On Not Seeing Christ in the Stranger

It is a maxim in the Christian tradition of hospitality that we are to "welcome Christ in the stranger." It's a notion neatly captured in a saying derived from The Rule of St. Benedict:

Hospes venit, Christus venit.

When a stranger comes, Christ comes.

In my own lectures, sermons and classes on hospitality I've routinely talked about this idea, how we see Christ in others, and how in our welcome of others we welcome Christ.

But from time to time, people have pushed back upon this formulation. When we see Christ in others are we not, in some sense, failing to see the other person directly and for who they are? Isn't this, to state the matter starkly, a subtle form of dehumanization? Or, at the very least, mishumanization (i.e., missing their particular humanity)?

In short, don't we ultimately want to be welcomed and embraced for who we are, and not as a cipher or stand-in for Christ?

To be sure, there are responses here. The "Christ in you" is your truest, most personal self and it is of inestimable and inviolable worth. Still, I think the pushback about seeing Christ in others is valuable, as it's very easy for people engaged in hospitality to miss the particular human being standing right in front of them in their pursuit of "serving Christ."

In light of that observation, I was struck anew by the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats in Matthew 25. Matthew 25 is the go-to parable for Christ coming to us in strangers. My book Stranger God is an extended meditation on Matthew 25, "meeting Jesus in disguise."

What's interesting in the parable is how the sheep react to Jesus' praise. Here's what Jesus says to them: "Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me."

And upon hearing this, the righteous reply: "Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?"

Did you catch that? The righteous were not feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirty, giving shelter to the stranger, clothing the naked, and visiting the sick and prisoner because they were Christ. The righteous are surprised to hear that these people were Christ.

In short, the vision in Matthew 25 is one where people are welcomed for themselves and not as a proxy for receiving Christ. That revelation comes later, as a shock. And one wonders if the ordering in the parable is what makes all the difference.

Only when we welcome someone in their particular humanity are we, in that moment, truly welcoming Christ

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