“People view hospitality as quaint and tame partly because they do not understand the power of recognition. When a person who is not valued by society is received…as a human being with dignity and worth, small transformations occur.” (Pohl, 62). As Pohl recognizes here, hospitality and recognition are deeply intertwined. Christian understandings of hospitality have frequently highlighted this fact. Yet, Christian recognition has often stressed not merely recognition of the needy, but recognition of Christ in the needy. In this post, I intend to look at both the parable of Matthew 25 and the story of Simeon in Luke 2 to begin to consider how we recognize Jesus in the other without erasing the other’s individuality and alterity.
Matthew 25 is probably one of the most cited passages concerning hospitality in the Scriptures. In this parable, Christ declares that those who care for the “least of these” in fact care for him. This is a beautiful picture. It sharpens the idea of the person as image of God, connecting the one who is the perfect image of God with those who are made in his image. It makes Christ truly present in the poor and vulnerable. But this seems to raise a serious problem. If hospitality partially consists of and necessarily demands recognition, who are we recognizing in this model? Does our recognition of Jesus complicate our recognition of the other? Can recognition of Jesus obscure our recognition of the other person in all their complexity?
This dilemma can be made even stronger by applying the rhetoric of worship or sacrifice to caring for the vulnerable, a move that is common throughout the Christian tradition. Lactantius provides just one example of this in his “Epitome.” He urges care for others as those who are also made in the image of God just as we are. And he says such activity “offer[s] to God a true and acceptable sacrifice” (quoted from Oden, 90). To describe hospitality as offering gives it a deep and beautiful significance. But does such thinking obscure our recognition of the vulnerable by shifting the focus to our recognition of God?
There are several ways one could answer this question, but I want to gesture towards a solution by looking at Simeon’s welcome of Jesus in Luke 2. In this passage, Luke describes a complex interplay of recognition and welcome (a welcome that, as we shall see, begins with Jesus but extends to Mary). Simeon is an old man in Jerusalem who has been promised by God that he will not die before he sees the Messiah. When Mary and Joseph come to the temple with Jesus, Simeon is directed to them by the Spirit. Simeon welcomes Jesus with great joy and eloquent prayer: “Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to your people Israel” (Luke 2:29-32). Simeon welcomes this babe carried in the arms of a poor couple without hesitation.
The recognition and hospitality in this passage takes an interesting turn as Simeon continues to speak. After welcoming Jesus, Simeon warns that many will reject him (Luke 2:34-35). His next statement, however, is striking. He addresses Mary directly and warns her that “A sword will pierce your own soul too” (Luke 2:35). Simeon recognizes the presence of Mary. He does not ignore her on the grounds of her not being the Messiah. He does not simply lump her into the family unit. He recognizes her as a person. He recognizes her as a mother who loves her son, and who is bound up with the divine plan for Jesus’ life. Why does he do this? Doesn’t this take away from his focus on the infant Jesus?
To the contrary, the passage suggests that Simeon’s recognition of Jesus flows over into a recognition of the humanity, loves, and sorrows of the woman who stands before him. Simeon’s recognition of Mary, her love for Jesus, and her future suffering is in fact dependent upon his recognition of Jesus. Only by the inspiration of the Spirit and his recognition of the work of Christ as Messiah could Simeon speak to Mary in this manner and know to warn her of her coming sorrow.
How, then, does Simeon’s recognition of Mary tie into our original question? The story of Simeon’s welcome suggests that the recognition of Christ can be non-competitive with recognition of the other. It may even suggest that the recognition of Christ strengthens our ability to recognize the other. Simeon’s recognition of Christ leads him to deeper, not shallower, recognition of Mary. Our recognition of the oppressed and the vulnerable as figures of Christ can have the same effect: it can deepen our appreciation of their dignity and value, and thus the importance of their individual stories and pains. These points suggest one final corollary. Simeon recognizes Mary as he prophecies, which indicates he recognizes her because God has already recognized her. In Matthew 25, we recognize Christ in the poor because Christ has already recognized them and in some sense identified himself with them. We recognize others because God has already recognized them, and this can only deepen our own recognition and hospitality. But could we strengthen this even further? Instead of a simple discussion of prior conditions, could we speak of participation? Is it possible that the reason we can recognize Christ in the other is that God by uniting his church to himself catches us up into his recognition of and care for the vulnerable? If we pursue such a thought, we might return with a fuller understanding to the idea expressed by Lactantius: recognition of and care for the vulnerable is truly doxological, as a full recognition of the other is simultaneously participation in God and truly acceptable worship.