Jesus as Stranger: Thanksgiving and St Luke

This is Neil here (as if the awkward title didn’t already make this painfully obvious). But this, for better or worse, will be my Thanksgiving post.

Thanksgiving, of course, is a day when we receive and extend hospitality to family and friends, recognizing that the bonds of love have survived geographical separation, the passage of time, and even our human failings. But Thanksgiving also should make us aware of those who have been left – sometimes very unjustly – outside of these bonds. Perhaps this is rather obvious. Nearly all churches, one would expect, extend hospitality to the poor and abandoned during Thanksgiving by providing dinners and assistance and offering friendship. In fact, this post might begin to sound like a description of the plot of the standard Thanksgiving episode of a typical Eighties sitcom. But there is a deep theological significance to the extension of hospitality to strangers. I once posted part of a sermon by the Anglican priest Nicholas Sagovsky that reminded us that “to be hospitable we must be filled with gratitude to God for his generosity to us; then we can surely welcome others with the same spirit of generosity that we have experienced.” And, I think that we can go even further and say that Luke’s Gospel portrays Jesus as a stranger, suggesting that his followers too must live as strangers in this world, so that when Christians encounter a stranger they must see him as a brother and as a representative of their Lord.

This might require more elucidation, and I will from here on be indebted to an article in the 2005 volume of Louvain Studies written by Fr Adelbert Denaux of the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven. Fittingly for this day, he happens to be a member of the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission. To begin our exploration of how Luke’s Gospel portrays Jesus as a stranger, he directs our attention to its very last chapter. There, one of the two disciples on the way to Emmaus asks Jesus, “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?” (Lk 24:18). This is doubly ironic: Jesus is hardly ignorant (the disciple is), and Jesus is a paroikos, or stranger, visiting Jerusalem in a much deeper and different way than the disciple imagines. The two disciples are only able to understand the real “strangeness” of this stranger when Jesus explains the Scriptures concerning himself. After all, Jesus, in the Gospel of Luke, is the only person possessed of wisdom. The disciples must only offer hospitality to this stranger: “Stay with us, for it is nearly evening and the day is almost over” (Lk 24:29).

Luke has already portrayed Jesus as a stranger several times. Jesus is born away from his hometown, and, even then, in a manger, away from normal human society. Soon enough, as a boy, he makes it clear that he is a stranger in his parents’ house, for his real home is the Temple in Jerusalem (Lk 2:49). Young Jesus grows up to be a wanderer “through cities and villages,” “towns and villages” (Lk 8:1; 13:22), dependent on others for support. Where could he fit in? The denizens of Nazareth almost throw him off a cliff, and, when the people of Capernaum (where Mark, incidentally, suggests that Jesus was “at home” [Mk 2:1]) try to get Jesus to stay, Luke has him leave (Lk 4:30). Jesus is homeless: “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of man has nowhere to lay his head” (Lk 9:58). Those around him are called to grant hospitality to this outsider.

Fr Denaux suggests that this portrayal of Jesus as a stranger is hardly accidental – it is how St Luke sets forth his Christology. Jesus is a heavenly stranger. Luke would know about divine visitors in Graeco-Roman religions, as he would describe the crowds at Lycaonian reacting to St Paul’s healing of a cripple by exclaiming, “The gods have come down to us in the likeness of men!” (Acts 14:11). Furthermore, the Old Testament has accounts of God coming to visit humanity, most famously dining with Abraham as three strangers (Gen 18) in a scene that inevitably makes one think of Rublev’s famous icon. St Luke appeals to the Old Testament precedents, Denaux tells us, especially with his use of the terminology of episkeptomai, which means ‘to look upon’ or ‘to visit’ (thus, episkopos, which we translate as ‘bishop,’ literally means ‘overseer’). This is evident in the canticle of Zechariah. God is there praised because “he has visited (hoti epeskepsato) and accomplished redemption for his people” (Lk 1:68). Zechariah’s son, John the Baptist, will now “go before the Lord” because, through God’s mercy, the “Sunrise from on high will visit (epeskepsato) us” (Lk 1:78). Later, John will ask Jesus if he is indeed the “coming one” (Lk 7:19), this stranger from on high.

But, as with the disciples at Emmaus, Jesus must explain his “strangeness” himself. We can only give him hospitality, as do Mary and Martha (Lk 10:38-42) and Zacchaus (Lk 19:1-10). As a result of Zacchaus’ reception, Jesus is able to say that “salvation has come to this house.” But others do not receive Jesus. He weeps over Jerusalem, declaring that her enemies “will smash you to the ground and your children within you, and they will not leave one stone upon another within you because you did not recognize the time of your visitation (episkopè)” (Lk 19:44). And so Jesus is crucified. The divine stranger bringing salvation has been rejected. But the descent of the Holy Spirit – the “coming down” that led to Mary conceiving a strange child without a human father – has not been for nothing. Jesus rises from the dead, and St Luke, rather uniquely, describes the divine visitor returning to heaven in the Ascension: “He parted from them and was carried up to heaven” (Lk 24:51). The singular work of the Lord has been completed.

So, Jesus is a stranger, whose visitation brings salvation for sinners who will grant him hospitality. Those who follow in Jesus’ footsteps must then also be strangers in this world. “Beloved, I beseech you as aliens (paroikous) and sojourners to abstain from the passions of the flesh that wage war against the soul” (1 Pet 2:11). The second century letter to Diognetus memorably states about Christians:

They live in fatherlands of their own, but as aliens (hôs paroikoi). They share all things as citizens, and suffer all things as strangers. Every foreign land is their fatherland, and every fatherland a foreign land … They pass their days on earth, but they have their citizenship in heaven.

Jesus is fully human, yet fully divine – one of us, yet a stranger; our brother, homeless in our world. The baptized must, in a sense, share this strangeness. Whenever we see a stranger, then, we see someone who is strangely familiar, who reminds us about who we really are. We should also see someone who reminds us of our Lord. Thus, the author of the Letter to the Hebrews warns us, “Do not neglect hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unaware” (Heb 13:2). And, even more directly, in St Matthew’s Gospel, before the seat of judgment, some disciples ask Jesus, “When did we see thee a stranger and welcome thee?” and receive the response, “As you did to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me” (Mt 25:38-40).

Thanksgiving, then, is about hospitality to family and friends, because of our bond of love with them, but also to the “least of these,” because of our bond of “strangeness” with them.

About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in Minnesota, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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