To Love A Stranger
The author of the New Testament letter to the Hebrews taught us that we must “Remember to welcome strangers, because some who have done this have welcomed angels without knowing it,” or “Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it.”
A stranger, for the purpose of this discussion, is anyone who seems strange to you. Or to whom you may seem strange. This could be someone you do not know or who does not know you, whose background, worldview, or lifestyle may seem strange to you. A stranger could also be someone you do know but who is from a different nation of origin, race, or ethnicity. Or someone from a different socioeconomic or educational status. Or someone who has different political views or a different faith experience than you.
In another way, a stranger could be—and surely is in some ways—your spouse. Even though you know them intimately, you may sometimes feel like you don’t know them at all. After all, as the Bible says, men are from Mars, women are from Venus. Or maybe that was John Gray.
In some seasons of life, a stranger could even be your child. Or a patient, student, employee, or perhaps even a congregant. Anyone you feel is—even just sometimes—strange to you.
I like the progression of this passage in Hebrews 13: first, we are to “Keep on loving each other as brothers and sisters.” This phrase has its etymology in the Greek word philadelphia, which is also translated famously as “brotherly love.” Second, we are reminded to “not forget to show hospitality to strangers.” This phrase comes from the Greek philoxenia, which literally means “love of strangers.” According to Scripture (and Google Maps,
I think), we must go through Philadelphia in order to arrive in Philoxenia.
We must—as I discussed in part in the previous chapter—take care of home in order to have anything of value to offer anyone else. By “home” I am referring to any number of actualities, including the condition of our own soul, our family, and the physical space in which we live, our place of business and the care of our teammates and employees, and the community or nation in which we live. Before we can move to philoxenia we must take care of philadelphia.
As theologian and ethicist Elizabeth Newman wisely wrote, “Hospitality without a home (a place) is an oxymoron” and, paraphrasing Gordon Cosby, “hospitality flows out of identity and . . . if you do not know who you are, you cannot offer hospitality.” Scripture calls us to offer a radical welcome to strangers, but we are not able to give what we do not have. Before we can love our neighbor, we must love and care for ourselves so we can have something to offer our neighbor. We must be hospitable to brother, sister, wife, husband, children, parents—and brothers and sisters in Christ. “So reach out and welcome one another.” . . . “Offer hospitality to one another without grumbling.” . . . “Love your spiritual family.” Hospitality begins in philadelphia.
Then it gets better. I believe with all my heart that our lives are exponentially expanded, that we get bigger and everything we care about gets better when we move to philoxenia. We must be hospitable to strangers. This move is not optional for people of the Christian faith, so we must assume there is something beyond wonderful in this straightforward admonition to “entertain strangers” or to “show love unto strangers” or “keep
Before we can love our neighbor, we must love and care for ourselves so we can have something to offer our neighbor.
an open house.” Now that we are home, we are commanded to share home with strangers. To be hospitable leaders, we must embrace every part of what it means to move to philoxenia.
Philoxenia is the opposite of xenophobia. Xenophobia is an irrational fear of people who are not like us. It is the antithesis of what the Scriptures teach us in both Old and New Testament. Hospitality—literally loving strangers—was a requirement for leaders in the early Christian church. A church leader must be “hospitable” or “enjoy having guests in his home.” He or she must be a “lover of hospitality” or a “lover of loving strangers.”
The great Henri Nouwen in his seminal work on Christian hospitality wrote about the necessary privilege of creating space for strangers that “it is possible for men and women and obligatory for Christians to offer an open and hospitable space where strangers can cast off their strangeness and become our fellow human beings.” I find such hope and possibility in his words! He goes on, “If there is any concept worth restoring to its original depth and evocative potential, it is the concept of hospitality. . . . Old and New Testament stories not only show how serious our obligation is to welcome the stranger in our home, but they also tell us that guests are carrying precious gifts with them, which they are eager to reveal to a receptive host.”
The mandate in Scripture to love the stranger is rooted in the fact that all of us who have been welcomed by God know what it is to have been strange to Him and His promises. Moses stressed this to the children of Israel after their deliverance from Egypt. “The stranger who dwells among you shall be to you as one born among you, and you shall love him as yourself; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” The apostle Paul celebrated the deliverance from darkness of all who believe in Jesus and have been welcomed into covenant with God: “at that time you were without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers from the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus
you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. . . . Now, therefore, you are no longer strangers and foreigners, but fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God.”
Each of us was once alienated from God. But thankfully, He loves the stranger. The fact that we have been welcomed home should move us to welcome as well. How can those of us who have received grace not be gracious? I hope to be among those who are welcomed to life everlasting by Jesus with these words: “I was a stranger and you invited me in,” because I shared His heart to welcome people who are not like me.
Terry A. Smith is the author of the new book The Hospitable Leader: Create Environments Where People And Dreams Flourish. He has served as Lead Pastor of The Life Christian Church for twenty-seven years. TLCC - a non-denominational faith community with campuses in West Orange and Paramus, New Jersey – is known for its vibrant diversity and robust leadership culture with people from more than 132 distinct communities in the New York City Metro area participating in the life of the church.
This is an excerpt from Terry’s book The Hospitable Leader in association with the Baker Publishing Group (bakerpublishinggroup.com). Used with permission.