“…for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me…” (Mat 25:35 NRS)
When I first read these words from Matthew back in my childhood home of Kansas, they meant something much different than they do today. Since I moved to Cairo to teach in a seminary here in 1999, I have started taking special interest in the Bible’s references to Egypt. According to Matthew 2, Jesus, Mary, and Joseph fled the terror of Herod’s death squads to find refuge and peace in my current home of Egypt (Matthew 2). In a literal way, Gentile Egyptians welcomed a family of refugees and literally welcomed Jesus Christ himself. As a Presbyterian minister with a son named Calvin, I am also pleased that the people of Geneva welcomed the stranger and French refugee John Calvin into their midst after he fled from persecution in France. In both these cases, we can look back in hindsight and see the remarkable ways that God used the hospitality of ordinary people like us in the larger purposes of God’s Kingdom here on earth.
Jesus’ words from Matthew 25:31-46 picture him in the future judging “all the nations.” Unlike many other prophetic words of the future, Christ’s words here are self-referential. In essence, Jesus describes in some detail both how he will assess the way we spent our time on earth and in doing so what he values most. With these words, Jesus fleshes out more what he has already proclaimed to be the greatest commandments just 3 chapters earlier in Matthew 22: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind… [and] You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Surprising his eschatological audience, Jesus tells them that when they offered the poor food and drink or welcomed the stranger they actually welcomed Jesus himself. Here, loving God in Jesus Christ is directly connected to loving the suffering, the stranger, and the powerless.
Living here in Egypt, I struggle with this theological truth. Each day on my way to work, I pass broken people who are desperate for food, water, and welcome. While I strive to serve where I can, the overwhelming needs often leaveme pondering the reality that Christ identifies himself with many of the hungry, broken people I pass by every day. My prayer for myself and other Christians is that these words of Christ would not produce guilt so much as compassion and hope inside us; that they would empower and inspire us to serve. In other words, the suffering people of this world offer us an opportunity to draw closer to Christ here and now in this world. When we love others deeply throughour words, time, and actions, we embody the love we proclaim for Jesus and wonderfully experience his intimacy with us even more.
Like the United States, Egypt is currently facing a dramatic refugee crisis prompted by turmoil in the Middle East. Syrians are pouring into Egypt in an effort to escape the terrors of Islamic State (IS). In the past few weeks, many of our Egyptian Presbyterians fled their homes in and around Areesh on the Sinai Peninsula in the wake of brutal attacks on Christians there. I remember in the past, joyfully traveling to Areesh for our seminary’s annual retreat and the wonderful times of fellowship, laughter, and worship we experienced there. Today, the people who once hosted us have fled for their lives in fear and sadness. These people—Christians and Muslims alike—are the strangers that Jesus calls us to welcome and serve. My heart swelled with pride when I saw our seminary’s graduates open their doors and welcome these refugees: feeding them, quenching their thirst, and finding them housing. There, in cities like Ismailia, my former students inspire and teach me with their compassion, empathy, and embodied faith.They are doing the very things Jesus calls us to do in Matthew 25.
Jesus’ words here reframe and rephrase the questions I often ask myself in regard to the stranger or refugee. My human suspicions often presume an equation that assumes the Other is dangerous until proven otherwise. Here, Jesus overturns such a view by putting himself into the place of the stranger. As a follower of Christ, I am invited to encounter the loving heart of God here in this broken, haggard, and culturally different stranger. May we all enjoy the blessing of welcoming the stranger and some day experience the joy of Christ saying, “…you did it to me.”