From the Psalter:

“Hear my prayer, O Lord, and give ear to my cry; do not hold your peace at my tears.
For I am your passing guest, an alien, like all my forebears.”

(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Psalm 39:12 (NRSV) – July 15, 2014)

Welcome Guest Parking SignThe Prayer Book version of this verse (which is differently numbered as often happens in the BCP) is this:

Hear my prayer, O Lord,
and give ear to my cry;
hold not your peace at my tears.
For I am but a sojourner with you,
a wayfarer, as all my forebears were.
(BCP 1979, page 639, Ps 39:13-14)

Now, generally, I prefer the BCP version of the Psalms — they chant better than the NRSV and seem more poetic — but in this instance, I think the translators of the NRSV hit one out of the park! “I am your passing guest” is simply brilliant! Modern folks don’t really know what a “sojourner” is (other than, maybe, the title of a liberal Christian magazine edited by Jim Wallis), so the more poetic BCP psalm doesn’t hit one with the impermanency and provisionality of our journey through this world the way the NRSV’s “passing guest” does.

The dictionary, of course, defines a “sojourner” as a “temporary resident”; one dictionary suggests “occupant” or (interestingly) “occupier” as antonyms.

As a biblical metaphor for our inhabiting of the places we live, especially in this time of conflict between Israelis and Palestinians over occupation of the place we call “the Holy Land”, “passing guest” is more than thought provoking; it is earth-shattering! So much of the conflict between Jews and Muslims, when it is justified theologically (as if it could be justified theologically), boils down to claims on the land going back to Abraham:

On that day the Lord made a covenant with Abram, saying, “To your descendants I have given this land, From the river of Egypt as far as the great river, the river Euphrates: the Kenite and the Kenizzite and the Kadmonite and the Hittite and the Perizzite and the Rephaim and the Amorite and the Canaanite and the Girgashite and the Jebusite.” (Gen 15:18-21)

Interestingly, the Qur’an confirms this grant:

O my people! Enter the holy land which Allah has prescribed for you and turn not on your backs for then you will turn back losers. (Surah Al-Ma’idah’ 5:21)

We settled the Children of Israel in a beautiful dwelling place, and provided for them sustenance of the best. (Surah Yunus 10:93)

Dwell securely in the land of promise. (Surah Al-Isra’ 17:104)

The common Christian (and Jewish) understanding of the Abrahamic Covenant is that the grant flowed from Abraham to his descendants through Israel, Abraham’s child by Sarah. Some Muslims argue that the grant flows instead or in addition to the descendants of Ishmael, Abraham’s first born through the servant woman Hagar. All seem to suggest that the covenant grant is a permanent arrangement, but what if that is not the case? What if the covenant is conceived, as the Psalmist suggests, not as one of ownership, but as one of guesthood?

While preparing for my recent pilgrimage to the Holy Land, I read several travel blogs and in one the author encourage American tourists to consider themselves guests in the countries they visit, asking themselves three questions:

(1) “What am I saying, what is my conduct demonstrating, to non-Americans, about ‘American Tourists’?”

(2) “What am I learning about the host culture? How many personal interactions am I actually having with regular local people? How much ‘inside information’ am I taking away from my travel experience?”

(3) “If the above two issues are meaningless to me, why am I a tourist?” (Americans as Tourists: Adventures in Guesthood)

Those are good questions and they can be simplified, and theologized, as follows. Perhaps all the descendants of Abraham, Jewish, Muslim, and Christian, should ask themselves these questions:

(1) What am I saying by my conduct about religious believers, about heirs to the covenant, which status I claim?

(2) What am I learning about my host, the Lord God? How many personal interactions am I actually having with others who claim heirship with the covenant, with others who are guests in this land? How much information am I taking away from this covenant experience?

(3) If these two issues are meaningless to me, why do I claim to be a descendant of Abraham?

If we are all guests, all wayfarers, all sojourners . . . if our claims to the land (or anything else) are all temporary, provisional, and impermanent . . . is there any reason to fight about them? Is it not better to hold what we have temporarily been given gently and in unison so that it will be here for those who come after us? Should we not help one another to do so rather than snatching it away from each other?

Can we look beyond our accepted understandings and the metaphors of ownership to embrace this different metaphor, the metaphor of guesthood, and thereby embrace one another?


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Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.