Lesson 10: The Stranger

the strangerEvery time I think I am leading a discussion on Barbara Brown Taylor’s Holy Envy, I end up talking about the tribalism in our present society. For instance, last Monday night, our symposium began noting the things we admire in Judaism. Early on, people spoke of their respect for the family, the people, the race. Someone mentioned the tendency to put up walls to preserve the community as epitomized by Ezra and Nehemiah when they called for the divorce of foreign wives after returning from the Babylonian Exile. Another quickly countered with what Taylor describes as shadow texts, i.e. illustrations from other biblical traditions, that offer a completely different perspective.

That is certainly one of the things I admire about Judaism: the continual debate about religious truth. If someone insists on divorcing foreign wives to keep the race pure, someone else reminds them that King David’s grandmother was a Moabite. Better yet, they write a story about Ruth that is certainly going to be remembered longer and with more affection than the autocratic edicts of priests and politicians. That should remind us that Matthew’s version of Jesus’ genealogy includes mention of four women (unbelievable) and two of them are foreigners.

Taylor’s chapter 6, “Disowning God”, begins with a quote from Thomas Merton that reads, “God speaks to us in three places: in scripture, in our deepest selves, and in the voice of the stranger.” She then goes on to note the importance of the stranger in the Bible. For instance, the Torah that shapes the identity of the Jewish people and, to a great extent, Christians as well, has more passages about caring for the stranger than for the neighbor. Often the text supports this command by asking the people to remember when they were strangers in Egypt and needed compassion.

But Taylor makes clear the appreciation for the stranger extends to recognizing the blessings they bring as outsiders. In other words, these are not, for the most part, stories about people who become part of our family. They are foreigners who bless us and then return to their own kind.

She mentions all sorts of strangers from Melchizedek, who blesses Abram, to Pharaoh’s daughter, who rescues Moses from the river, to Jethro, who sets his son-in-law Moses in the right direction, to Cyrus the king, who frees the Jews from Babylon. She goes on to mark the importance of strangers in the Gospel message, the Magi who worship but return to their country, the Good Samaritan who provides the example for Christian life in the beloved parable, the real-life Samaritan who returns to give thanks when Jesus heals his leprosy, the Centurion who had sufficient faith that Jesus could offer his servant a long-distance healing, the Syrophoenician woman, who instructed Jesus when he was clearly wrong in calling her daughter a dog.

I am writing in Holy Week and should note the role of the stranger in this most sacred time. Remember, it is a Roman centurion at the foot of the Cross who first responds, “Surely, this was a son of God.” And we certainly have to ask what is going on when the resurrected Jesus is first mistaken as a stranger, a gardener, a fisherman, and a traveler on the road.

Even more relevant, I am writing in a time of great tribal division when people are trying to preserve their own kind. Many are obviously frightened, or perhaps terrified is a better word, that people of a different ethnic, class, religious, or cultural background are taking over our society.

I can understand the anxiety, because I grew up in a completely white, Pennsylvania Dutch, Lutheran community. I still do not want to lose appreciation for that family and people. However, I recognize that I cannot preserve that culture by building physical and legal walls to keep other people out of my life. Indeed, it would be a futile endeavor, because I am surrounded nowadays by Chinese, Arabic, Hispanic, Vietnamese, Indian, and sorts of other ethnic neighbors on whom I depend for my daily needs.

Hopefully, pondering the biblical appreciation for the blessings bestowed by the stranger will bring new unity and restore the richness of God’s Beloved Community.

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