Welcoming the Stranger

“I was a stranger, and you welcomed me.” (Matthew 25:35)

Who are strangers, and who are family?  If every member of the human race is my brother and sister, then strangers are family.  If so, are family also strangers?

It seems so.  Take children.  What can be more “family” than children?  Therefore, if children are strangers, all family are strangers.

Begin with a married couple who adopt a child. They’re surely welcoming a stranger.  The child they adopt isn’t theirs by blood.  He or she was carried and probably nurtured at the very start by someone else.  He or she was unfamiliar to them, and then was welcomed in.

We admire adoptive parents.  More than this, we intuit that they tell us something about all parents, about the very essence of parenting.  And this would seem to be one truth they testify to: that even our children “by blood” do not belong to us.  We are fiduciaries merely, and will need to give an account of our trust to the Most High.

So much holds for all children everywhere.  But it holds especially of Christians, who most of all, are begotten “not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.” (John 1:13)  They are begotten of God in baptism, which confers supernatural life.

If infinity is to finitude as any whole number to zero, then relation by blood fades to insignificance when compared with the eternity opened up, like the heavens, in any child’s baptism.  C.S. Lewis said, “I have never met any mere mortal.” Yet it was a mere mortal animal that begot this child.

Now, this child being brought to baptism is a pagan.  Yes, that child swaddled in white at the Church where everyone is dressed up and gathered around is unlike everyone else there in being a pagan, pure and simple.  I take it that pagans are in some important sense strangers to Christians, as such.

So to welcome any child at all, not simply by adoption, is to welcome a stranger, and this becomes infinitely true when the child is welcomed in baptism.

I take it that “welcoming” does not mean just the first opening of the door.  Jesus, a stranger, knocks; you let him in.  A couple of hours later, you throw him out or argue with him so violently that he wishes to leave.  “But I welcomed you, Lord.” This would now be false.  Welcoming implies a lasting state.

*

There is no need to draw exact analogies here with, say, headstrong or moody teenagers – always difficult cases.  That’s not my point.  My point is simply that, “until death do us part,” the mother or father continues to welcome the stranger precisely in caring for their child.  The child, although family, remains someone who “once a stranger, was welcomed.”

This one realization helps us to understand why charity really does begin at home, in the sense that the love which should typically be shown in a household is in no sense secondary to the putative extraordinary altruism of care for “strangers.”  Rather, it is primary.  And you and I know it has its difficulties and challenges.  All social concern is shown first in welcoming the child.

But now let’s think of husband and wife.  “Bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh”?  “They shall be two in one flesh”? “He who loves his wife loves himself”? Who could be less of a stranger, the one to the other?   Actually, in Christian marriage, strictly, there is not even “the one” and “the other.”

I take it that Adam’s rib was alienated from him once it was removed from his body.  Of course, the woman had to become “other” first, for her to be a companion at all.

The Bible didactically refers to women that are potentially one’s wife, but not so as “strange women.”  But when it comes to other cases, “King Solomon loved many strange women.” (1 Kings 11:1)  “A strange woman is a narrow pit.” (Proverbs 23:27)  “And why wilt thou, my son, be ravished with a strange woman, and embrace the bosom of a stranger?” (Proverbs 5:20) The same Hebrew word means alien, foreign, other.

This shows that marriage (and only marriage!) makes it such that a man and woman are not “strange” in that sense to each other.  (And in this fact is contained everything one needs to say about “knowing another” outside of marriage.) But then by the same token, before marriage – no matter how long they courted or were engaged – the wife was a “stranger” to the husband, and the husband to the wife.

When they got married, then, each welcomed a stranger.  If they are separated or divorced (let me put it this way, to avoid the appearance of imputing blame in complicated and delicate matters): materially there has been some failure in “welcoming the stranger.”  Contrariwise, and positively, a couple who stay together despite difficulties testify together to the Christian ideal of “welcoming the stranger.”

We are looking for charity in all the wrong places.

One more application: to Christians we take for granted.  I don’t take them for granted, but I fear many clerics do.  You know, the Christians who come to daily Mass, hand out holy cards perhaps, and cling devotedly to familiar habits of worship and prayer.  There is nothing new and exciting about these people.  They are so. . .predictable.  Perhaps even “rigid.”

Strangers too, I say.  Any Christian, as St. Paul tells us, remains a “stranger.” “And if some of the branches be broken, and thou, being a wild olive, art ingrafted in them, and art made partaker of the root, and of the fatness of the olive tree. . .” (Romans 11:17). Every gentile is a stranger, an alien branch grafted onto a tree where we had no business being in the first place.

The Lord has welcomed these strangers; in welcoming them, we welcome the Lord in return.

*Image: The Supper at Emmaus by Matthias Stom, ca. 1633-39 [Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid]

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Michael Pakaluk, an Aristotle scholar and Ordinarius of the Pontifical Academy of St. Thomas Aquinas, is a professor in the Busch School of Business at the Catholic University of America. He lives in Hyattsville, MD with his wife Catherine, also a professor at the Busch School, and their eight children. His acclaimed book on the Gospel of Mark is The Memoirs of St Peter. His new book, Mary's Voice in the Gospel of John: A New Translation with Commentary, is now available.

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