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Philoxenia: Love the stranger


Migration is seldom far from the headlines.  Those arriving whether by regular or irregular routes are often met with opposition, even hostility.  Increased numbers of refugees and asylum seekers lead to politicians and some of the media - often with scant regard for facts – stirring up tensions for their own ends.


The Bible demands a very different approach.  One of the earliest and clearest requirements for believers in God is the obligation to welcome the stranger. That’s an obligation common to many faiths, but for Israel it had a particular poignancy given the experience of the people as strangers and slaves in Egypt.   In ancient Israel, resident aliens were to be treated in the same way, with the same rights and responsibilities under the Law, as native-born Israelites in almost all respects.  And they were to go further than equal treatment – the people were positively commanded to ‘love the stranger’.


“When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.” (Leviticus 19:33-34)


In doing so they were reflecting a characteristic of their God


“…the Lord your God …..who executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and who loves the strangers, providing them food and clothing. You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt”  (Deuteronomy 10:17-19)


The principle is beautifully illustrated in the lovely story of Ruth and Boaz. In the story Boaz, conscious of the command to leave the gleanings of his wheat, olives or grapes “for the alien, the orphan, and the widow” (Deuteronomy 17:19-21), is willing to do more than was expected of him to provide for the Moabite woman, notwithstanding the history between Moabites and Israelites (see Deuteronomy 23:3). With Boaz’s protection, Ruth in a profound way has come to find shelter, to find sanctuary “under the wings of the God of Israel” (2:13) just as surely as she asked Boaz to spread the ‘corner of his garment’  - literally his ‘wing’ (same word) – over her.


Later in the Old Testament, the prophets drive home the responsibility to look after the foreigner, the stranger.  They pronounce judgement on those who fail to honour this responsibility:


“For if you truly amend your ways and your doings, if you truly act justly one with another, if you do not oppress the alien, the orphan, and the widow, …… then I will dwell with you in this place, in the land that I gave of old to your ancestors for ever and ever.”  (Jeremiah 7:5-7)


“Thus says the Lord of hosts: Render true judgments, show kindness and mercy to one another;  do not oppress the widow, the orphan, the alien, or the poor; and do not devise evil in your hearts against one another.” (Zechariah 7:9-10)


“Then I will draw near to you for judgement; I will be swift to bear witness against the sorcerers, against the adulterers, against those who swear falsely, against those who oppress the hired workers in their wages, the widow, and the orphan, against those who thrust aside the alien, and do not fear me, says the Lord of hosts”. (Malachi 3:5)


The tradition of hospitality to strangers was widespread and deeply embedded in the Greek culture of the Mediterranean world in the times leading up to the coming of Christ. The Greek laws of “xenia” required that hospitality and generosity were extended to visiting strangers, perhaps travellers on a journey, regardless of their social class or origin.  This was backed up by a legend of Zeus calling incognito on households to see if a welcome would be extended - calling to mind a comparison with Abraham’s experience when he was visited by angels to foretell the birth of Isaac.  The attitude of loving and generous hospitality was summed up in the word philoxenia, love of strangers.  One cannot help wondering whether there were some in first century Egypt who showed such kindness to a young refugee couple and their infant son as they fled from Herod’s savagery, little knowing whom they entertained.


Unsurprisingly, philoxenia is a word that crops up repeatedly in the New Testament, where it’s usually translated hospitality.  So when Paul says “Practise hospitality” (Romans 12:13, NIV), he isn’t just talking about inviting your friends back to lunch after the morning meeting (laudable though that is!) but about offering welcome, support and kindness to strangers, to people who may not look like us, share our culture or speak the same language. 


The writer of Hebrews makes the point even clearer:


“Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it” (Hebrews 13:2)


That matters today just as it did in New Testament times. It matters more than ever when in society around us we see increasing evidence of xenophobia – fear of strangers and the polar opposite to philoxenia. We live in a time of populist politics, of hostility towards migrants - especially those seeking sanctuary and refuge from violence, war, environmental destruction and persecution for their religious convictions, political beliefs or sexuality. So when we hear others express hostile or nationalistic views and speak against migrants, we should be ready to show, and to demonstrate by our actions, that there is “a more excellent way”.  Many in a previous generation of our community did just that, in welcoming Jewish refugees in the 1930s: when hostility to asylum seekers and refugees is all too plain in society around us, it is time to reinvigorate that spirit of welcome – philoxenia in place of xenophobia.


Just as the Good Samaritan in Jesus’ parable did not allow racial differences or belief to get in the way of showing compassion and care, so it is right to extend philoxenia to ‘strangers’ of any nationality, faith or social background, without any hidden agenda to make converts.   But that said, best of all is when those we encounter come of their own volition to share a faith with us. It is then that we can appreciate more fully the wonderful diversity of the people of the Christ who said “I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself’  (John 12:32).   The Christian community has been multicultural, multilingual and international ever since its spectacular launch on the day of Pentecost, and multiracial since the day Peter made his way on to the roof of Simon’s house for a midday prayer.  In a time when racial and national barriers and prejudice poison relationships between individuals and between peoples, it is a tremendous blessing and privilege to be part of something that transcends all such barriers, and to belong to Him before whom all barriers fall:


“There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28)


With such a clear direction from Scripture, it falls to us to ensure that believers from all backgrounds and cultures are fully welcomed and integrated into the community of faith, with opportunities to contribute in diverse ways and from diverse life experiences to the life of the congregation.


For Christadelphian congregations in Western Europe, the transformational impact of many new brothers, sisters and interested contacts from Middle Eastern backgrounds is giving us a wonderful opportunity to put philoxenia into practice - and to experience the spiritual enrichment that follows, the joy of diversity among the people of God, as we work to integrate new and old members into the one family in Christ. 


Integration of course isn’t always easy. Language often gets in the way; some may find increased diversity hard to adjust to. The character of the meetings may change somewhat, and not everyone will find that easy to accept. We may find we have our own deep seated cultural prejudices to overcome - indeed, discovering them can be an uncomfortable but salutary experience. There is no room for any sense of national superiority (British exceptionalism for example!) - we are, after all, “strangers and pilgrims” with a loyalty not to any worldly national ‘tribe’ or country but to a different country, a different kingdom, and a far better King.


Similar challenges were faced in the early church, and the realisation that faith in Christ wasn’t just for those of Jewish background came as a surprise. The news that “God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.” (Acts 11:18) was quite a culture shock to some of the early believers - even to the leaders of the early church. So if sometimes we find adjustment to diversity challenging, we can take comfort from the fact that in Acts 10 the Lord himself repeated the vision three times to get the message through to Peter that the Gospel was open to Gentiles as well as Jews - and that was without a pandemic and a big language barrier to contend with!


Peter’s testimony didn’t end the challenge of integration.  The New Testament provides plenty of evidence of the tension between the ‘Hellenists’ and the ‘Hebraists’ - those Jewish Christians who adopted Greek language and culture and those who stuck to traditional Hebrew ways. The events in Acts chapter 6 show how on a practical matter, the tension was addressed and resolved. Later, even tougher challenges arose between Jewish and Gentile believers, with Paul and others strongly urging unity. Peter, whose vision marked the opening up of the faith to non-Jews, commands his readers in 1 Peter 4:9 to show philoxenia: “Be hospitable to one another without complaining.”


That so much emphasis is placed by the apostles on this theme is no accident, but reflects a fundamental truth.  As Paul explains in Ephesians 2, it is a central aspect of the work of Christ that those “who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.” (v. 13): and so the apostle can say to us, as to his first hearers.


“So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone.  In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built together spiritually[f] into a dwelling place for God.” (v 19-22)


It follows that the duty of all of us is to show philoxenia, to ‘love the stranger’ in practical ways, remembering our own status as strangers and pilgrims, and how we, like the Israelites freed from Egypt, have been ‘liberated’ by Jesus – the Jesus who himself was a child refugee.  And where those who, once strangers, are strangers no more through their baptism into Christ, we can rejoice that


“there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all!” (Colossians 3:11)




[Quotations from NRSV]          This article first appeared in "The Christadelphian" magazine

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