Welcoming Strangers

Christ and Saint Menas. A 6th-century Coptic icon from Egypt (Musée du Louvre) Public Domain

Genesis 18:1-2  1 The Lord appeared to Abraham at the oaks of Mamre while he sat at the entrance of his tent in the day’s heat. 21 He looked up and suddenly saw three men standing near him. As soon as he saw them, he ran from his tent entrance to greet them and bowed deeply. (CEB)

[Scripture taken from the Common English Bible®, CEB® Copyright © 2010, 2011 by Common English Bible.Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.]


Many years ago, a spiritual director told a group of us that theological reflection may be considered the highest form of prayer. I’ve hung on to that description all these years. In so doing, I was missing something… something I hadn’t seen any of the times I have read the story of the three men (angels) who appeared at Abraham and Sarah’s tent to announce the earth shaking news of Sarah’s impending pregnancy.

I was well aware of Abraham’s rush to provide hospitality to the three men. It was Rabbi Evan Moffic’s book (What Every Christian Needs to Know About the Jewishness if Jesus, Abingdon, 2015) that opened my eyes to the obvious thing that I missed. Abraham was in the midst of a conversation with God when he first saw the men. The account in Genesis tells us that Abraham immediately ran from the entrance to the tent to greet the men and bow down before them. Sarah was asked to prepare a meal. All this was Jewish hospitality personified. I would have expected nothing less.

But now the shocker! Abraham broke off conversation with God to rush to the three men. In the midst of an appearance by God, Abraham doesn’t hesitate. God will have to wait; hospitality to strangers is far more important. Moffic cites the Babylonian Talmud: “Greater is hospitality than receiving the divine presence.”

I don’t think this suggests that we stop paying attention to “divine presence” – ignoring prayer, meditation, worship, and/or theological reflection. But, when presented with the opportunity to welcome strangers or be with neighbors or care for family, don’t use God as an excuse for non-engagement. Too often we fall into the trap of using the categories of sacred and secular as a way of dividing responsibilities – sacred is good; secular is bad.

To claim that Yeshua is the incarnation of God is to suggest that there is a divine impulse, an insistence, a calling to be with. That ‘being with’ is the quest to discover something of the Mystery that occupies the space between us. The entire universe, the cosmos, is an interplay of relational forces, energies, dynamics that both hold things together and catalyzes continuing creation. Caring for family and friends represents the holding forces; welcoming strangers requires creative energies to be employed.

When I am with the ones I love
I want to hold on to them
never letting go
clasping them to my breast
to demonstrate my love
and my fear of being estranged,
isolated, lonely.

When I am in the presence of Mystery.
the divine Otherness, God
I want to be held on to
never let go
knowing that I am loved
and yet afraid of
“My God, my God,
why have you forsaken me?”
So I cling.

When a stranger enters
confusing my principles
and my priorities
I have to make a choice…
Do I stay with the familiar?
Do I rely on family and friends
and God
to maintain the stable order of my life?

Do I take the risk to reach out.
To run forth with excited anticipation
for here may be “angels unaware”
here may be the setting for
a new creation
a genuine encounter with Mystery
in the space brought into my life
by the stranger, the immigrant…
perhaps a different lifestyle
a different understanding
a different religion
a different political perspective…

Could it be
that the stranger…
the Syrian immigrant…
the Native American…
the Sudanese refugee…
the homeless woman…
that each one of them may have
more to offer me
than I to them?

Could it be
that Yeshua bids us
to be with the poor
as much (maybe more)
for our own salvation
than for theirs?

Could it be
that I may have more opportunity
to be in the divine presence
when I am with those
who at first seem strange to me
than when I am in my prayer closet?

Might it be
that the divine presence left
even before Abraham
to be with the arrivals?

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