The Least Of These
Early in the morning of Wednesday, September 2, 2015, the tiny body of a 3-year-old boy named Aylan Kurdi washed up on the beach of Turkish resort town Bodrum. The little boy had drowned along with twelve others, including his 5-year-old brother and mother, when the small boat carrying his family on their harrowing flight from war-torn Syria capsized in the middle of the night. Aylan Kurdi’s father, Abdullah, was the only member of the family to survive. “My kids were the most beautiful children in the world,” he mourned. “They woke me up every morning to play with them. They are all gone now. Now all I want to do is sit next to the grave of my wife and children.” (The Wall Street Journal)
Within hours, the photos of the toddler in a bright red t-shirt lying facedown in the sand went viral on social media, accompanied by the hashtag #KiyiyaVuranInsanlik: “Humanity washed ashore.”
The world reacted in heartbreak and outrage in the midst of experiencing the largest refugee crisis since World War II, as more than 60 million people were displaced by “an all-time high” in violence and persecution, according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. Europe in particular struggled to accommodate the hundreds of thousands of refugees from Syria and surrounding nations fleeing to escape war and violence at the hands of extremists bombing their homes and killing their families.
Opinions became divided: with so many people fleeing for shelter in new countries, what would governments do? Would doors be opened for these refugees, or would they be turned away?
During crises like these, the story of Lot - which you’ll find in Genesis 19:1-29 - is surprisingly relevant. Lot was Abraham’s nephew, who lived with his wife and daughters in the ancient city of Sodom. In this story, God sends two angels to explore this urban locale because “The outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah is so great and their sin so grievous that I will go down and see if what they have done is as bad as the outcry that has reached me” (Genesis 18:20-21 NIV).
Why was there such a great outcry against Sodom & Gomorrah? Before venturing down into the cities, what complaints could God have been receiving about them? In Ezekiel 16:49-50, we get the answer: “Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy. They were haughty and did an abomination before me. So I removed them, when I saw it.” The Bible says that Sodom & Gomorrah were oppressive havens of injustice and opulence.
When the two angelic messengers arrive in the city of Sodom, Lot insists that they should not stay in the public square, but invites them to be guests in his home. It eventually becomes clear why he did not want these strangers to stay outside: all the men of the town surround the house and demand to have sex with the newly arrived strangers. Without even knowing who these strangers were, Lot invites them into his own home for fear of what they might face out in the streets - his selflessness a stark contrast to the arrogant lack of concern described by Ezekiel.
In the ancient world, hospitality was sacred.
In the ancient world, hospitality was sacred. Travelers had to depend on the kindness of strangers miles from home to keep them safe. When, in the story of the angels visiting Lot, the men of the town want to rape Lot’s guests, they are attacking outsiders – attempting to violate (apparently) helpless people dependent on Lot for their safety and well-being. Fortunately for Lot, the strangers are actually powerful angels who end of protecting him and his family from the people of the town, and send them away from the city before it is punished for its evils, abominations, violence, and oppression.
The importance of hospitality – of welcoming strangers with open arms – could not be more clear in the Bible. In Hebrews 13:2, the author clearly refers to Lot’s welcoming of the angels when he instructs: “Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it” (NIV). James emphasizes the necessity of helping the helpless: “Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,’ but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead” (James 2:15-17).
Jesus himself emphasizes that hospitality is at the heart of the gospel. When we serve others, we are serving him. “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…whatever you did for the one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me” (Matthew 25:35-36, 40).
In his story Les Misérables, the famous French author Victor Hugo - though himself a critic of religion - creates an inspiring portrayal of a hospitable Christian. When a criminal and compulsive thief named Jean Valjean is released from prison, a local priest named Bishop Myriel offers the displaced man shelter for the night. During the night, Valjean steals silverware from the priest. However, when the police apprehend him and return him to Myriel, the priest covers for Valjean by pretending that the silverware was actually a gift, and even gives him more valuables. Not daring to protect himself, Myriel demonstrates a kind of faithful risk-taking based on the desire to show mercy to a lost sinner who proved himself to be somewhat dangerous.
For us translating these words into actions is complicated. While governments are free to make decisions about the welfare of their own people, the citizens of the global Kingdom of God have another mandate from their King. Individuals have different responsibilities than nations. A situation has vast and far-reaching as the refugee crisis will never have a simple solution. But, as the bodies of children wash up on beaches, the question becomes harder and harder to ignore: who are the real Sodomites - arrogant, overfed and unconcerned?
In your experience, are the Christians around you hospitable to strangers, outcasts, rejects, and the poor, or not? Why do you think this might be?
Hospitality does not have the same social importance in North American society that it had in ancient near-eastern society. Our lives tend to be very private. What are some ways that we can show compassion and hospitality to people that make sense in the modern world? Or, should we still be willing to invite people into our homes.
Some people fear that allowing refugees into a country presents a danger to the host nation. Is there some inherent risk in welcoming strangers? Where should the balance be between nationalism and humanitarianism?
Lot was used as our paragon of compassion and mercy in this story. However, he is not a man without problems. Even in the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, there is a troubling moment when Lot offers his daughters as a peace offering to the vicious men of the town:
Genesis 19:6 Lot went outside to meet them and shut the door behind him 7 and said, “No, my friends. Don’t do this wicked thing. 8 Look, I have two daughters who have never slept with a man. Let me bring them out to you, and you can do what you like with them. But don’t do anything to these men, for they have come under the protection of my roof.”
Why do you think Lot did this? Was he right or wrong to offer his daughters as protection for his guests? Was he thinking clearly, or was this an act of desperation? Or, is this reflective of the culture he lived in?
Are there any churches in your community who provide for the needs of the poor and the homeless? Is there a way for you to support or become involved with these efforts?