to be sorted as they were, the King replied that his decision was based on who had offered him food when he was hungry, drink when he was thirsty, clothes when he lacked them, care when he was sick or in prison, and shelter when he was a stranger.
Still both groups were baffled. When had they ever seen their Lord and King in such need and withheld—or offered—these things? The King replied, “Whatever you did for the least of my brothers and sisters you did for me.” In other words, the poor, sick, hungry, thirsty person you saw? That was the King in disguise all along. Not just once or twice for a spot check but each and every time. Jesus tells this story to clarify that anytime we see a human in need, God expects us to assume this person is him, who created the world and liberated his people from bondage, who took on flesh and made himself a servant—and behave accordingly.
In his story, Jesus drives home all the law and prophets, the greatest commandments, the sum of the Bible and the gospel, the full meaning of the parable of the Good Samaritan: Our love for God is measured on whether we show hospitality to strangers, to whomever needs it, whomever they may be.
Once again, Jesus takes this command seriously, putting eternal life and punishment on the line. I suspect this feels strange to most of us, for this way of thinking and practicing our faith simply isn’t what most Christians are taught in America. Imagine receiving a tract outlining ways to care for strangers, reminding you that your eternity was at stake. Or an altar call where the pastor pleads with you to turn your resources over to those in need, begging you to heed the words of Jesus regarding the destination of your soul! I have never heard even a hint of such a thing. Yet over and over, Jesus told his followers— especially the religious ones—that the way to eternal life is through following him, through caring for neighbors and strangers with the care and hospitality we give to our own families. If this was true when Jesus walked the earth, why wouldn’t it still be true today?
Let us stop to consider an even graver reality: In our churches and Christian conversations, we are often encouraged to do the opposite of what Jesus calls us to do. In her book The Myth of the American Dream, D. L. Mayfield says of her Christian upbringing, “We did not feel a sense of responsibility to the wider world and in fact were encouraged to shun it.”
Did this message seep into your upbringing and soul as well? The idea, even subtle, perhaps unspoken, that people outside the Christian circle—especially strangers—are dangerous? They might hurt our communities, or weaken our values, or upset the balance of society. They might prove to be a temptation, create a slippery slope. Best to keep as much distance as possible. In so many ways we have been discipled to join the priest and the Levite, taught to carefully cross the street on the other side lest our holiness be tarnished or our safety threatened by those who most need compassion.
Daily, if not hourly, I hear messages from friends, teachers, preachers, authors, and media warning that strangers and foreigners are traveling into our country, entering our cities and neighborhoods. I hear it around the family holiday table and the television in the salon waiting room. I hear it used to sell books (Beware!) and products (Be safe!) and even to convert us to Christianity (Be on your guard!). But the warning siren is not imploring us to step up and welcome these immigrants, refugees, and asylum seekers as our sacred Christian duty. No: We are warned that these strangers are threatening our way of life and livelihood by bringing disease, stealing our jobs, and eroding our values.
I imagine Jesus weeping over us, as he once wept over Jerusalem, for we have removed ourselves from the peace he offers. We should weep, too, for if we view the Christian life as not requiring our active, compassionate care of strangers in need of food, water, shelter, and community, then the Christian way of life has already shriveled up and died. The Christian way of life—the life of following Jesus—extends compassionate love and actively provides care to anyone in need, treating them with the same honor and dignity we would muster if that person were God. If we, ourselves, have removed this radical hospitality from our understanding and exercise of our faith, what danger could the secular world pose to us? We have abandoned the practice of Christianity; there is nothing left for these strangers to steal.
God’s calling—indeed, God’s invitation and command—is for us to be a blessing. Not to hoard resources for ourselves, not to keep ourselves safe like talents buried in the ground, but to pour ourselves out. To care for those in need. To seek the peace of the city.
Purchase Fearing Bravely.
Taken from Fearing Bravely: Risking Love for Our Neighbors, Strangers, and Enemies by Catherine McNiel. Copyright © 2022. Used by permission of NavPress. All rights reserved. Represented by Tyndale House Publishers, Inc.
Cover image by Nikola Johnny MirKovic.