Strangers at the Door
There’s an old Hebrew saying that goes: “The stranger at your door is a guest sent by God.” That saying has its roots in the passage from Genesis 18:1-10 where Abraham welcomed three strangers who turned out to be messengers from God with good news.1
In the recent past, the lesson most often drawn from this passage is that we should be welcoming to immigrants.2 That’s certainly a very appropriate interpretation of that passage. But lately, a much broader meaning is emerging from that passage as we see our religious values being pushed further and further from the public discourse in America.
True democracy depends on individualism and religion being in right balance.
Our Declaration of Independence proclaims that the dignity of the individual person arises from biblical principles. True democracy depends on individualism and religion being in right balance. For example, it is our innate sense of right and wrong, refined by Judeo-Christian teachings, that mediates competing concepts of “individual rights.” Our founding fathers knew that such mediation would be essential to restraining the tyranny of the majority. 3
But that mediation can only work when people accept that there is a higher power than themselves. Our founding fathers sought to avoid a state-sponsored religion; not avoid religion altogether. Indeed, they foresaw the essential role that religious values would need to play in fostering a stable, mutually supportive society.
Without moral principles, our public policies become
driven entirely by personal preferences.
People don’t believe in God just because it’s socially beneficial. Yet that’s precisely what the attempt to re-define Freedom of Religion in America was based on. The federal Administration in 2009 regarded it as socially beneficial for people to believe in God as long as their religious beliefs were kept private. It was referred to as “our freedom of worship,” not Freedom of Religion. Do you remember that? But, when religious beliefs are forced to be private, they no longer mediate competing concepts of “individual rights.” Without moral principles, our public policies become driven entirely by personal preferences. 4
Our country was founded on liberty and justice for all; mutual support and freedom of religion. But sadly, in the last 25 years or so, people of faith have moved, indeed were pushed, from being mediators of competing forces in society to being people labeled as “outsiders” with “antiquated thinking,” even “superstitious.” And most recently, those who continue to hold to the long-held understanding of marriage and family have been openly criticized in the popular media as “bigots” and “phobics.”
We people of faith have become “strangers at the door”
of our own nation.
So, we people of faith have become “strangers at the door” of our own nation. But we are not to despair or shrink away, for you see we are “guests sent by God” to our own nation. That’s what we’re to draw from applying our First Reading to our own life circumstances. And as “guests sent by God,” we too have “good news” for those around us:
It is sacred to be a human being, for we are made in the image and likeness of God. That’s not just a nice idea from the “good book.” It’s a truth that we will not let go of. Our lives have a greater purpose than just enjoying ourselves while we’re here. And, that greater purpose is God-given, not something of our own making. It’s a truth that we will not let go of.
We’re not called to parade in the streets or preach from soap boxes. We’re called to share our beliefs when opportunities present themselves, rather than remaining silent. These opportunities may be a question, or a work or family situation, or just a moment of discussion. Of course, our making unsolicited pronouncements will only lead to resistance. But, a heart-felt expression of our beliefs may be welcomed. It’s these many small but meaningful exchanges that can, over time, shape attitudes, change people’s minds, bring religious values back into consideration in the public square.
The situation we are in has been a long time coming;
and, it will take a long time to change it.
The situation we are in has been a long time coming; and, it will take a long time to change it. But. It will not change at all if we remain silent when we should have shared. People pushing religion aside will not make God go away, for as the psalms tell us: “God’s love endures forever” [e.g. Psalm 136]. In these times, we are the “strangers at the door,” we are the “guests sent by God” with good news - that’s meant for all.
1. Isidore Singer, et. al. (eds), “Hospitality” in The Jewish Encyclopedia, 1901,
2. e.g. Archbishop J. H. Gomez, Immigration and the Next America, 2013, pp. 80-81.
3. P. Manent, “Democracy and Religion,” in The Nature of Democracy, 1996, pp 83-107.
4. A.E. Samelson, “Why ‘Freedom of Worship’ is not Enough,” in First Things journal, Feb 22, 2010.
A number of people asked me to post this homily about this morning's First Reading. I gave this homily to the parishioners of Blessed Sacrament, a Roman Catholic parish in Scottsdale, on the 16th Sunday of Ordinary Time. The points made apply just as well to those of other religious affiliations. I hope it both encourages you and gives you food for thought.
‘till next time.
Dcn. Bob Evans
July 21, 2019
Genesis 18:1-10; Psalm 136