Embracing the other is important for our political and social well-being as well as for our spiritual health. Yet too often the other is excluded, dehumanized and demonized. This attitude lies behind so much of the fearfulness encountered in contemporary society, whether it is fear of other ideas, other cultures and faiths and even fear of what lies deep within ourselves. This month we explore the story of God’s unique relationship with his creation and in the following months how our relationship with the other in society today.
Hospitality has always been a mark of middle eastern society and welcoming the other is strong in the Bible. Genesis 18.1-8 recounts the story of Abraham entertaining three strangers. Abraham welcomes, feeds and entertains them and later discovers that they bring news from God. In a commentary on this event, the author of the letter to the Hebrews writes, ‘Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that, some have entertained angels without knowing it.’ (Hebrews 13.2)
But the Israelites were commanded to go even further. Through its treatment of the ‘other,’ Israel was commanded by God to create a radical society which was to take particular notice of those considered to be on the edge. The Israelites were to remember that they had experienced being of the edge, that they too were aliens and they were to recite a particular formula recalling their experience of alienation when they made an offering to God at their harvest:
When the priest takes the basket from your hand and sets it down before the altar of the Lord your God, you shall make this response before the Lord your God: “A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down to Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number, and there he became a great nation, mighty and populous.” (Deut.26.4-5)
It went further still. Not only were the Israelites to take special notice and care of the other, but their identity as God’s people depended upon it. In this way, the land, which belonged to God, would produce a people who were a great blessing to their neighbours. One test of the goodness of the people of Israel, of the quality of their relationship to God and of the depth of their worship was the way in which the foreigner, alien, orphan and widow were treated. Whenever they fell short, they were lambasted by the prophets. Amos famously tells the people that their worship, elaborate and heart-felt as it appeared to be, meant nothing to God because of their neglect of the other, because of the way they were allowing the poor to be exploited:
I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them; and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals I will not look upon. Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever flowing stream. (Amos 5.21-4)
Three centuries later Malachi issues similar warnings, showing how deeply care for the other is engrained in the faith of the Hebrews:
Then I will draw near to you for judgement; I will be swift to bear witness against the sorcerers, against the adulterers, against those who swear falsely, against those who oppress the hired workers in their wages, the widow and the orphan, against those who thrust aside the alien, and do not fear me, says the Lord of hosts. (Malachi 3.5)
The attitude towards the other is all the more significant because it points to something important about God which is unique to the Judeo-Christian tradition, namely that God is both wholly ‘other’ while at the same time intimately involved in his creation.
Transcendence is the word often used to describe God’s ‘otherness’ and people respond to God’s transcendence in worship by referring to his awe and holiness. God’s otherness and transcendence are apparent when Moses approached God with the people of Israel in the wilderness: they had to undergo rituals of cleansing before they could encounter the Lord. Anybody who so much as touched the holy mountain would face death.
On the morning of the third day there was thunder and lightning, as well as a thick cloud on the mountain, and a blast of a trumpet so loud that all the people who were in the camp trembled. Moses brought the people out of the camp to meet God. They took their stand at the foot of the mountain. Now Mount Sinai was wrapped in smoke, because the Lord had descended upon it in fire; the smoke went up like the smoke of a kiln, while the whole mountain short shook violently. (Exodus 19.16-8)
Similarly, Isaiah 6.1-4 offers a vision of the awesome and holy nature of God when the prophet Isaiah feels completely overwhelmed by the Lord, seated on his throne, ‘high and lofty.’ God’s otherness is expressed in God’s total separation from his creation. God is Creator and is not dependent upon his creation.
At the same time as being totally other, God is intimately involved. In the creation story, God, the creator, wanders through the garden in the cool of the day to speak with Adam (Genesis 3.8). God leads his people out of slavery towards the Promised Land when he sees how much the people are suffering and he protects them from the Egyptians (Exodus 14). A recurrent theme in the Hebrew Scriptures is God’s anger towards his people when they break the agreement (Covenant) they have made with God and God’s welcoming them back when they return to him. The marvellous poetry in Isaiah 40 – 54 is a testimony to God’s delight that Israel is returning and God will go to any lengths to enable their return:
I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert. The wild animals will honour me, the jackals and the ostriches; for I give water in the wilderness, rivers in the desert, to give drink to my chosen people, the people whom I formed for myself so that they might declare my praise. (Isaiah 43.19-21)
God’s being wholly other and yet intimately involved is most particularly embodied in the person of Jesus Christ through the mystery of his being fully human and fully God. Fra Angelico’s portrayal of the ‘Adoration of the Magi’ exquisitely depicts this mystery as the powerful and influential magi pay homage to a ‘mere’ baby. What is it that they are honouring – a gift who is intimately involved and yet, at the same time, is wholly other? By his nature, Jesus shows God’s ultimate involvement in and love for the world through his willingness to die for it and at the same time the resurrection shows God’s total independence and otherness to his creation.
No other religion has this unique dynamic at its centre – indeed, many religions regard it as a scandal. The otherness of God combined with his intimate involvement with creation seen in its ultimate expression in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ is important for the theme of reconciliation because Jesus, God’s gift to the world, is the embodiment of reconciliation.
Adapted from my book, Reconciling One and All – God’s Gift to the World.
First image: Stammplatz von Orientalist; Jerusalem Foto: Orientalist 2006