Welcoming the Stranger: Giving Recognition and Showing Hospitality

Hospitality most fittingly captures the ways and welfare of the pilgrim peoples. In the act of sharing we achieve freedom from the strangling and suffocating attachment to worldly goods. When we share and receive from one another, we are reminded that we are merely stewards of God’s gifts to be used for the common good. In offering hospitality to strangers we affirm we are merely fellow pilgrims en route to the heavenly city of God.

Welcoming the Stranger
Giving Recognition and Showing Hospitality

Why I Find it Hard to Recognize and Welcome Strangers
– I am a Stranger Myself
– I am a Captive to a Self-Centred LifeStyle (Economic Security and Comfort)
What Biblical Resources Challenge My Complacent/Frantic Life of Economic and Cultural Captivity?
How Can I Make Room for the Stranger?
Ministering as Fellow Pilgrims

Recognizing the Stranger in our Midst

Displaced Migrants and Economically Dependent People at the Margin of Society
Migrants leave their family and travel to far countries to earn a livelihood under difficult and insecure conditions. They may be qualified professionally, but they get only positions in the lowest rung of the economic ladder in the host country. They are denied of equal legal and civil rights and suffer economic exploitation. They are expected to conduct themselves in a submissive, if not self-effacing manner. In short, their condition is one continuing economic dependency and subaltern identity and invisible existence.

The Old Testament provides two outstanding examples of sojourners who faced dangers and possibilities found in the margin of society. Moses was a displaced person par excellence when he fled the luxury of Pharaoh’s court to live with nomads in the desert. It was with poignancy when he called himself sojourner (ger) in a foreign land, and, arguably ‘ger’ mirrors the life of contemporary migrant workers and refugees. Moses’ self-description highlighted his marginal existence without support from tribal and kinfolk-relationships and his economic vulnerability compared with native Midianites.

At the same time we must miss the paradox that liminal existence forced Moses, an impulsive prince of Egypt to mature into a dynamic leader who eventually liberated his people from bondage in Egypt. Such possibility emerging from a subaltern existence should caution us against judging migrant people as incompetent people who can only contribute to society as low wage workers.

When Ruth followed her mother-in-law back to Israel she called herself nokriyah (stranger) rather than resident alien (ger) (Ruth 2:10). Ruth faithfulness and loyalty to her mother-in-law and her eventual inclusion into Israel’s Covenant reminds us that we should treat migrants and sojourners beyond their economic status. Indeed, eventually Ruth became one of the illustrious ancestors of the coming Messiah.

The Pentateuch reminds Israel of her own experience as aliens in Egypt, “you are strangers and sojourners with me” (Lev. 25:23).” Israel should know what it means to suffer victimization in a strange land. As such, she should adopt an attitude of sympathy to sojourners, “You shall not oppress a stranger; you know the heart of a stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Exod 23:9; Deut 24:17-22). Israel’s own experience of vulnerability and dependency was expected to yield gracious treatment of vulnerable aliens in her own land. She must ensure that there would be food for them (Lev 19:9-10; Deut 14:28-29; Deut 26:12-13) and allow for gleaning during harvest (Lev 19:9-10; Deut 24:19-22; Ruth 2:2-17). Aliens are even allowed to join in their celebrations and festivals (Lev 19:9-10; Deut 16:10-15).

Showing kindness to strangers is not restricted to the individual or the family. Kindness to strangers is legislated along with other statutes of the Covenant. It is thus a social obligation, a way of life that distinguishes Israel from other societies. There is in effect no separation between worship and caring for the welfare of the stranger. As Christine D. Pohl observes,

In summary, the theological and moral foundations for Old Testament hospitality were tied closely to Israel’s special relationship of dependence on and gratitude to God. Israel’s obligation to care was nurtured by an emphasis on its own experience as an alien and by reflection on God’s gracious character. The teachings of the Law, the warnings of punishment for disobedience, and the promise of blessing on obedience reinforced Israelite hospitality toward strangers, as did the individual hospitality stories: guests might be angels, messengers from God, bringing divine promise or provision.

It should be noted during Old Testament times that Israel, in contrast to her neighboring nations, was alone in extending hospitality to strangers in her midst along with those other alienated persons who were to receive care: the widow, the orphan, and the poor.

The early church followed the example of Jesus in receiving needy people (Matt 25:31-46; Luke 10:30-37; 14:16-24; 16:19-31). It is arguable that hospitable households enabled missionaries to travel far and wide to spread the gospel. In particular Christian women played a strategic role in providing hospitality (1Timothy 5:9-10). Indeed, offering hospitality was considered evidence of women of good works. Accordingly, the locus of hospitality was the household. In Christine Pohl words,

For the early Christians, the reconstituted household provided the setting for the three dimensions of hospitality noted in the previous chapter: hospitality as an expression of respect and recognition – in welcoming persons of different status and background into a single place and often a shared meal; hospitality as a means of meeting the physical needs of strangers, traveling Christians, and the local poor; and hospitality as the hosting of local assemblies of believers. These were overlapping and interrelated practices, all located within the household (Making Room, p. 43).

The word that most strikingly describes hospitality in the early Church is philoxenia. Literally, the word means the “love of strangers” or “the friend of strangers”. Friendship to strangers is translated into practical help like offering one’s home to visitors and supplying provisions and protection for travelers. More fundamentally, hospitality confers openness, recognition and respect to the stranger when he is most likely to be viewed with suspicion, and if possible be exploited in a foreign land. In other words, piety and offering welfare to the needy are inseparable for the early church. It is significant that Paul puts “practicing hospitality” on side by side with being “devoted to prayer” and “serving the Lord”(Romans 12:10-13). The Lord’s Supper may be viewed as the quintessential means of social bonding and fostering communal unity, or, one may dare say, intimacy.Obstacles to Hospitality. I am also a stranger. In a context of cultural and political marginalization I am too caught up with self-preservation and am therefore unable to reach out to wider society.
Most of us who are descended from migrant workers continue to experience a sense of vulnerability today when faced with a hostile majority. Immigrants from the days of the Chinese Diaspora often live precariously at the margin of their host societies. Interaction with host cultures can range from assimilation (as in the case of Thai Chinese), to accommodation (Straits Chinese), to mixing but not uniting with the indigenous people (Malaysian Chinese). While we should be cautious not to over-generalize on this issue, nevertheless, for many minorities existing under the cultural twilight zone at the margins of their host societies, the prevailing experience has been one of angst and anxiety. The immigrant is caught between the dilemma of adapting successfully to a new and possibly hostile environment or abandoning his precious inherited self/group identity. Paradoxically, our own experience of the precariousness of such a marginal existence alerts us to the plight of more recent sojourners in our land.

Why I Find it Hard to Welcome Strangers
– I am a Captive to a Self-Centred Lifestyle (Market Security and Comfort)
It is one thing to agree that we should show hospitality and grant recognition to the stranger. To extend practical help to the stranger is another matter. The reality is I am caught up in a matrix of life that well-nigh crowds out the spirit of hospitality. People in earlier times were more conscious of the dangers around them whether they were traveling in the wilderness or settled in the decadent cities of Saint Paul’s days. Hospitality came naturally when people needed to help one another. In contrast, we now live with relative safety in middle class suburbs. The downside of self-sufficient households, however is that it results in mutual isolation since people no longer need one another.

Some observations and comments on the suburbia are in order:
Everything in suburban existence is centred on comfort and security. Even churches must be air-conditioned if they are to attract worshippers. The mass media weighs in to reinforce these values. Consumerism and surfeit of choice begin to characterize suburban spirituality. People choose or shop around for the church that meets their spiritual taste. Visiting speakers initiate new waves of spiritual fashions. The suburban ethos encourages the development of a ‘spiritual supermarket mentality’ that frames spirituality in terms of personal pursuit of happiness and self-fulfillment.

Life assumes a maddening tempo. We work like mad to be able to afford holidays abroad but work pressures won’t permit taking leave. We give children most attention when we ferry them from one tuition class to another only to have them loaded with so much work they don’t have time to build a strong meaningful relationships with their peers.

The consequence is that we build a new generation of Christians who lack skills in building long-term relationships. We thereby complete the cycle of rootlessness and isolation. We have enough money to buy household time-saving gadgets but we have no time and energy for members in the family [“a family is a group of strangers sharing the same microwave oven”], much less room for strangers outside.

Giving Recognition to Strangers: The Basis for Recognition
Two antidotes: Life of Simplicity and Spirit of Generosity
The first antidote to suburban materialism was already tested out in the late 1970s and early 1980s when evangelicals began calling for adoption of the simple lifestyle. That is to say, we must intentionally resist embracing a life of excessive consumption, be content with ‘Enough’ and be responsible stewards of God’s resources. Secondly, we must retrieve the age old Christian tradition of practicing generosity. Exercise generosity here means offering resources that empower people to break away from the cycle of need and dependency. When we share we reenact the generosity God has shown us when he gave us his Son.

This brings to mind the early Reformers’ emphasize on hospitality. Who can ignore the exhortation of John Calvin when he urges the church to be generous in welcoming the stranger?

Therefore, whatever man you meet who needs your aid, you have no reason to refuse to help him. Say, “He is a stranger”; but the Lord has given him a mark that ought to be familiar to you, by virtue of the fact that he forbids you to despite your own flesh (Isa. 58:7, Vg.). Say, “He is contemptible and worthless”; but the Lord shows him to be one to whom he has deigned to give the beauty of his image. Say that you owe nothing for any service of his; but God, as it were, has put him in his own place in order that you may recognize toward him the many and great benefits with which God has bound you to himself. Say that he does not deserve even your least effort for his sake; but the image of God, which recommends him to you, is worthy of your giving yourself and all your possessions (Pohl 65).

For Calvin, any person requires our respect and recognition simply because he is created in the image of God. Surely this is a fitting paraphrase of the command to love our neighbors as ourselves:

We should not regard what a man is and what he deserves: but we should go higher – that it is God who has placed us in the world for such a purpose that we be united and joined together. He has impressed his image in us and has given us a common nature, which should incite us to providing one for the other. The man who wishes to exempt himself from providing for his neighbors should deface himself and declare that he no longer wishes to be a man, for as long as we are human creatures we must contemplate as in a mirror our face in those who are poor, despised, exhausted, who groan under their burdens… If there come some Moor or barbarian, since he is a man, he brings a mirror in which we are able to contemplate that he is our brother and our neighbor: for we cannot abolish the order of nature which God has established as inviolable (Pohl 65).

Calvin’s counsel strikes at the basic root of the prevalent crass materialism which is a consequence of experience of isolation and rootlessness prevalent among immigrants. It is imperative that we move from a ‘gospel’ centred on exclusive personal relationships. Such a ‘gospel’ merely confirms the values of individualistic suburban life that say we can keep the fruit of our labour for ourselves and enjoy ourselves so long as we do not give trouble to other people.

In contrast, the Gospel of reconciliation is holistic, social and indeed cosmic. In effect, God’s work of reconciliation is the creation of a restored humanity along with a social order of right relationships. Co-humanity is the necessary consequence of the image of God in us. The Kingdom of God is best captured by the creation of a new social order that promotes the flourishing of humans especially those among the weak and vulnerable, that is most likely to be found among sojourners in our midst us. Only such an eschatological awareness and kingdom vision will enable us to see beyond the selfish and individualistic ethos of suburban life. Perhaps then we will have the moral strength to look beyond self interests and in small ways look to the interests of others, moving the caring circle from friends to strangers in our midst.

Hospitality most fittingly captures the ways and welfare of the pilgrim peoples. In the act of sharing we achieve freedom from the strangling and suffocating attachment to worldly goods. When we share and receive from one another, we are reminded that we are merely stewards of God’s gifts to be used for the common good. In offering hospitality to strangers we affirm we are merely fellow pilgrims en route to the heavenly city of God.

Sharing With One Another as Fellow Pilgrims
Ministering as Stranger to Stranger
Hospitality is the natural response of our own experience of God’s acceptance of us and the offer of a reconciled relationship with him. We love because God first loves us. We welcome because God welcomes us. The act of caring which was performed grudgingly before is now done willingly because we have enjoyed the generosity of God. Hospitality is simply learning to love as God loves us. Sharing our resources, be they shelter or provisions is possible because we first share our hearts. The sheep that share (Matthew 24) do so spontaneously without calculation or expediency. The sheep are probably surprised to be singled out for generosity.
In that regard, we are merely accepting Christ’s presence into our lives when we receive strangers sent to us. Again, to cite Pohl,

As a way of life, an act of love, an expression of faith, our hospitality reflects and anticipates God’s welcome. Simultaneously costly and wonderfully rewarding, hospitality often involves small deaths and little resurrections. By God’s grace we can grow more wiling, more eager, to open the door to a needy neighbor, a weary sister or brother, a stranger in distress. Perhaps as we open that door more regularly, we will grow increasingly sensitive to the quiet knock of angels. In the midst of a life-giving practice, we too might catch glimpses of Jesus who asks for our welcome and welcomes us home (Pohl 187).


Christine D. Pohl. Making Room: Recovering Hospitality as a Christian Tradition (Eerdmans 1999).

Additional Note by Christine Pohl on Hospitality and Power:
There is a complex dance between recognizing our own need, ministering to those in need, and recognizing their ministry to us. The helper must also be able to receive – especially from those who look as if they have little to offer. Gracious hosts are open to the gifts of others and allow themselves to accept and enjoy their expressions of generosity. In his work on issues in contemporary missions, Anthony Gittins offers an important insight.

Unless the person who sometimes extends hospitality is also able sometimes to be a gracious recipient, and unless the one who receives the other as stranger is also able to become the stranger received by another, then, far from “relationships,” we are merely creating unidirectional lines of power flow, however unintended this may be. And that is quite antithetical to mission in the spirit of Jesus (Pohl 120).