When my daughter was going off to university for the first time last September she was understandably nervous. ‘I don’t know anyone else who’s going to Nottingham! I will be surrounded by new people! What if I don’t make any friends?’ .
I told her, as I’ve told her at other times in her life “Remember – strangers are just friends you haven’t met yet”. I had no idea that this idea came from the body of Jewish teaching known as the Talmud – we’ll hear it at the end of the service
‘There are no strangers: there are only women and men who have not yet met’.
It’s a useful piece of advice, reminding my daughter not to be too nervous and I hope inspiring us all to treat any ‘strangers’ we meet with respect and friendliness.
The teaching from Leviticus sounds, at first, like the same sort of advice:
When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien
You shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt
I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt. You shall keep all my laws.
But these words of God to Moses begins with ‘You shall be holy’.
These laws and commandments are not there to help people to get along with each other, to make life more sociable and easier. These are laws to help God’s people live holy lives, lives fit for God’s own people. Welcoming the stranger is about being the people God has created us to be. God made us and loves us – but God made us to be holy, loving, reflections of God’s own love to the world around us.
And Jesus’ parable takes this teaching about holiness a step further.
Often Jesus parables have a surprising twist in them – they get us thinking, they teach us something new. It is no surprise to us in the story of the people separated like sheep and goats that the ones who have been good are rewarded and the ones who have been selfish are punished. We know that God commands us to be good and loving – to be holy. Clearly the ones who have neglected the poor, the starving, the imprisoned & so on have not lived lives of holiness,, lives for others. But the surprise for those neglectful people and for the ‘good’ people is that what they have done they have done for Christ – or when they have neglected ‘the least of these who are member of my family’, they have neglected Christ.
So holiness, goodness, turns out to be not only what we do to others, but how we treat God himself.
When we welcome the stranger we are living holy lives, lives that are right in God’s eyes, and we are serving God in what we do.
‘You shall be holy’ says God – how can we do that?
By the way we treat others. We should respect them as we would respect God if he was here before us. We have to welcome the stranger. That welcome, that respect, that love should know no boundaries of race, class, status, faith.
We should look for ways in which we can serve God in others – reaching out with friendship, especially to those who are different from us.
In the name of Jesus – who was so very different from us, and yet is our saviour and friend. Amen.