One day last spring, I read aloud to my Middle School class the Greek myth of Baucis and Philemon. In this story, the gods Zeus and Hermes come to earth disguised as beggars and seek refuge from every home in a small, impoverished village. They are turned away by everyone except Baucis and Philemon, the poorest of the poor. This elderly couple owns nothing but one goose, which they nevertheless slaughter and cook in order to feed their guests. Naturally, they are greatly rewarded and the rest of the village is destroyed for their selfishness.
I went on to explain that this story is told in many forms throughout the world. Every culture has always held the virtue of hospitality very high, and in every people group stories have been told of gods or kings who dress as beggars and go out among their people to test their true natures. I added that the one true God states over and over again in Scripture that we are to take in strangers and care for all those in need.
I read Leviticus 19:33-34 to them: “When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.”
I read Deuteronomy 10:17-19: “For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great, the mighty, and the awesome God, who is not partial and takes no bribe. He executes justice for the fatherless and the widow, and loves the stranger, giving him food and clothing. Love the stranger, therefore, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt.”
And this directive did not change from Old Testament to New. I also read them Matthew 25, the parable of the sheep and the goats. Here is the fate of the goats: “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Then they also will answer, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to you?’ Then he will answer them, saying, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”
I asked the class if they could think of any reasons the wicked villagers in the story might have had for turning the needy strangers away. They came up with such words as “selfish”, “greedy”, “mean”, and “unloving.”
“But that was back then,” one boy added. “It’s too dangerous to help strangers nowadays.” The other children nodded somberly in agreement.
I sighed. But I had an edge. These were, for the most part, the same children I was teaching in a history class. “We’ve just been reading about what life was like in the Middle Ages. You really think people are more dangerous now than they were ‘back then?’” That gave them pause.
“And anyway, in the verses I read to you, where does God say that it’s okay to refuse to help those in need if you think it’s too dangerous?” I read the verses again.
I explained to them that, just as Zeus and Hermes did in our story that day, God judges His people by how they treat those in need. I read to them from Jeremiah chapters 7 and 22 and from Ezekiel 22, in which God explains that He is going to allow His people to be conquered by their enemies because they would not care for the widows, orphans, and strangers in their midst. Not only would they not provide for them, they actively oppressed them. This is apparently very high on the list of things that displease God!
Of course, they asked me if I practice what I preach. I don’t blame them. Words are easy—it’s acting on them that is a challenge. But I am no hypocrite. Through our work with Right to Life and through my husband’s job as a police officer, we have found ourselves hosting a number of homeless strangers over the years. Some just needed a place to stay the night until family or friends could reach them. Some needed a place to stay for weeks or even months as they found jobs and got back on their feet. I’m not saying that we scoured the streets looking for people to help—there are people who do this and they are truly God’s hands on earth. But whenever God placed a stranger in need before us, we could not turn them away and call ourselves Christ-followers.
Was this dangerous? Well, I guess it was. I’m not saying there wasn’t an occasional theft or frightening moment. But Jesus never shrank away from a stranger in fear, even though He spent His entire career on earth in mortal danger. The Apostle Paul, himself a reformed terrorist, also did not run from danger when self-preservation meant turning his back on those in need of the truth.
Furthermore, God does not only judge individuals on how they treat strangers who come to them for help. He also judges nations on this basis, as we have seen in Jeremiah and Ezekiel. America is a nation greatly blessed in land, resources, and freedoms. Many strangers flock to us here, hoping for a better life. I know that my own great-grandparents came to America because they knew they could never own property or choose their own livelihoods freely in their native land. I imagine that is the story of many Americans.
What an opportunity God blessed the church in America with! He instructed us to “go into all the world and make disciples”, but we don’t have to go anywhere! He is bringing all the world right to our doorsteps! America has been known in the past for sending missionaries all over the world, and Christians have been enthusiastic in that effort. God has blessed our outreach to other lands greatly. But those of us who remain at home have every opportunity to “make disciples of all ethnos.*” All the world is coming to us—an evangelical opportunity almost unparalleled in the history of Christendom.
Almost unparalleled, but not altogether new. When the Israelites left Egypt, a great many Egyptians went along with them. Imagine—the former oppressors now integrating into the former slaves’ society. God instructed Israel to care for the strangers and not oppress them. No vengeance was permitted, and no fear was catered to. Was it dangerous? Yes, it was. But God is more concerned about human souls than about physical safety. The God of Israel and the bounty He had bestowed upon that land drew people from all over the known world to Him there, and many converted to His worship.
In the same way, Christian immigrants in a nation of immigrants, have been handed a golden opportunity. The bounty of this land and our freedoms have drawn people from every part of the globe searching for betterment. Widows, orphans, and strangers come to us seeking refuge from war, drought, poverty, and hopelessness. We could show them the truth of the love and mercy of Christ and bring many of God’s beloved children safely into the fold. What are we doing with this opportunity?
In spite of the fact that every American other than the Native Americans are immigrants or children of immigrants (whether voluntarily or involuntarily), America has a history of mistreating strangers to our shores. Wave after wave of hope-filled people have come from various parts of the world since we became a nation, believing the motto inscribed on our Statue of Liberty (“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free”), only to be greeted with suspicion, resentment, prejudice, even hatred.
Even the church has been party to this, in spite of our prime directive of “making disciples of every ethnos.*” It’s kind of hard to draw strangers to our God if we are treating them with suspicion, resentment, prejudice, or even hatred. We should be reaching out to those who are strangers to our shores and showing them the love which Christ has shown to us, if for no other reason than that we also were once strangers in this new land.
As a child, I remember hearing missions reports in church in which missionaries lamented the inability to enter Muslim countries to spread the Gospel there. How will they hear if we can’t send anyone to them? Rejoice, American church! God has heard our prayers for the Muslims and is working to bring them here to our very doorsteps! What an unprecedented opportunity for us! God is so good: He loves everyone so much that He will move heaven and earth and do everything that can be done to bring even one soul into the kingdom!
This kingdom work is already being done in France. The churches in France are being crowded with Muslim refugees pleading to be taught God’s Word. The churches in Europe have been dying for lack of interest for decades, but are now being revitalized by this new challenge. “We are having to relearn our own Scriptures in order to teach it to these new converts,” one French priest wrote. Is this dangerous? Yes, of course, it is. Did God promise to preserve us from danger? On the contrary, He promised that we would suffer as His Son had suffered. We can embrace the challenge and the danger together, or we can turn our backs and allow the people for which Christ died to remain outside of the kingdom due to our lack of love and skewed sense of priority.
I care little about politics. I am not advocating one legal policy or another. What I am saying is that our attitudes need to be right and our priorities need to be in the Kingdom of God, not in temporal establishments or personal safety. The nations of the world are a drop in the bucket, says God. It’s individuals He is concerned with, not politics. Can we participate with Him in the work of the Kingdom by welcoming the widows, orphans, and strangers He loves? Can we be His hands, His feet, His heart on earth to woo others into eternal life? I pray that we can.
*The word ethnos is generally translated “nations” in this verse, but would be more properly understood as “people groups” or “ethnicities” rather than political divisions.