Stranger danger or angel stranger?
How do we, as parents and church, model the gospel call of welcoming the stranger in a world that's fearful of them? By Nick Megoran
Horrifying stories about child abusers are never far from the news. The concern that strangers will abduct or otherwise abuse vulnerable children is one of the distinguishing fears of modern life. Yet in the Bible, the way that we treat strangers is often held up as a distinguishing mark of true faith: indeed, by welcoming strangers, the book of Hebrews (13:2) insists, ‘some have entertained angels unawares.’
Jacob Wrestling with the Angel/Rembrandt/Wikimedia Commons
Stranger danger or angel stranger? How do we, as parents and church, balance this tension?
This is a real dilemma for Christian parents. My then four year-old little came back from nursery one day and gravely informed me, ‘You mustn’t talk to strangers.’
For older children, fear of abduction has taken on a sinister new dimension with the advent of internet grooming, requiring parents to be ever more vigilant over technologies they may not themselves understand well. Modern British parents are haunted by the spectre of the stranger out to harm our kids.
In contrast, the Bible commonly sees the encounter with the stranger as a means of blessing. It was in wrestling a stranger at Penuel that Jacob properly encountered God for perhaps the first time in his life (Genesis 32), and in welcoming three strangers that Abraham learnt that he was going to become a father (Genesis 18). Rahab was saved through sheltering the unfamiliar Hebrew spies (Joshua 2), the rich woman of Shunem received great blessing by welcoming the prophet Elisha (2 Kings 4), and so on.
Furthermore, the Bible uses the character of the unexpectedly godly stranger to teach Israel true faith.
Abraham assumed king Abimelech was godless and so lied to him, when in fact by welcoming Abraham he apparently feared God and acted more honourably than the patriarch himself (Genesis 20). In the New Testament, too, apparent strangers to Israel could embody real faith when Israel lacked it, as with the Centurion in Matthew 8.
Israel was constantly instructed to be kind to strangers, because they had been strangers in Egypt where they learnt both what it was like to be welcomed and also to be abused (Exodus 22: 21). Most starkly, in his disturbing parable of the ‘sheep and the goats’, the Lord Jesus makes the way that we treat the stranger one of the decisive factors in our eternal destiny (Matthew 25: 31-46).
Thus according to the Bible the stranger can be a channel of unexpected blessing and encounter with God, and how we treat him or her is a touchstone of true faith upon which our eternal destiny may hang. How, then, do we teach this to our children in a culture of stranger danger?
In our family, we have tried to model welcome to the stranger, but stressing to our children that they only do that with us, never by themselves. As we have done this, we have found the Bible’s promise of unexpected blessings true.
For example, we have involved our children (eight and six) in inviting back for Sunday lunch new families or single people who have visited the morning service, praying in advance that God would show us whom to ask. We have also encouraged our children to invite new children in their classes round for tea. Our congregation has supported asylum seekers, both through friendship and through provisions to a local refugee support charity. In being part of this work, we can model what the Biblical injunction to care for the stranger looks like both personally and politically.
This isn’t simply about giving: as we open ourselves to encounters with the stranger, we open ourselves to God’s blessing. Visiting a museum with my son, we had a three mile walk from the railway station on a hot day. He was flagging, so we prayed that God would help us, and promptly hitched a lift with some lovely people.
On another occasion, milling around outside a church after a wedding service, we met a lady who was apparently on the edge of society. I encouraged my son to go back into the church to get her some fancy cakes, and then she shared her story – of how she had suffered bereavement, then went to that church, and found the love of Jesus in the kindness of the people she met. We prayed for her and said goodbye.
Finally, in a train with my then six-year old daughter, we got chatting to an elderly gentleman who, it turned out, was also a Christian. He lent us a marvellous penknife for a magazine craft activity on the journey, and, taking my work address, the following week he sent us a brand new one as a gift in the post! Such examples are remembered longer than a Sunday School talk.
At all stages, we encourage our children (sometimes with reward stickers and sweets!) that God is pleased when we care for the stranger. We point them to the Bible and remind them of relevant texts and stories, using examples like those above as illustrations. And we teach them to pray at the start of a journey or before church that we will have the opportunity to meet new people and bless them with the love of God. In all this we stress that they must only do this with us, never by themselves.
In his anti-Christian treatise ‘Against the Galileans’, fourth century Emperor Julian complained that it was Christians’ “philanthropy towards strangers…that has done the most to spread their atheism.” Can that complaint be made against our churches? We can spread the faith in our homes and neighbourhoods as we practice love towards strangers. We must wisely train our children not to go anywhere with strangers without us.
But at the same time, we must also teach them that loving strangers is a Christian duty, an exciting one that demonstrates the dynamics of prayer, openness to the Spirit, reflection on the Bible, and the holy surprises of the life of faith. In a culture that sees strangers as dangerous, it is important not to forget that strangers may also, unaware to us, be messengers of God.
Nick Megoran is a lecturer and honorary chaplain at Newcastle University, and co-convenor of the Martin Luther King Peace Committee. He is a member of Heaton Baptist Church, Newcastle