Moving back to the UK has been more difficult than I thought it would be, as this
time I’ve been moving back with my partner, someone not from here, an outsider if
you like. These last few months have been both amazing and difficult, and Cam has
sometimes felt he’s not welcome here as he has struggled to even speak with another
human being in what has at times felt like a deliberately difficult and obstructive system.
How is one to feel welcomed as a stranger in a place that isn’t yet your home?
I’m delighted to say that our visa issues have been resolved and you should be seeing
Cameron around the place in a couple of week’s time. Phew.
Matthew’s gospel constantly plays with themes of welcome and rejection, hospitality
and exclusion, homecoming and exile. And in doing this, he is drawing from the rich
vein of Israel’s prophetic tradition, in which the prophets embody God’s invitation to
a sometimes wayward and hostile people, and yet are those who experience the
fiercest rejection and hostility themselves. He is also drawing from the Wisdom tradition
(books like Proverbs and the Song of Songs), where Wisdom invites others into
the life of God, a life of compassionate welcome and love, and yet, where Wisdom
often finds herself exiled and homeless.
For Matthew, Jesus embodies the gracious hospitality of God, the abundant welcome
of a God who walks with us, and promises to be with us even in a world that doesn’t
always easily make sense. In three places in the gospel (at the beginning, middle and
end), Jesus promises the be with us, to be a sign of God’s hospitable presence – first
as Immanuel, the God who is with us, then in the midst of the vulnerable community
of the church, and then, finally, as we go into the world bearing the message of God’s
costly welcome in what is sometimes a dangerous and violent context. But always
this welcome, this invitation, is issued in a context of danger and rejection. What are
we to make of this?
It is important to remember that for Matthew God’s Wisdom is never quite where we
think it’s going to be, that God’s invitation comes to us in the strangest of places and
from the strangest of people. And so in the parable of the wedding banquet, those
who should be invited find themselves on the outside, whereas those who have no
right to be welcomed are ushered in by the king’s heralds. And in the vision of the
sheep and the goats, it is only as we welcome and show hospitality to the marginal
and the dangerously needy that we find we have been welcomed and accepted by
God. Those with power and prestige in this world often find themselves to be those
most deaf to God’s invitation, and we have to be careful here too as people of power
and prestige ourselves, as part of a church that has known great power and privilege
in this country. This is why Matthew’s Jesus creates the community of the beatitudes.
He’s reminding us that God’s call is to be seen in those who mourn, in those who
have little, in those who’s perspective is outside of the systems and structures of
power that are so important to our world and the way it conducts its business.
In today’s gospel, Matthew speaks of welcoming the disciple, the prophet, the righteous,
the ‘little one.’ Time and again Matthew references these ‘little ones’, the ones
the world so often ignores, the ones we so often ignore, those who irritate and frustrate
us, who threaten and destabilise us, those who demand our time and our compassion.
But Matthew tells us that it is precisely here in our encounters with these
‘little ones’ that God’s invitation is to be discovered.
Who are the rejected and the exiled in our communities today? Who are the ones who
most threaten to destabilise and shake-up our world? Perhaps instead of trying to silence
these voices, or to push them away, we need to try to understand them as a gift,
as a sign of God’s gentle invitation, an invitation towards a more compassionate,
gentle and wise way of living. Perhaps those voices we are trying so hard not to hear
are, in fact, the voice of God calling us into his kingdom life?
Giorgio Agamben, a confounding and exciting Italian political theorist argues in a
small book of his that we have to move beyond the language of citizenship if we are
to re-imagine our global community, if we are ever to move beyond the terror and
suspicion of our present political context. Instead he suggests recognising that each of
us is in some way a citizen and a refugee, in some senses at home in our world, but in
another way exiled and homeless. It seems to me that Agamben is picking up a rich
theme from the Hebrew Scriptures where the people of God can only understand that
they are blessed and called of God as they go into exile and their status and privilege
is radically questioned and re-thought in new and courageous ways. And so Sarah, in
Genesis, the recipient of great blessing and value, has to move beyond her insular
sense of status and superiority to recognise the gift that Hagar, the exiled slave,
brings. Perhaps Matthew is asking us to do the same, to hear the invitation of the little
ones, the exiled and the excluded, to listen and respond as companions on the way,
and together to find our way home.
Fr Ryan Green