Despite God’s faithfulness to his people, sometimes important themes in the Bible are poorly mirrored in the church. Sometimes, aspects of God’s own character fail to find meaningful expression in the life of Christians. There are many embarrassing moments in the church’s history that corroborate this observation. Just think of Martin Luther King Jr, who sometimes found himself at odds with people who professed to follow the same Christ. Or recall the South African apartheid arrangement, in which race trumped faith in defining human boundaries.
According to the Bible, such things grieve God. I suspect that they frustrate him, too. Especially when the people perpetrating prejudices claim to know and love him.
The good news is this: God is a God of outsiders. And this is true even if certain Christians have lost sight of this at times.
I’ve been thinking about God’s special interest in outsiders the past few weeks. It started through reading a story in the Old Testament. In 1 Kings 17, God sends one of his prophets, Elijah, on a strange mission. On the surface, this point of the mission is to find food for Elijah. He lived in a time of drought and famine. Food was scarce and there was a very real possibility that he might starve to death. So God sends him to what turns out to be a very unlikely haven.
Instead of sending Elijah to the home of one of his Israelite countrymen, God sends Elijah outside of Israel, to the home of an outsider. And not just any outsider! Elijah is directed to go to Sidon. This was north of ancient Israel and was a country filled with people that Israelites considered pagan. To add insult to injury, Sidon was also the homeland of Israel’s wicked, tormenting queen, Jezebel. She had married an Israelite prince and had eventually found herself on the royal throne. Having no time for God, she persecuted, and even killed Israelites, who opposed her religion and reign (read 1 Kings 18). Sidon was Jezebel’s homeland and thus a place filled with enemies of Israel. Secondly, God sends Elijah to the house of a widow — a woman! While this might not seem odd to us, it would have been strange in historical context. A man to seek provision and aid from a woman violated the more patriarchal cultural conventions of the period. It would have dashed against that longstanding (and unfortunately still existing) need that many men have had to feel superior to women.
This is where God sends Elijah. And this is to whom Elijah is sent. Again, in context, Elijah’s marching orders from God would have been unsettling. Even scandalous.
God’s hospitality doesn’t create monolithic churches — white or black, rich or poor, educated or unlettered. To the contrary, where God’s hospitality is rightly perceived and embodied by Christians, the church will be a diverse place.
Why would God do this? It’s a valid question to ponder when reading 1 Kings 17.
The answer, however, isn’t immediately evident. It requires at least two things: a careful examination of what unfolds in and attention to Jesus’ own words about this story. You see, he cites this incident in one of his sermons, as reported in Luke 4.
Lets begin with a close inspection of 1 Kings 17. When Elijah arrives in Sidon, it becomes clear that God has several objectives in mind. On the surface, he wants to make sure Elijah has food to live. Yet, when Elijah arrives, his host—a poor widow—has nothing but empty cupboards. She herself is starving (1 Kings 17.12) and ready to die. In this situation, neither of the two people involved are in a place to provide for the other. Both are in need. God is the one who is going to provide. And guess what? He provides for both Elijah, the Israelite, and the widow, a Sidonian. And God does more than just bring life to their malnourished bodies. He brings life to the dead body of the widow’s son (1 Kings 17.22). God is a god of life, in an environment of death.
Here’s what we must not miss: in this instant, God’s favour and hospitality are not just extended to Elijah, the person who was part of God’s Chosen People, the Jews. God extends the same care and hospitality to the widow. By the end of the story, it would be more accurate to describe both people as children of God—and beneficiaries of his blessing—than as male or female, Israelite or pagan.
God is communicating something profound in all of this. To get a better sense of this lesson, lets turn to Jesus. As I noted, he references this Old Testament story in Luke 4.
When Jesus talks about Elijah’s visit to the home of the Sidonian widow, he gives insight into God’s purpose through this event. In a word, he notes that God is a god of outsiders. In Luke 4, Jesus is speaking to a group of his fellow Jews. At that time, it was common to harbour resentment towards non-Jews. It was common to assume that they had no part or place in the people of God. Jesus flatly rejects this outlook. And how does he do it? By citing the story from 1 Kings 17. A story which sends a message loud and clear: God cares about all people. God’s hospitality is not limited to one type of person or one particular people group. After all, this is one of God’s points when Jesus tells the parable of Matthew 20, concluding that the last shall be first.
God is bigger than that. His Kingdom is more expansive. In a word, God is global! God’s hospitality extends to all.
Moreover, God has a special predilection for the outsider. Those people that inhabit the margins, in any sense of the word. Those people who are easily devalued by the societies that humans build. Those types of people that sometimes don’t feel comfortable visiting a church. Jesus spent a lot of time with such folk. Outsiders.
Truth be told, from God’s point of view, every human—Jew and Gentile alike—are, at least initially, outsiders. There’s no person that has no need for God’s hospitality. This is why Christians—those who become insiders in a sense—should always exhibit a humble and hospitable disposition. They were all themselves once outsiders!
In this way, God’s hospitality doesn’t create cliques, it breaks them down. In this way, God’s hospitality doesn’t create monolithic churches — white or black, rich or poor, educated or unlettered. To the contrary, where God’s hospitality is rightly perceived and embodied by Christians, the church, at one level, will be a diverse place. It should be. Filled with Israelite prophets and Sidonian widows. This diversity will resolve around a shared love of Christ. It is built on a common encounter with divine hospitality.
This is what God is after. May we be as well.