“Instead, you welcomed me as if I were an angel of God, as if I were Christ himself.” (Galatians 4:14b)
Who do we see in the face of the stranger?
Paul was traveling and preaching the gospel when he fell ill. We are not sure exactly what the illness was. Some suggest it was epilepsy, others some visual impairment. Whatever it was, the illness caused Paul to stop in the region of Galatia. There he received incredible hospitality. The Galatians stood by Paul in his illness, even when it was difficult and inconvenient. They treated him with love and grace. Paul says that he believes they would have torn their eyes out and given them to him if they had the chance.
The most stunning phrase Paul uses to describe their hospitality comes in verse 14: “you welcomed me as if I were an angel of God, as if I were Christ himself.” Paul came to them weak and a stranger. They welcomed him as they would welcome Christ.
Paul is most likely referencing Genesis 18, when he talks of being welcomed “as if I were an angel of God.” The Lord appears to Abraham in three men standing by the oaks of Mamre. Seeing these men, Abraham got up and ran to them. He invites them in, tells Sarah to bake enough bread to last them months, and slaughters the best calf for them to eat. Abraham shows incredible, abundant hospitality to three strangers. Unknown to him, Abraham was entertaining angels. Unknown to him, God was appearing to him by the oaks of Mamre.
Paul says that the Galatians treated him, an ill stranger, with the same hospitality that Abraham showed. In doing so, they welcomed a messenger (lit. angel) of God who came bearing a message of good news.
This spirit of welcome and hospitality toward the stranger has been a hallmark of Christian discipleship through the centuries. In particular, St. Benedict (founder of the Benedictine monastic movement) once said that “Let all guests who arrive be received like Christ, for He is going to say, “I came as a guest, and you received Me” (Matt. 25:35).”
The monks were to receive every guest who came to their door as if they were receiving Christ himself. They were to receive these guests with the spirit and graciousness of Abraham. In short, when they looked upon the stranger, they were to see the face of Christ.
Who do we see in the face of the stranger? How would our churches be different if we saw Christ in the stranger and welcomed like Abraham? How would our world be different?