Stranger God: Meeting Jesus in Disguise

Keep on loving one another as brothers and sisters. Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it (Heb. 13:1-2).

Like Matthew 25 where Jesus inseparably identifies with “the least”–the hungry, thirsty, naked, sick, prisoner, stranger–this passage has always been an intriguing, attention grabbing text to me. It’s an allusion to Genesis 18 where Abraham and Sarah offer food and rest to three strangers who just happen to turn out to be angels. Hospitality was of enormous importance in the ancient world. It was something every decent person, and especially every faithful Jew, was expected to offer. But there is more going on with the idea than we sometimes realize.

In Hebrews 13:1 we are instructed “to keep on loving brothers and sisters.” The Greek word for love of brother (and we add sister to encompass the whole church) is philadelphia. We know this compound word (phileo [love] adelphos [brother]) from the city in Pennsylvania. Truthfully, opening our lives, hearts, and homes to those already in our relationship circles can be both delightful and difficult. Families, friends, and churches know full well that differences and disagreements threaten to push apart even the most natural bonds.

But Christ compels us to blow open the doors of welcome. The Greek word for hospitality that shows up in 13:2 is also a compound word, philoxenias. Once again we have phileo (love),but this time it’s combined with xenos (stranger). What’s often more natural in our hearts is fear of strangers (xenophobia) rather than love of strangers (philoxenias). That said, the kind of hospitality our faith compels us to is not just inclusion of the already included or welcome of the already wanted. Love of brother and sister is good and godly, but it’s when love stretches beyond our normal comfort zone that we engage in Christlike love (Mt. 5:46-47). We might just be welcoming an angel unaware, but we are certainly welcoming Jesus in disguise.

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