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Jon Tyson: Loving the Stranger is the Heart of the Gospel

Jon Tyson: Loving the Stranger is the Heart of the Gospel

Nowhere in all recorded history do we see radical hospitality as we do in the life of Jesus. New Testament scholar Joshua Jipp noted, “the entire ministry of Jesus is appropriately captured in the phrase ‘divine hospitality to the stranger and sinner.’”

Jesus’s ministry was the rescuing love and welcome of God on display. Jesus’s posture was one of inclusion and embrace. He created a portal of heaven’s welcome for those who had been pushed out and shunned.

The Greek word for “hospitality” is beautiful: philoxenia. It is a compound combining philos (a word meaning “friend” that is related to phileo, the verb for nonerotic love) and xenos (“foreigner”). Rather than fear of the other, hospitality is love for the other.

The reason God calls us to this kind of love is that this is the way he has loved us.

We often forget what our lives were like before God saved us. We project ourselves into the story of salvation in distorted ways, misreading Scripture as though we were the insider group. We read as if Jesus came to reaffirm our belonging and acceptance. But nothing could be further from the truth.

Paul described our condition before Christ as outsiders. In Ephesians 2, he wrote, “Remember that formerly you who are Gentiles by birth and called ‘uncircumcised’ . . . were separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world” (verses 11–12, NIV). Separate, excluded, foreigners, hopeless. In the story of redemption, we are the strangers. We are the outsiders. We are the other.

Ever since our expulsion from Eden, the angel has barred the way back. We have wandered as strangers on the earth, seeking a place to belong. We have been wounded in our vulnerability and have ached for stability. Our sin has disconnected us from the source of life and left us in need of redemption.

From the beginning, though, God has sought to welcome us back. His perfect love has cast out fear and turned strangers into sons, the distanced into daughters. And for this reason, hospitality was a central part of the teaching of the Torah. The Israelites were called to remember their own otherness. Remembering their time in Egypt as foreigners and their wilderness wanderings as nomads was to produce compassion for the other among them.

“Do not mistreat or oppress a foreigner, for you were foreigners in Egypt.” (Exodus 22:21, NIV)

“When a foreigner resides among you in your land, do not mistreat them. The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the Lord your God.” (Leviticus 19:33–34, NIV)

Consideration of the strangers was even to appear in economic practices that left margin, dignity and provision for them: “When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap to the very edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest. Do not go over your vineyard a second time or pick up the grapes that have fallen. Leave them for the poor and the foreigner. I am the Lord your God.” (Leviticus 19:9–10, NIV)

The children of Israel were to overcome fear and prejudice and show hospitality to others because this was the way their gracious God had treated them. Understanding was to lead to inclusion.

“God’s hospitality is extended to his lost, broken, needy and often stigmatized people,” Jipp also wrote. “This divine hospitality comes to us in the person of Jesus, the divine host who extends God’s hospitality to sinners, outcasts, and strangers and thereby draws them—and us—into friendship with God. God’s embrace of humanity into friendship with him is the ultimate form of welcoming the stranger.”

If you were to trace the hospitality of Jesus through a gospel, you would see that hospitality wasn’t one of Jesus’s strategies; it was the strategy. Tim Chester, a UK pastor, outlined the theme in Luke for us:

Luke’s gospel is full of stories of Jesus eating with people:

In Luke 5 Jesus eats with tax collectors and sinners at the home of Levi.

In Luke 7 Jesus is anointed at the home of Simon the Pharisee during a meal.

In Luke 9 Jesus feeds the five thousand.

In Luke 10 Jesus eats in the home of Martha and Mary.

In Luke 11 Jesus condemns the Pharisees and teachers of the law at a meal.

In Luke 14 Jesus is at a meal when he urges people to invite the poor to their meals rather than their friends.

In Luke 19 Jesus invites himself to dinner with Zacchaeus.

In Luke 22 we have the account of the Last Supper.

In Luke 24 the risen Christ has a meal with the two disciples in Emmaus, and then later eats fish with the disciples in Jerusalem.

Robert Karris concludes: “In Luke’s Gospel Jesus is either going to a meal, at a meal or coming from a meal.”

Jesus ate with sinners, tax collectors and fishermen. He included and welcomed those turned into the other by the religious culture of his day. He humanized those others dismissed as outsiders and extended the welcome of God. The Pharisees used boundary markers to exclude and dehumanize. They even called the Gentiles “dogs,” refusing to acknowledge their presence as people before Yahweh. But Jesus tore these boundary markers down. He replaced them with a radical welcome that still reverberates through the world today.

Unlike our culture’s hospitality, which is extended to those like us and withheld from those who differ, Jesus’s hospitality was scandalously unconditional. Conditional hospitality crystalizes borders. Unconditional hospitality deconstructs them. We are called to this unconditional hospitality.

Philosopher Jacques Derrida commented on this, “Absolute hospitality requires that I open up my home and that I give not only to the foreigner (provided with a family name, with the social status of being a foreigner, etc.), but to the absolute, unknown, anonymous other, and that I give place to them, that I let them come, that I let them arrive, and take place in the place I offer them, without asking of them either reciprocity (entering into a pact) or even their names.”

Absolute hospitality is the call of the church.

Jesus was able to model what our culture is craving—spaces of welcome where strangers, enemies, outsiders and others can become our friends. Jesus created pockets of love in a culture of fear that formed a new kind of community in the world, something he called “the Church.” The Church was to exist not as a haven from the world but as a place of hope for the world.

To quote Jipp again, “Hospitality is the act or process whereby the identity of the stranger is transformed into that of guest. . . . The primary impulse of hospitality is to create a safe and welcoming place where a stranger can be converted into a friend. The practice of hospitality to strangers very frequently hopes to create relationships and friendships between those who were previously either alienated, at enmity, or simply unknown to one another.”

How do we learn to practice hospitality the way Jesus did? Let me suggest this formula: an environment of welcome + a transformation of identity = a new humanity.

If we are going to continue the life-giving, healing ministry of Jesus, we must open our hearts and lives to create environments of welcome. Jesus had the remarkable ability to draw people from the most culturally incompatible backgrounds into a new community. His disciples were nationalist zealots, cultural traitors (tax collectors), Pharisees, peasants, women, lepers and everyone in between.

He created portals of grace that gave people new identities. No longer were they denied by strict cultural categories or past sins; they were called sons and daughters of a loving Father. His environment of welcome plus the transformation of old identities, resulting in a new humanity, has changed history forever.

Jesus loved and accepted people for who they really were. They could drop their masks of religiosity and performance and receive unconditional love.

People today are exhausted from having to perform and earn their way into community, so when someone welcomes them in love, hearts and humanity are restored.

I have lived in New York for 15 years, and during this time my understanding of the city has drastically changed. During my first years in the city, Tim Keller said to me, “Many Christians move to the city because they think the city needs them, but they don’t know they actually need the city.”

I have found this to be so true. The diversity of the city—socially, politically, culturally, socioeconomically and racially—has confronted so many stereotypes and prejudices in my heart that I didn’t even know existed. Over the years my posture has changed from seeking to reach the city and change it to loving the city to serve it.

I have sought to model Jesus’s hospitality in order to create portals of belonging in a city that often stereotypes out of fear. With a posture of welcome, you never know when one of these portals will open and grace will break in.

Adapted from Beautiful Resistance: The Joy of Conviction in a Culture of Compromise. Copyright © 2020 by Jon Tyson. Used by permission of Multnomah, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC.

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