Welcome the Stranger
CARLO MARIA MARTINI SJ
In January 2001 Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini SJ of Milan gave a paper at a conference at which participants explored the Christian message concerning hospitality to refugees and migrants. Cardinal Martini spoke of the resources we can find in the bible that will assist us to move beyond reactions of fear and other emotions in the face of foreigners. What follows is an abbreviated account of what he had to say. The complete original text is found at www.diocesi.milano.it.
THE STRANGER presents himself and herself in the Bible as the stranger at a distance (zar), the passing stranger (nokri), and the stranger who resides in our midst (gher or tosher).
The distant stranger was at first looked upon as an enemy to be feared, but that attitude changed with the experience of the Babylonian exile. Living as they were in the midst of strangers, the people gained a clearer perception of their own election as God’s own people and of how much he loved them. This awareness aroused in them a sense of mission to strangers as they saw themselves called to be a light to illumine the nations. In this way fear was replaced by a sense of mission.
Strangers passing by did not inspire fear; rather, they aroused a sense of obligation to be hospitable and to welcome the foreigner with respect. Passing strangers were treated as guests. Abraham’s welcome of the three travellers is typical. The Bedouin still show the same hospitality and respect for the stranger.
Strangers and foreigners residing in the midst of the people were given legal protection, warm reception and good treatment—they were taken into the community. The historical reason for such hospitality had been their own experience as migrants: they had been wandering strangers themselves. Besides, they were commanded to be understanding and kind to the stranger, to love the stranger. To love the stranger was to imitate God, since God loves all the vulnerable—orphans, widows, foreigners.
In the New Testament we find a marked development in teaching concerning the welcome due to strangers. We can identify three motives for this advance: a Christological motive, a charismatic motive and an eschatological motive.
The Christological motive is found in Matthew 25, in the scene of the Last Judgment, when Jesus proclaims that the person who welcomes the stranger welcomes himself: ‘I was a stranger and you made me welcome…insofar as you did this to one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did it to me’. Welcoming the stranger is not just a simple good work which God will repay—it is an occasion of living a personal relationship with Jesus.
The charismatic motive is founded on the primacy of love. ‘Set your mind on the higher gifts’, St Paul teaches (1Cor 12:31); and he stated that love is the greatest gift (1Cor 13). Welcoming the stranger is an act of love, and love is the fundamental law for a Christian. ‘Love your neighbour as yourself’, Jesus said to the man who asked him which is the first commandment (Mk 12.31). And in Mth 7:12 Jesus summed up the law and the prophets in the so-called golden rule: ‘Always treat others as you would like them to treat you’. Love, the gift that is higher than all the others is given to all, including the stranger as the parable of the good Samaritan teaches. This man, considered a stranger by the Hebrews, did not hesitate to render assistance to a wounded Hebrew by the side of the road. He overcame racial and religious barriers and made himself a neighbour to the man in distress (Lk 10:36)—he lived the charism of love.
The third New Testament motive is eschatological, having to do with the last things—the call of humanity to life eternal. In this universal perspective all who believe in Christ are pilgrims and strangers in the world: ‘There is no permanent city for us here; we are looking for the one which is yet to be’ (Heb 13:14; cf. Heb 11:10-16). As the memory of having been migrants and strangers in Egypt moved the Israelites to show hospitality towards strangers and to have compassion for them and feel a sense of solidarity with those who were undergoing the same experience, so, Christians who feel that they are pilgrims on this earth are invited to understand the sufferings and needs of all who are strangers and pilgrims in their earthly fatherland.
A first century Christian described this state of being a pilgrim thus: ‘Christians reside in their respective countries, but only as aliens; they take part in everything as citizens and put up with everything as foreigners. Every foreign land is their home and every home a foreign land.’ (Epistle to Diognetus). This is not because Christians are unconcerned for the earthly city, rather it is because they know that they are on a journey towards that city that God himself is preparing for us.
Clearly, the bible gives us a powerful message, and we know that we are a long way from living that message or even from being capable of living it. The bible makes us understand that the death of Jesus on the cross breaks every barrier and makes us members of one humanity that finds its unity in Christ. The Spirit of the Risen One awakens in every believer the charism of hospitality. We must feel that, driven as we are by the power of the Spirit, we can open ourselves to discover Christ in the stranger who knocks at our door.
We have so many motives, human and civil, for welcoming the stranger, motives which perhaps we ponder too little, and which are certainly very demanding and radical.
Generosity to refugees and asylum seekers has proven abundantly fruitful not only for Australia’s good name and for its influence in the worldwide family of nations: the progress of the Australian community itself has gained much.
This is not surprising. Refugees and asylum seekers are people of courage, ingenuity, and perseverance: to have survived and found sanctuary at last, is proof of attributes and values which Australians respect and admire - though they are rarely acknowledged in refugees and asylum seekers.
—‘Refugees and Asylum Seekers’, Australian Catholic Bishops’ Conference, 26th March 2002.