One of the things that 21st century parents are most concerned about teaching their children is to watch out for strangers. That’s a legitimate concern, of course, given that the world seems to be a much more dangerous place than it used to be.
The truth is, however, that the world has always been a dangerous place—we just know more about that danger more quickly because of the 24 hour news cycle. It’s kind of amazing, really, that my mother let me roam the neighborhood with absolute freedom from sunup to sundown in a age when there were no cell phones. The only way she could contact me was by ringing a cowbell out the back door (which you could hear for at least a mile). It might never have occurred to her that some stranger in a van would scoop me up and take me away (or maybe she was counting on it…who knows?).
In the name of an abundance of caution in our own day, however, we may be inadvertently be reaping what we’re sowing. What is known as “stranger danger” in little children can quickly morph into middle school cliques, high school bullying, and even a national policy on immigration. We become so afraid of strangers that we will do anything to keep them at bay, sticking with those we know.
But we forget one thing—and that is that we are inevitably a stranger to someone else. We have to consider the fact that someone else might look at us with fear and suspicion, not knowing that we aren’t all that scary.
Years ago, I was in Washington DC on a mission trip with a youth group when I had to take one of the youth to Georgetown to get a passport issue taken care of (she was leaving directly from the trip to go overseas). We had just come from cleaning out and painting a storage unit at a homeless shelter, so I was wearing very beat up clothes and covered in dirt and paint (because youth groups tend to paint each other and their leaders more than the walls). I pulled the van up in front of the passport place to drop the student off and then went to find a place to park—a virtually impossible quest in Georgetown.
When I finally found a parking space, I realized I had not taken the time to verify what the building looked like where I had dropped her off, which meant that I was now walking up and down the street in swanky Georgetown looking worse than a homeless person (of which there were none that I could see). While walking up the street and looking for the building, I walked dead into a concrete light pole. Now I am also dazed, staggering, and bleeding from head and nose while dressed in rags covered in dirt and paint. People literally crossed to the other side of the street to avoid me. No one stopped to ask, “Can I help?” It took another 20 minutes of wandering/staggering before I found the place. They almost didn’t let me in until I explained the situation.
That was a lesson to me—that we are often “them” to someone else’s “us.” We are easily misunderstood, categorized, and refused hospitality because we aren’t like the people around us. The more we understand that we, too, are strangers to someone, the more likely we are to extend hospitality to those who are strangers to us.
This is one of the dominant themes of Luke chapter 10. If you flip back a few verses, you notice that it begins with Jesus sending out “seventy others” on a similar mission to the one he gave the twelve at the beginning of chapter 9. Who are these “seventy” (or seventy-two depending on the translation)? Interpreters say that 70 is significant because it’s the number of nations in the world listed in Genesis 10—a foreshadowing of the universal mission of the disciples to all the world in the book of Acts. We don’t know who these 70/72 were, only that they were being sent ahead by Jesus to the towns and places he himself was intending to go—they would be his messengers.
But notice how they are to go—they are strangers. They are to carry no purse, bag, or sandals; stop at the first house they come to in a village and say, “Peace to this house!” If anyone there shares that peace, and is willing to welcome them as a stranger, they are to stay there, eating and drinking whatever is set before them, while they proclaim the kingdom of God and cure the sick. They come with nothing to offer but the ministry of Jesus. They are fully dependent on the kindness of strangers.
In the Middle East, hospitality was not only something “nice” one might choose to do for a stranger, it was expected. To refuse hospitality was considered a grievous sin, but that didn’t stop it from happening. Jesus told his disciples that if they were refused hospitality, they should shake the dust off their feet and move on, leaving the consequences to God. After all, they were representing Jesus and we have already seen that Jesus will face rejection and inhospitality from both strangers and friends.
If we read Luke-Acts as a whole, as it was intended, we see that this mission is actually a paradigm for the whole Christian movement—a traveling movement that relies on the kindness of strangers. Having been strangers themselves, it’s little wonder that the disciples became more and more bold in welcoming others—even those outside their own tribe and ancestry. Peter will eat with a Roman centurion, a Gentile, which would have been unheard of before he encountered Jesus. Paul, a strict Jewish Pharisee, will spend most of his time among the Gentiles. Jesus expanded the usual Jewish understanding of one’s “neighbor” as being one connected to the tribe to those who were outsiders—and even enemies.
That’s the background for the famous story of the “Good Samaritan” which we read a little earlier. A lawyer stands up to test Jesus, asking the question, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Luke says that the question was intended to “test Jesus,” seeing if he would answer in a way that was outside the Law of Moses. Instead, as a good rabbi often did, Jesus answered the question with another question: “What is written in the law and how do you read it?” The lawyer quotes the two very commandments that Jesus himself would identify as the greatest: Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, strength, and mind and love your neighbor as yourself. All the law and the prophets are summed up in these commandments. “Good answer,” says Jesus.
But the lawyer keeps pressing, keeps testing, by asking a question that was designed to generate controversy: “Who is my neighbor?” Like most societies, there were boundaries about who was in and who was out—how to identify who was a friend and who was a stranger. There were ethnic, religious, and social boundaries to always consider. The lawyer wanted to “justify himself”—that is, to justify his own definition of neighbor, limiting it to those in his own Jewish tribe—people easily identifiable as friends.
Jesus responds with a story. A man (notice, no mention of ethnicity, religion, or trade—could be anybody)—was going down to Jericho from Jerusalem. That was a journey of about 15 miles through the desert, dropping down 4,000 feet—a road notoriously watched by bandits. That the man is traveling alone is problematic—people usually traveled in caravans for protection. But this man is set upon by robbers, beaten, and left for dead.
The man lying in a ditch sees a priest happen by, but the priest doesn’t offer any help and passes by on the other side of the road. A Levite comes along and does the same. Before we beat them up for their uncaring, we have to remember that there may have been practical reasons for them to do so. Not only would touching a dead body make them ritually unclean, it was also a tactic of roadside bandits to rough someone up and leave them half dead by the road as bait for other travelers they could set upon. The priest and Levite may have been doing their best to prevent “stranger danger” and thus did what every self-defense manual tells you to do to avoid being a victim of crime: walk straight ahead with a purpose.
But in comes the third traveler—a Samaritan. Now, if you were here on Ash Wednesday, you know that just a chapter earlier Jesus had been rejected by the Samaritans and his disciples wanted to call down fire on them. They were the “other”—always to be regarded as nefarious strangers.
In Jesus’ parable, however, the Samaritan is actually the hero. Rather than being motivated by fear, the Samaritan was “moved with compassion.” As we have learned, that means he was willing to “suffer with” the stranger in the ditch. He binds the victim’s wounds, takes care of him, pays for his continuing care, goes the extra mile for someone he doesn’t even know and who could have resulted in his own demise had there been a trap laid for him.
“Now,” Jesus says to the lawyer, “which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?” Which one, do you think, demonstrated the actual intent of God’s commandment? The lawyer can’t even bring himself to say the word “Samaritan,” but only mutters, “The one who showed him mercy.”
“Go and do likewise,” Jesus said. Instead of being trapped by the lawyer’s question, Jesus traps the lawyer by revealing his inadequacy in understanding the law he loved so much. The lawyer wanted his obedience to the commandments to be his ticket to eternal life, but Jesus saw that his obedience didn’t go far enough. Who is my neighbor? Anyone in need, even and especially those who are strangers to us.
Life in God’s kingdom depends on the kindness of strangers and the kindness that disciples of Jesus show to those who are strangers to us. It’s an invitation to be surprised by hospitality and extend it to others. As the writer of Hebrews puts it, “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.” When we welcome the stranger, showing compassion and mercy, we welcome Jesus.
Christine Pohl, who was one of my professors at Asbury Seminary, talks about welcoming strangers in this way:
“If, when we open the door, we are oriented toward seeking Jesus in the guest, then we welcome that persona with some sense that God is already at work in his or her life. This can fundamentally change our perspective and our sense of the dimensions of the relationship. We are more sensitive to what the guest is bringing us, to what God might be saying through her or him”
We need to be prepared to encounter Jesus when we encounter the stranger—it is part of the disciple’s task of loving God and neighbor.
The next story illustrates this in a practical way. Jesus literally shows up on the doorstep of a pair of sisters: Mary and Martha. When Jesus enters, Mary immediately sits at his feet and listens to what he, a stranger, has to say. Martha, on the other hand, heads straight to the kitchen to prepare food and is appalled that her sister isn’t helping get the work done. That’s real hospitality, after all, she thinks…put out some food and make sure everyone has enough to eat.
Martha yells from the kitchen, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her to get in here and give me a hand.”
Jesus’ response would have caught Martha off guard. The convention was that, yes, women should be in the kitchen and not listening to strange traveling preachers. “Martha, Martha,” Jesus says, “you are worried and distracted by many things; only one thing is needed and Mary has chosen it—the better thing. And it won’t be taken from her.”
Jesus once again breaks long established rules and boundaries for social behavior. With him, there are no strangers. And there are only two rules: Love God and love your neighbor. He expands the definition of that love beyond what society might dictate. Strangers aren’t to be feared but embraced.
We prefer our strangers to be vetted, cleaned up, cleared by the authorities, and with the proper credentials. Certainly, we need to be mindful, but fear of the stranger narrows our definition of neighbor to the point at which only a lawyer could embrace. We pass by on the other side in fear of our own safety—we’ll let that be someone else’s problem. We fear being part of someone’s suffering; we fear rejection; we fear the possibility of death.
But remember that Jesus told his disciples that all of these were not only possible, but were the very job description of cross-bearing disciples. Following Jesus means that we love, and love is risky. It doesn’t recognize boundaries—it simply shows compassion.
In a fearful world, those of us who follow Jesus need to demonstrate what loving neighbor is about. This week you are likely to encounter many strangers—some who will be like you, some who are not. How will you approach them? Will you lead with danger, or with compassion? Will you see them as a threat or an inconvenience, or will you linger long enough to hear their story? Who is your neighbor?
Heck, you may want to practice this morning after worship. In a church our size, there are many people who are likely strangers to you today. You might see them in church or in the Great Room, but you’ve never had a conversation. You probably don’t know their story. This is a safe place, so you can try this: I challenge you to have a five minute conversation today with someone you don’t know, and you can start with two questions:
- Tell me about you.
- How can I pray for you?
Take the time to really listen to the other person’s answers. It only takes five minutes for someone to no longer be a stranger. And then, to challenge you a little further, try it on someone you meet this week. Perhaps you will discover that there are more persons of peace in your world than you might have imagined.
There’s a sign I saw recently that said this: “Be kind. You don’t know what burdens someone else is carrying.” Jesus would say, “Be a neighbor. You never know who you are talking to!”
In the kingdom of God, there are no strangers!