Tuesday, 24 December 2013

The Stranger at Christmas

The town was used to strangers, even though it wasn't a big place. Some passed through while others stopped for a while looking for work. It had its share of homeless people, some of whom ended up begging on its street corners or in front of shops and at markets.

In its constitution, laid down by its founder and identical to all the other towns he had founded, it had a regulation specifying how its citizens ought to treat strangers - "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" (Leviticus 19:33-34).

So, the residents of the town were not merely to do strangers no harm; they must also do them positive good, treat them indeed as they treated their own people. Ultimately this was a reflection of how God had treated them. The ideal is couched in the language and in recall of redemption - “for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God." Having experienced the redeeming kindness of God they should have been the first to show kindness to the stranger.

Over 2000 years ago a Stranger entered the town. He was born in an outhouse near one of town's inns, the child of a poor couple. Against the expectation of most he grew up to be the most remarkable man who ever lived. His name was Jesus of Nazareth. The God who had stipulated that the stranger be loved and that no wrong be done to him had arrived incognito and found his stipulation regularly ignored. It was the same in every other town also, nowhere more obviously than in the capital. The ruling authorities ended up putting him on trial, pronouncing him guilty though he was faultless and condemning him to crucifixion outside the city walls. The apostle John summed it up succinctly - “He came to his own, yet his own people did not receive him (John 1:11).” 

On one occasion during his ministry (Luke 10:29-37) Jesus was asked a question after mentioning the need to love one's naighbour. A self-assured lawyer, flushed with a sense of self-justification, asked, “And who is my neighbour?” Jesus answered by telling of a man who had been mugged by thieves and left badly injured. The first two people who came across him were a priest and a Levite. You would expect that they of all people would stop. Yet both passed by on the other side! Then along came a Samaritan, who would have been despised by the first two. You would think that he of all people would have decided not to get involved. Yet it was he who attended to him and then made provision for his future care. Significantly and powerfully Jesus then turned the lawyer’s question around and against him - “Now, which of these three do you think was neighbour to the man who fell among the thieves?”

Our attitude to the stranger, homelesss or otherwise, must not begin with “who is my neighbour?” but with “who must I be a neighbour to?” We do not have the liberty of choosing them; they are chosen for us by God in his providence. We always have people around us who are in need - a widow with young children, a pregnant teenager, an alcoholic, an unemployed family, to state but a few. Our first thoughts must not be “which of these is my neighbour?”, but “how can I be a neighbour to them?”

Some years ago as a Church Camp leader I dressed up as a homeless man, complete with tattered coat, tangled (false) beard and a black plastic bag containing a few items of clothing. It was an exercise in "find the leader" for the campers and I looked the part! I found a park bench near a supermarket and parked myself there. I was there for over two hours, some of the time lying as if dead on the bench. There were two paths into the supermarket on of which was close to the bench. Almost every shopper took the longer way round! They passed by on the other side. None of those who took the near path stopped, glancing only disapprovingly in my direction. I could have been injured or even dead, but no-one took any interest. I was a "stranger", persona non grata. Many saw me but none acted as a neighbour to me. (The campers did find me though!)

The experience confirmed the Bible's view of human nature! It also left me with a real appreciation for the work of Bethany Christian Trust and other similar agencies working with the homeless. They do not pass by on the other side! They deserve and need our support, prayerfully, financially and in other practical ways. Jesus said we would always have the poor with us. The first Church Council in Acts 15 made remembering the poor one their major resolutions. The poor are still with us and the resolution is still active. Let's take it up, but not only at Christmas.

People no longer see the Stranger around. He has long gone back to where he came from having completed the remarkable mission he was sent to accomplish. But the Stranger is coming back! Not to a particular town or country, but to the whole world and all shall see him. Not as a Stranger but as the Lord Jesus Christ. As the Sovereign Judge his judgment and verdict will take account of more than what we believed; it will include what we have, or have not, done, and particularly in connection with how we treat strangers!

‘Then the King will say to those on his right, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.” Then the righteous will answer him, saying, “Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?” And the King will answer them, “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.”

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.’

How we will spend eternity is closely connected with how we treat the stranger (and the Stranger!)