Love of stranger

Jesus engaged his followers in discussions about the nature of life and what it means to live in a complex society. Christians are quick to point out that Jesus named two great commandments about love from the Old Testament tradition. In the 22nd chapter of Matthew, there is a report of an exchange between Jesus and some Pharisees:

“When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. ‘Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?’ He said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

This direct teaching appeals to our contemporary way of thinking. A question is posed and an answer given. We like that formula and are quick to point it out to others and incorporate it into our way of thinking. Jesus, however, did not stop with these two ancient commandments when it comes to love. In fact, one can argue that he, like the Old Testament tradition on which he stood, put more energy into teaching a third and more challenging commandment about love.

The law of Moses repeats another commandment about love more than these familiar instructions. That is the commandment to love the stranger. It appears at least 36 times in the Mosaic tradition. It must have been more challenging for Jesus’ contemporaries because he kept teaching this law through parable and story. We know the story of the Good Samaritan and its challenge to the definition of neighbor. We forget how often Jesus told other stories and repeated the commandment to love not only those whom we know and whom we perceive to be similar to us, but to love the stranger and the foreigner.

The commandment comes from generations of experience of the people of Israel. “Love strangers because you were once strangers in the land of Egypt.” It is commandment that is expressly aimed at the human tendency to overlook those who are downtrodden and displaced. It is a simple translation into modern language to say, “love the homeless because you were once homeless,” or “love the immigrants because you were once immigrants,” or “love the victim, because you have been a victim too.”

The late Rabbi Jonathan Sacks once put the commandment this way: “Love the stranger because to him you’re a stranger.”

We find it easy to love things that are familiar. We love the people with whom we live in part because we know them. Love, however, is far more challenging. Returning to the first great commandment - the one about loving God - we often fail to love God because we are too enamored with our personal images of God. Instead of seeking to fully know God, we become comfortable with our projections and our sense of who God is. Any serious student of the Bible, however, discovers that God makes us uncomfortable. God challenges our notions of what God is like. Sometimes God is a stranger to us.

Can we fully love God if we fail to love all of God’s creation? Or, to put it in Jesus terms, Can we fully love God if we fail to love our neighbor? Then, to challenge us even further, Jesus redefines the concept of neighbor to include those who are unknown to us and different from us.

The concept of love for stranger is explored in Rabbi Sacks’s book, “The Dignity of Difference.” In that book he argues that we need to go beyond looking for similarities in the various religions of the world. We must also reframe how we see our differences:

“The test of faith is whether I can make space for difference. Can I recognize God's image in someone who is not in my image, who language, faith, ideal, are different from mine? If I cannot, then I have made God in my image instead of allowing him to remake me in his.”

The times in which we are living are times of great opportunity, but also of great risk for our religious institutions. As churches are challenged by the pandemic and the deep divisions in American society, they face an existential threat. With people not attending church in person, revenues fall and buildings are underutilized. Just carrying on the way we’ve always done it will not work in these times. Embracing new ways of practicing religion and teaching religious truths will mean letting go of some of the old institutional structures. These times, it seems to me, call for people of faith to embrace difference and explore that which is unfamiliar. It is not just that we were once strangers in a strange land. We once again find ourselves to be strangers in a place that we do not recognize and where we did not expect our lives to take us. We are strangers even to ourselves.

Perhaps that is the deep lesson of the teachings of Jesus. The commandment to love God is also the commandment to love neighbor. And our neighbor is not just what is familiar. Our neighbor is different from us. To love God is also to love the stranger.

This challenge is intensely personal for me right now because we are strangers in a new place. Our neighbors notice the unfamiliar cars in the driveway - the ones with license plates from South Dakota - a state that is far away and unknown to many of them. They see our unfamiliar faces as we walk around the neighborhood. The clerks in the grocery store don’t know me. And we are all partially hidden by the face masks we wear whenever we go out in public. As I learn to live in this new place and as I become a part of a new neighborhood, I know that I am a stranger.

It is a good thing that our faith teaches us to love the stranger.

Copyright (c) 2020 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!