Outside! I was a stranger and you did not welcome me.
“I was a stranger and you did not welcome me” Jesus says. These words sting, even if we know we cannot take in everyone.
A homily by Karen Siebert on Jesus’s judgement speech in the holy gospel according to Matthew 25, 31-46 on November 26, 2023.
What a pleasant ending to today’s gospel. Right before the start of advent. When we are all in a real comfy mood, looking forward to cookies and candle light.
Instead Jesus scares us with shocking words and imagery:
On judgement day – God will separate mankind into two groups – like sheep and goats. While those on the right will inherit the kingdom and receive eternal life, those on the left will go off to eternal punishment – all-inclusive with devil and fire and so forth.
The criteria for being sorted into one group or the other are not as hard as you might think: you don’t have to be a martyr to be sorted into the right group.
And you don’t have to be a murderer, rapist or war criminal to end up in the left group.
The dividing line is kindness towards others in need.
A dividing line so surprisingly simple that those on the right as well as those on the left have no clue as to why they landed right (heaven) or left (hell).
Hell is empty
Nowadays, we tend not to believe in eternal punishment so much.
The belief in hell – very prominent through the ages – has undergone a fundamental change. “Hell is empty” or “Hell is cold” is the new viewpoint.
Catholic faith now emphasises that God “wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth” says the Apostle Paul (1 Tim 2,4).
Good! Because I cannot get rid of the feeling that God would rather sent me to the left group. With the goats and not the sheep. The group that will not be invited into heaven but that will be left outside.
An uncomfortable feeling
But if hell is empty and salvation for everyone is on the cards, there is no need to feel uneasy, right?
Truth is that today’s gospel makes me feel highly uncomfortable. To be honest, I struggled with my homily today so much, that this is draft number 6 and I am still not feeling good about it.
Because – hell aside – there is still the other part of the gospel:
For I was hungry and you gave me no food,
I was thirsty and you gave me no drink,
a stranger and you gave me no welcome,
naked and you gave me no clothing,
ill and in prison, and you did not care for me.’
I was a stranger and you gave me no welcome!
Our semester topic is called “Where else”.
I know that there are many people who have no other idea left, no other else left than turning to the borders of Europe. Where else would you try to find a new life, a new hope, a new place than in those countries that promise safety and prosperity, health and perspectives? Where else would I turn to if I were them?
And although we – living in Europe and Germany – let many people in, give asylum, protect from prosecution and war in many cases. The general rule is, that the majority of people will not be welcomed, but left outside.
For example at one of the by now 20 external steel walls or fences that exist at the borders of Europe. Or at the natural border of the Mediterranean Sea.
Assuming you made it across the Sea without drowning or across the land borders without being violently pushed back, chances are that you will get stuck in a refugee camp for example in Greece.
Even if you make it to Germany, you might be deported back to your country of origin or to a so called safe country you crossed on your way.
If you manage to stay in Germany, question is whether you will be really welcomed. Will you be allowed to work? Will you or your children find local friends? Or will you face hostility, stereotypes or even open racism?
What did and didn’t I do
I was a stranger and you gave me no welcome. Jesus is not a friend of diplomatic wording.
And his words sting. Because Jesus directly tells us what is right and what is wrong.
And we know, he is right. Because as humans, we have the ability to imagine ourselves in the shoes of others. We know it is not right to let people suffer, because we ourselves would not like to suffer. And that is a call to action: “Do to others as you would have them do to you”.
What do I do to other? Especially to strangers? To those who are outside? Here are somethings I do:
- I vote for political parties that are in favour of an inclusive society and relatively open borders.
- I sometimes donate money or things I don’t need anymore.
- I even sometimes give money to organisations that send rescue ships to the Mediterranean Sea rescuing refugees in distress.
- When many refugees from Syria came to Germany in 2015, I started a language tandem with a Syrian mother I met in our Kindergarten.
That’s about it!
So what do I not do?
- Neither have I become active to change political situations or structures, nor have I – with the exception of 2015 – supported or helped individual refugees.
Why don’t I do more? Well there are some reasons:
- The first is, that I, as a working Mum, honestly don’t know where to take strength or time from to engage in another problem. Before the summer holidays I was so tired, I felt I could not listen to one more problem, be in in a coaching or in my family.
- The second reason is, that I am not only feeling for those whom Jesus calls strangers. I also feel for the people begging on the streets of Berlin. I feel for those in wars, be it in Ukraine or in Israel and Gaza or elsewhere. I feel for nature and the many declining species. And I honestly feel paralysed as to whom to help and how to help. So I end up not helping at all.
- Another reason is the complexity of the situation. I know that individual suffering counts, but I also know that the refugee crisis cannot only be looked at from the level of the individual only.
Right now, for example, German local communities cry out that they don’t have housing left to place them nor the money to provide for refugees. And right wing parties like the AfD incite the public debate with open hostility and racist demands. A poll conducted in September shows that approval for the AFD lies at 21% in Germany by now.
And although I would like it, if the borders were open to everyone in need, I know that that will be a threat to social peace and a stable democracy. Maybe it is not the case for you, but this knowledge blocks me from becoming politically active in pro-refugee movements.
Maybe you’ve heard of a theory called “cognitive dissonance theory”.
It is a widely recognised psychological model claiming that humans experience stress if they are confronted with two contradicting information.
An easy example:
People know that smoking is bad for them (one information), but they still do it (2nd information). These two contradicting information cause cognitive dissonance, resulting in psychological stress and discomfort.
The same applies here to today’s Gospel:
- Jesus’ tells us how to act.
- And I know of the need and suffering of those on the outside. That is the first information.
- And on the other side there is me not doing anything. That is the second information.
Big contradiction, big cognitive dissonance, big feeling of discomfort.
According to the theory, humans experiencing cognitive dissonance strive to achieve cognitive consistency instead. Because this is what lowers the stress and discomfort.
So what they do, in order to achieve cognitive consistency is
- Justifying their behaviour (the smoker might say, cigarettes are way less dangerous nowadays than they were 50 years ago when there was no filter etc.)
- Or avoiding situations that remind them of their inconsistency. (the smoker might not go to the doctor for check-ups so that he receives no bad news).
Now if I look at the reasons I cited before, for me doing nothing (or at least not much), I can see that I did exactly that. I found justifications for inactivity like the complexity of the situation or my energy level. And I found that I often try to avoid being reminded of the fate of refugees, by changing the channel or turning on youtube.
But having to give a homily about the topic did not allow me to avoid the situation.
Although I think my justifications have some truth to them and avoiding the situation is valid if you want to protect yourself from suffering too much about situations you have little influence on, I believe behind all my justifications and avoidances lie more reasons than I am willing to admit.
I am not sure of all of them, because I think some of them are really hidden on some subconscious level. But here are maybe some of them:
- I don’t like all of the refugees coming. Some of them are really not nice people. Maybe deep down, I am even being a bit racist.
- And I wish more women and children would come. Not so many men.
- I think that not all of those coming are really needy, some just want a better life than the one they have.
- I also don’t always like the people who have become active for refugees. I think some of them are naïve and some condescending. And some of them really get on my nerves and I don’t want to spend time with them.
- I don’t only worry for social peace in Germany either. I also worry for more selfish reasons: my and my familie’s prosperity. I want to stay as well off as I am now. Deep down I don’t want to share too much.
- I don’t want to share too much of my time either. If I have the choice between social activism and a nice hike in the country-side, I will chose the latter. Or hanging out on youtube.
- I want an easy comfortable life. I don’t want to be reminded of the situation of refugees and migrants too much.
This is what Jesus is doing with his speech today. He is causing cognitive dissonance and he is doing it on purpose. He wants us to feel the psychological stress of it.
His words are so simple and yet so strong that you have to dig deeper than superficial justifications and avoidances. And you will get to the heart of why you are not helping those in need. And that might not be a pretty picture of yourself.
I think Jesus is not stupid. He knows that no ordinary human can always be there for others in need. Otherwise there would a whole lot of more saints around.
He knows, we will and cannot always act right. But he wants us to feel uncomfortable about it and he wants us to stop lying to ourselves and to stop using excuses. It’s like he is saying: If you wanna help, help! And if you don’t wanna help, at least be honest about it.
The gap between ideal and reality
Jesus is showing us the gap between ideal and reality. The gap between my values and my actions.
If I am courageous enough to look at it, which might even open up space for me to become more active after all.
If I acknowledge that I am not becoming active because I don’t like all Arab men that came to Germany in the last years, maybe I can help more with women and children.
If I acknowledge that I am not being active because I don’t like the volunteers, I can look for some organisation where I like the people. Berlin has plenty of organisations. There must be one.
If I want to keep my material comfort, I can look at how much I spent on useless things. And buy less useless things and donate more instead.
If I claim that I don’t have time, I can look at how much time I spent on youtube over the years. A little less youtube and a little more help would not have done much harm to me.
And acknowledging the true reasons for not helping those in need, might also benefit me in the end.
Because – should judgement day exist after all – I will at least not be surprised when God sends me to the left. I will know that I did not do enough to welcome strangers. I will know that I did wrong and that I failed them. And I will know that it was a decision of mine.
God wants “all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.” I quoted the Apostle Paul’s letter to Timothy in the beginning.
Maybe coming to a knowledge of the truth can also mean a knowledge of myself and my shortcomings. And if I accept this truth, maybe God will do his bit and save me after all and hell is indeed empty.