I write a column for Preach magazine, in which I explore a significant word or phrase in the Bible and the ideas that it expresses. The first one was on the phrase ‘Word of God’, and second on ‘Justice’, the third on ‘Mission’, the fourth on ‘Apocalypse‘, and the fifth on healing. This one, to be published in issue 25 (Winter 2020) explores the issue of welcome.
Who is welcome amongst the people of God? This is not just a theological question, but an eminently practical one. Who is welcome to attend and join with our church? On the one hand, we would not want anyone to feel unwelcome. But on the other, what happens when those of other faiths and none turn up? Does involvement make any demands, either in terms of belief or behaviour? What is the relationship between belonging and believing?
This is a question that the people of God have been wrestling with since they began to settle as a nation in the land that God had promised. In Joshua 2, the advanced party of spies encounter Rahab the prostitute, who on every count would surely be excluded from the promises and privileges of the people of God. Yet we find her treated in the New Testament as a model of faith (Heb 11.31) and an example of someone who, like Abraham, is considered righteous because of her actions demonstrating her trust in God (James 2.25). She is even rather awkwardly shoe-horned into the genealogy at the beginning of Matthew’s gospel (Matt1.5).
Once God’s people are settled in the land, very clear boundaries are put in place—not just in geo-political terms, defining the physical borders of the land, but in terms of belief and behaviour. Repeatedly we are told that the people of Israel are not to be like the nations that surround them, or the nations that dwelt in the land before them; their distinctiveness is part of their identity as the people of God (Deut 9.4, 18.9). Dwelling in the land brings both blessings and obligations, and you cannot have the one without the other.
It is surprising, then, that the question of ‘foreigners in your midst’ is addressed specifically, and primarily in terms of welcome. In a section of the law which is emphasising the distinct nature of their national life, the Israelites are commanded not merely to welcome foreigners, but to ‘treat them as native-born’; it is precisely such foreigners that are the ‘neighbours’ they are to ‘love as yourself’, since they knew what is was to be foreigners in Egypt. It is particularly the stranger and the outsider that God cares for (Ps 146.9), so those who are righteous will emulate this concern (Job 29.15), and Israel comes under judgment for failing to provide this radical welcome and care (Jer 7.5–7).
But there is something even more radical to this welcome. The prophets constantly point forward to God’s ultimate plan for his people and his world—and this plan includes foreigners, the alien and the strangers, finally incorporated into the renewed people of God, not as outsiders but as citizens (Ezek 47.22).
Perhaps, then, we should not be surprised to see this theme in the life and teaching of Jesus. In what is perhaps the most Jewish and ‘exclusive’ gospel, that according to Matthew, right at the beginning we find three other mothers mentioned alongside Rahab in the geneaology—Tamar, ‘the wife of Uriah’ (Bathsheba) and Ruth—and all four are foreigners and all four have dubious sexual associations.
This is the gospel that stresses, perhaps more than any other, the high standards of Jesus’ ethical teaching, and the demands of discipleship, but it also records Jesus as promising that ‘many will come from the east and the west [that is, foreigners] and recline at table with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven’ (Matt 8.11). The tension between welcome and obligation is expressed most sharply in the parable of the king’s wedding feast in Matt 22.1–14. When those invited refuse the lavish feast that the king has prepared, he then invites anyone and everyone, ‘the bad and the good’ (verse 10) so that the wedding hall is ‘filled with guests’. And yet those who are welcomed need to take seriously their obligations—to leave their previous occupations, and be dressed appropriately (verse 11)—a cultural expectation that symbolises the change of life that comes from repentance and obedience.
Professor John Barclay summarises this tension by describing God’s grace as unconditioned, in that there is nothing we can do to merit it, but not as unconditional:
While there is no prior worth for receiving the gift, God indeed expects something in return. Paul expects those who receive the Spirit to be transformed by the Spirit and to walk in the Spirit. As he puts it, we are under grace, which can legitimately lead to obedience, even obligation.
We are to welcome all—not merely as passing guests, but with an invitation to full participation in the people of God, with all the blessings that that involves, alongside all the obligations.