Word Study #204 — Strangers, foreigners, refugees

When I first received the suggestion to work on this subject, I was not sure how fruitful that could be. After all, in the early, often persecuted church, one was much more likely to be a refugee, than to be in a position to assist them! However, like so many initial impressions, that one turned out to be seriously mistaken. Not only is the subject amply addressed in the New Testament, but the treatment of strangers is held up as evidence of one’s standing in the Kingdom of Jesus! As such, it is well worth our attention. Please also refer to word study #145, “Neighbors and Enemies,” in this regard.

Paroikeo (verb), paroikos (noun), and the similar parepidemos, refer simply to anyone living in a foreign context, for whatever reason. L/S offers “a resident in a foreign city, a sojourner in a strange place”, and Bauer adds “a visitor or resident alien.” This is the word used of the Israelites’ sojourn in Egypt (Ac.7:29 and 13:17), the traveling disciples’ query of the resurrected Jesus (Lk.24:18), and both Peter’s (I Pet.2:11) and Paul’s (Eph.2:19) characterization of the faithful with respect to the rest of the world, for which Peter and the writer to the Hebrews also use parepidemos (I Pet..1:1 and Heb.11:13). As an eloquent song from the ’80’s put it, “We are foreigners who don’t belong.” Notice, however, that these terms do not carry any assumption of overt hostility; only strangeness.

Allotrios, allotrioo, on the other hand, originally included overtones of hostility or estrangement (L/S), and were used of enemy groups as well as those who were simply foreign; whose loyalty was definitely elsewhere. These terms appear in Jesus’ observation that sheep will not follow a “stranger” (Jn.10:5), and that governments impose taxes (tribute) on “others”, and not their own people (Mt.17:25-26) as well as situations of overt hostility (Heb.11:34) or alienation (Eph.2:12 4:18; Col.1:21). The idea of “belonging to someone else” appears in Lk.16:12, Rom.14:4, 15:20; II Cor.10:15-16, I Tim.5:22, and Heb.9:25.

More common than any of these is the much less specific xenos, xenizo, xenodokeo. This latter iteration appears only once (I Tim. 5:10), where having “welcomed / hosted strangers” is among the qualifications of a faithful woman, along with “having relieved those who were suffering.”

The verb form is used primarily of simple hospitality, and is applied to both guests and hosts (Heb.13:12, Ac.10:6, 18, 23, 32; Ac.21:16 and 28:7). Most of these involve fellow-believers, but the latter describes the hospitality of Publius, the Roman governor, to Paul and his shipwrecked companions.

Xenos , which may be used as either a noun or an adjective, is much more flexible. It may refer to anyone or anything that seems “strange” to the speaker (Ac.17:18,21; Heb.13:9, I Pet.4:12), or to any people outside one’s own circle (Mt.27:7), and is also used in a manner similar to parepidemos, of those who are deemed “outsiders” for any reason (Eph.2:!2, 19; Heb.11:13, III Jn 5).

L/S also gives xenos quite wide latitude: “a guest or friend; a stranger, wanderer, or refugee; a giver or receiver of hospitality”, or, as an adjective, “strange, foreign, or unusual; to be surprised, astonished, or puzzled.” As you may have noticed, virtually all these references are simply descriptive, except for the admonition mentioned in I Tim.5.

There is one account, however, which not only reaches far beyond that pattern, but carries much greater weight with respect to our understanding of faithfulness. That is to be found in Jesus’ exposition regarding “judgment” in Matthew 25, where a careful analysis of both the vocabulary and the grammar reveals seldom-noticed aspects of that scene. Please do not attempt either to accept or to reject this as any sort of “theological” treatise. These are simply observations of usually-overlooked features of the text.

1. The “cast of characters”. The interview is between the glorified “Son of Man”, finally enthroned, and a gathering of panta ta ethne – literally, “all the nations”. Please see Word study #62 for an exposition of “ethnos”, and remember that this term was usually used in Jewish settings of “Gentiles” and among Greeks of lesser-valued “foreigners” or “barbarians.”
The King (presumably Jesus) represents himself as personified in the person/people in any kind of need. (Do we all perhaps need some sort of “cataract surgery” in order to see him clearly?)

2. Both the commendations and the accusations are uniformly addressed in the plural. They are NOT targeted toward individuals. Please review study #142 on the use of the plural “you”, whose individual, collective, and selective aspects are combined so carelessly in English translations. Might this imply that a group could/should have clearer vision than an individual?

3. The criteria of judgment. “How did you-all (your group) respond to folks in need?” Note that neither group had correctly recognized that the King was represented by those needy. Both responded “when did we see you –?” The difference in this case was not one of discernment, but of caring response.

4. The “destiny” aspect. The kingdom which the faithful are invited to “inherit” was “prepared for you all from the foundation of the world!” Remember, these folks being addressed are ethnoi – outsiders!
In contrast, the “fire” to which the uncaring are consigned was NOT prepared for people, but “for the devil and his messengers”! (v.41) Might a bit of common rhetoric need to be adjusted in that regard?

Now, read the whole account again, very slowly and carefully. Do you find, even in the most carefully edited versions, any query about what anyone said they “believed”? Or, for that matter, any individual analysis at all? Please note, I am not denying individual responsibility, but suggesting that it is definitely not the entire story. This stance is supported by another very interesting word, not usually associated with either the “in-group” or the “out-group” – one to which we would all do well to take heed.

Most commonly translated “to gather, to come together, to assemble”, sunago appears in this passage four times: once of the “gathering” of the nations before the King, and three times of the inclusion of the stranger (xenos). The noun form of this word is quite familiar as “synagogue” – the gathering place of post-exile Judaism. Only in James (2:2) did traditional translators use “assembly”, and chose “congregation” (from a Latin equivalent) for Ac.13:43. Perhaps the “inclusion” of strangers is an assignment for the Body as a whole, rather than instruction for individual charity? This observation should precipitate very serious discussion among groups of the Lord’s people. Together, we could make a much bigger dent in the plethora of folks in need of the Master’s care, than could even the best and most skillful of us in our independent efforts.
As “strangers” ourselves in the world, we (should) know how it feels, and move to mitigate alienation wherever we find it. That effort will – and should – take many different forms, as varied needs are perceived and addressed.

Perhaps what we really need to study is the implication of “inclusion” — how, and to what extent “strangers” are/should be helped to become a functioning part of a faithful group? How does one “welcome” those who may not share the group’s objectives and commitment?

This study makes no effort at a coherent conclusion. It is offered rather as a “jumping-off place” for careful consideration and discussion by many “colonies of the Kingdom”, as we seek to be faithful to our King.

5 Responses to Word Study #204 — Strangers, foreigners, refugees

  1. Ruth Mellinger says:

    The story of Matthew 25 does take on a richer meaning when we realize it is ‘you’ plural that are admonished or rewarded by Jesus. I think most other languages don’t present this challenge because they distinguish between you singular and you plural. Just wondering: is the United States’ view of valuing independent thought and responsibility a result of our language or vice-versa!

    There is so much said in the Old Testament stories, too, about hospitality. One of those is Sodom…and it does get mentioned in the New Testament, as well. Their sin was their blatant un-hospitality to the strangers who had taken refuge in Lot’s home. Hebrews 13:2 reminds us to “not forget to entertain strangers, for by so doing, some people have entertained angels without knowing it.” Luke 10:8-12 seems to link entering the Kingdom of God to welcoming the stranger who visits you.

    It is interesting that Paul finds hospitality from an unbeliever in Malta, Acts 28. It never says they became followers of Jesus afterward.

    How is it that the ‘unbelievers’ are often more hospitable than Christians? Many Middle Eastern and Asian cultures, and even Latin American, teach hospitality to the stranger as part of their cultural values. If hospitality is a Kingdom trait, and many ‘unbelievers’ practice it even better than ‘believers’ do, what does it say about who REALLY has already entered into and is living out the Kingdom of God?!

    And why did Mary and Joseph take Jesus to Egypt as a little boy…the land that God had rescued his people out of many generations before?! Yet, in this land, he must have been welcomed and well cared for as he survived it and nothing is said about it being a hardship for him to be there as a baby or tot.

    May we in the West think seriously about the way we treat the immigrant and foreigner and stranger who live among us. Our salvation may depend upon it.

  2. Is it fair to say that at the Mt. 25 Judgment there are no Christians? Yet these non-believers are accepted into the Kingdom of God based not on their theological, creedal, beliefs, but on their loving caring deeds.

  3. ruthpmartin says:

    Thank you for your insightful contribution! It should be a challenge for all of us.
    (This reply is to the first of the comments posted. It came up in the wrong place.)

  4. ruthpmartin says:

    Regarding the second comment, that is a rather silly question, as the word “Christian” does not appear until the account of the Gentile congregation in Antioch (Ac.11), so there was no such thing at the time of Jesus’ statement. It is true, however, that “belief” seem to have had nothing to do with his judgment at that time.

  5. Mark Peifer says:

    In these troubled days in our nation, this word study has taken on even greater meaning. The link between the events of Matthew 2 when Mary and Joseph need to flee for refuge in a foreign land because of a cruel dictator supported by foreign troops and the admonition in Matthew 25 to welcome the “xenos” has taken on a lot of resonance for me.

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