I Was a Stranger

“I was a stranger and you took me in.”

Cultural Conflict

Many of us are culturally myopic.  We look at people from different cultures as being strange because they do not know or accept our culture and customs. Their behaviors may seem not only confusing, but also threatening because they seem to be based on different value systems.  Sometimes this is just because of misunderstanding. For example, in some cultures it is considered polite to look at someone who is speaking to you. Making eye contact is a sign of respect, so a teacher might say to a student, “Look at me when I am talking to you!” Now among the Navajo people, making eye contact with others is uncommon and may be considered a sign of disrespect, so Navaho students trying to be respectful have been unwilling to look at their teachers, and the teachers have interpreted this as disrespect.

Often cultural differences have a long history of conflict. European colonialism produced in some areas five centuries of oppression and genocide of native peoples. Conflicts between China and Japan go back to the 7th century AD, as does conflict between Christians and Muslims. In fact, the Christian-Muslim conflict has roots in the conflict between Isaac and Ishmael four millennia ago. People living today are not responsible for the behavior of their forefathers; yet prejudices, misunderstandings and resentments remain. Most cultural groups have extremists who defend and promote their cause at the expense of other peoples.  It is easy for others to judge whole groups of people by the behavior of a few extremists.  A few militant Christians, a few militant atheists, a few extreme Muslims, Germans, Jews, or people of any religion, race or ethnicity can color our judgments to the point that we emotionally if not intellectually assume that all of those people may be as dangerous as the few extremists.  

Overcoming cultural, racial and ethnic prejudices is a great challenge for us today. Because of war and cultural conflict 100 million people are now homeless refugees, and countless more are rejected or marginalized in the cultures where they live. Even among those who have every material advantage, feelings of loneliness, rejection and lack of community are painfully common. We cannot love others as the Lord commands if we reject them only on the basis of their appearance, their accent, or their cultural customs. Yet many of us continue to fear that people who are different from us are likely to be dangerous and unpleasant.

Do Not Mistreat Strangers

Ancient Israel had rules about strangers. Although they were forbidden to accept religions that practiced idolatry, human sacrifice and cult prostitution, they were not to reject anyone simply because they had come from another place or tribe. The Hebrew word “ger” means a stranger, a visitor, a guest, a foreigner, an immigrant, someone from another place who has come to stay. It is not an unfriendly word, but it is related to words that mean to be afraid and to be hostile, perhaps because strangers then, as now, were seen as dangerous and hostile.

There was to be one law for the sojourner and the one born in Israel.  If anyone wanted to worship the Lord, especially by sharing in the Passover, they must be circumcised (if male).  This same law applied whether the person was a foreigner or a native.

And if a stranger dwells with you, or whoever is among you throughout your generations, and would present an offering made by fire, a sweet aroma to the Lord, just as you do, so shall he do. One ordinance shall be for you of the assembly and for the stranger who dwells with you, an ordinance forever throughout your generations; as you are, so shall the stranger be before the Lord. One law and one custom shall be for you and for the stranger who dwells with you. Numbers 15:14-16

The Passover was not open to people who were not circumcised, so uncircumcised strangers were not admitted. At the same time, any stranger who was willing to be circumcised had to be accepted on the same basis as one born from Israelite parents. There was to be one law for both the stranger and the native born Israelite.  In addition, there were other laws that provided for strangers, since they often did not own land in Israel. They were to leave the gleanings of their crops for strangers, widows and orphans (Leviticus 23:21). They were forbidden to oppress them: “You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the heart of a stranger, because you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Exodus 23:9). “You shall neither mistreat a stranger nor oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Exodus 22:21). “If a stranger dwells with you in your land, you shall not mistreat him. 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: I am the Lord your God” (Leviticus 19:33-34).

Joseph as a Stranger

The time that the people of Israel were strangers in Egypt began with Joseph (though his great-grandfather Abraham had also been a visitor there). Joseph, estranged from his ten older brothers, was sold as a slave to the Egyptians. After years of slavery and prison he became the prime minister of Egypt. When Joseph’s brothers came to Egypt to buy food during a famine, Joseph recognized them, but they did not recognize him. They thought he had died as a slave. They were not expecting to see him in a position of honor, wearing Egyptian clothing, speaking Egyptian language, with an Egyptian wife and children. Joseph did nothing to dispel the illusion.  He let them think he was simply the rich, powerful Egyptian he seemed to be.  In fact, remembering the cruel way his brothers had betrayed him, he treated them harshly, accusing them of being spies and throwing them in prison for three days. He said that they would not see his face again unless they brought the youngest brother Benjamin.  

The second time the brothers came to Egypt they got a much different reception.  Joseph welcomed them warmly, invited them to his home for dinner and showered them with gifts.  Joseph saw that his brothers had truly changed, and that they now were willing to show compassion on Benjamin (the youngest) in a way that they had not shown compassion on Joseph. At that moment Joseph said, “Come close, please.  I am your brother Joseph.”  You can now know who I truly am. All is forgiven. We are family again.

On the spiritual level this story is about our relationship with the Lord. Joseph represents the Lord Jesus Christ. Joseph the shepherd was rejected by his own people and presumed dead, but then became ruler of the land. On a deeper level, the Lord is our shepherd, and though He was crucified and presumed dead, He became ruler of His heavenly kingdom and in fact of the whole universe. Joseph recognized his brothers long before they recognized him, and likewise the Lord recognizes us when we still see Him as a stranger. Joseph spoke harshly to his brothers, and in a similar way the Lord seems to speak harshly, as a God who is easily angered and punishes people for the smallest offenses.

The fact is that Joseph never hurt or hated his brothers. He did not make himself strange to them; they made themselves strangers. They were afraid of Joseph not because he hated them but because of their own hatred for him. Joseph’s speaking harshly to them was just a test, to see if his brothers would respond with compassion when he threatened one of them with slavery.

In the same way, the Lord never makes himself a stranger to us (Secrets of Heaven 5427). Rather, our own self-centeredness and prejudices blind us to the Lord’s love. The reality is that the Lord is never angry and never punishes anyone, but when He offers to remove our selfishness and blindness our hard hearts see Him as the enemy who threatens to destroy our life and the things we love.

When the brothers return to Egypt and pass the test by showing compassion on Benjamin, Joseph reveals himself and reconciles them to himself.  It is the act of compassion that turns the Egyptian stranger into their brother.  Compassion means understanding another person’s suffering and feeling it as if it were our own.  When we do this for a stranger, they are no longer a stranger. We can only know the Lord if we see His compassion, for He is Pure Compassion.  Consequently when we feel empathy for other people, not only do we come to know those people better, but we also find that compassion itself is not so much a stranger to our hearts.

The Lord as a Stranger

On the day of Jesus’ resurrection two of His disciples were walking to Emmaus, about six miles from Jerusalem.   Then Jesus Himself drew near and went with them, but their eyes were restrained, so that they did not know Him. He asked them what they were talking about as they sadly walked, and one of them said, “Are You the only stranger in Jerusalem, and have You not known the things which happened there in these days?”

The Lord, of course, knew the disciples intimately.  They knew the Lord, too, or thought they did, yet not well enough to recognize him.  We might wonder why they didn’t recognize Him. Could it be that they did not fully trust the Lord’s prophecy that He would rise again on the third day?  If they had fully trusted, they would not be confused and saddened by the empty tomb, but rather encouraged and expecting to see Him at any moment. In any case, the Lord seemed like a stranger to them.  

As they walked along Jesus explained all the things about Himself in the Scriptures, and their hearts burned within them as they listened. At evening they came near Emmaus and Jesus indicated that He would continue on but the disciples insisted that He stay with them as it was already evening.  So he stayed, and when Jesus blessed and broke the bread for supper, they recognized Him and He vanished.  It was only a few days earlier that the Lord had told them the parable in which He says, “I was a stranger and you took Me in.” Now He appeared to them as a stranger and they welcomed Him in.  

It seems like a remarkable story and yet it happens frequently that we are in the Lord’s presence and don’t recognize Him at all, and then later we realize that He was with us. Just as we can read the story of Joseph and have no idea that it is really the story of Jesus, we can be with a person who seems ordinary or even strange and not realize that the Lord is present with that person and when we see and love the good in that person, we are seeing what is from the Lord and is the Lord in that person.

Abraham and Lot

There are others who welcomed the Lord.  Three men came to Abraham one day, and Abraham ran to meet them, bowed down and said, “My Lord, if I have now found favor in Your sight, do not pass on by Your servant.  Please let a little water be brought, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree. And I will bring a morsel of bread, that you may refresh your hearts. After that you may pass by, inasmuch as you have come to your servant” (Genesis 18:3-5). They agreed, so he asked Sarah to make a cake, and he prepared a good, tender calf, and served them with butter and milk. Perhaps Abraham realized from the beginning who had appeared to him. In any case Abraham was most welcoming.

Just after this incident the two angels visited Sodom, where Lot was living.  Lot welcomed them into his home, while the men of Sodom tried to attack the two strangers. I don’t know whether Lot recognized them as angels at first. He may have thought they were simply travellers.  Perhaps the writer of Hebrews (2000 years later) was thinking of Lot when he said, “Do not forget to entertain strangers, for by so doing some have unwittingly entertained angels” (Hebrews 13:2).

Asking Forgiveness

Another who welcomed the Lord was a woman seeking forgiveness. She came to the house of Simon and washed Jesus’ feet and dried them with her hair. Simon thought that Jesus should not even be touching that sinful woman, but Jesus said to him, “Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave Me no water for My feet, but she has washed My feet with her tears and wiped them with the hair of her head. You gave Me no kiss, but this woman has not ceased to kiss My feet since the time I came in.  You did not anoint My head with oil, but this woman has anointed My feet with fragrant oil. Therefore I say to you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven, for she loved much. But to whom little is forgiven, the same loves little” (Luke 7:44-47).

I ask myself, If I had been there, would I have been more like Simon or more like the woman seeking forgiveness? Part of the answer is that I have been there, many times, sometimes when I have welcomed people generously or stingily into my house, because whatever I have done for the least of them I have done for the Lord.