I Was a Stranger, and Ye Took Me in

October 25, 2016

Brian Felt

Dean of Foundations & Interdisciplinary Studies

Brian Felt was born in Richland, Washington and grew up there and in Idaho Falls, Idaho.

He majored in European Studies and Russian at Brigham Young University, where he also met his wife, Jennifer, on a blind date. He received Masters and Doctorate degrees in Slavic Linguistics from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He then taught Russian at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, before joining the BYU-Idaho faculty in 2005.  

He teaches Russian in the Department of Languages and International Studies and currently serves as the Dean of Foundations and Interdisciplinary Studies at BYU-Idaho.  

Brian has served in the Church as a full-time missionary in the Bulgaria Sofia Mission, counselor in several bishoprics, ward organist, young men's president, assistant scoutmaster, and in his favorite and most coveted position-Primary pianist.  

He enjoys music, racquetball, geocaching, and hiking in the mountains with his family. Brian and Jennifer are the parents of six children. Their oldest child, Anna, is currently serving in the California Oakland-San Francisco Mission, Samoan-speaking, and their second child, Rachel, is serving in the Georgia Macon mission.

In Matthew, chapter 25, the Savior teaches us key concepts concerning our own discipleship and how we treat other people.

When the Son of man shall come in his glory, and all the holy angels with him, then shall he sit upon the throne of his glory:  

And before him shall be gathered all nations: and he shall separate them one from another, as a shepherd divideth his sheep from the goats:  

And he shall set the sheep on his right hand, but the goats on the left.  

Then shall the King say unto them on his right hand, Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world:  

For I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in:  

Naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me.  

Then shall the righteous answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, and fed thee? or thirsty, and gave thee drink?  

When saw we thee a stranger, and took thee in? or naked, and clothed thee?  

Or when saw we thee sick, or in prison, and came unto thee?  

And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me. (Matthew 25:31-40)

The Savior gives us six specific ways in which we should serve others--strangers, even--in these verses. Let's consider each of them in turn.   

1.  "For I was an hungered, and ye gave me meat"

"For I was an hungered, and ye gave me meat." Hunger is part of our human experience and lets us know we need nourishment. According to the World Food Programme, "Some 795 million people in the world do not have enough food to lead a healthy, active life. That's about one in nine people on earth" (www.wfp.org Hunger Statistics). How can we "give [them] meat"? Fast offerings that we donate to the Church are used to feed the hungry in our wards and communities. There are food banks and other charitable organizations to which we may donate that help alleviate hunger as well. The Boy Scouts of America recently conducted a Scouting for Food drive in the area, in which they collected donated food in order to help stock local food banks. I'm sure you have all had a hungry friend, roommate, or neighbor that you have served at some point in your life. How many times has the Relief Society provided meals for individuals and families in need? How many times have you been the recipient of, or participant in, such service? Bishops, Relief Society presidents, home and visiting teachers all look out for and help serve those in need of food and nourishment. It is difficult to meet others' spiritual needs if their temporal needs are not met.

This is physical food. Is there not also spiritual food? The world is full of people that are spiritually hungry. The Old Testament prophet Amos foretold the conditions of our day.

Behold, the days come, saith the Lord God, that I will send a famine in the land, not a famine of bread, nor a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the Lord:

And they shall wander from sea to sea, and from the north even to the east, they shall run to and fro to seek the word of the Lord, and shall not find it. (Amos 8:11-12)

How do we help those suffering from this famine of hearing the words of the Lord? Notice that those who suffer from this famine are not just standing idly by. They wander and run to and fro to seek the word of the Lord. They are actively seeking but do not know where to find it. As members of the Church, we have the responsibility to share the word of God with the entire world. Thus we can help alleviate this hunger or famine of hearing the word of God.

Jesus said, "I am the bread of life: he that cometh to me shall never hunger" (John 6:35). As we share the gospel and help others come unto Christ, we give them the chance to partake of this bread, the Bread of Life. Through the sacred ordinance of the sacrament, we partake of physical bread--bread that represents Christ's broken body--and thus we can be spiritually filled.

We also provide this spiritual nourishment as we share our testimonies with others; teach and participate in Sunday School, priesthood, and Relief Society lessons; and fulfill our duties as home and visiting teachers.

"I was an hungered, and ye gave me meat" (Matthew 25:35).  

2. "I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink"

Next: "I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink" (Matthew 25:35). Having grown up along the banks of the Columbia River in Washington state, I never really acquired a serious appreciation for water--drinking water--until I spent some time in a country where you must not drink the water that comes out of the tap unless you wish to become seriously ill.

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On the screen you can see three large six-liter bottles of water--yes, water. The bottle in the middle holds the first six liters of water that came out of the tap one day in the apartment where I stayed on a study abroad trip in St. Petersburg, Russia, about 12 years ago. I honestly don't know what exactly made the water so orange, but it was rather disturbing to look at and contemplate drinking. Unseen in this water is a nasty parasite called giardia lamblia, which you really should avoid. The bottle on the left contains the next six liters of water to come out of the tap--slightly less colored. The bottle on the right has clear, pure water and was straight from the store. On the label is written, in rather small letters, pit'evaja voda, or "drinking water." I'm sure you can guess from which bottle we chose to drink. This water was not easy to acquire: It involved carrying these rather heavy bottles about a quarter of a mile from the nearest store that sold them and then sometimes lugging them up the stairs when the elevator in our apartment building didn't work. They were not cheap, either, but the alternative was not appealing. When I returned to St. Petersburg in 2015 to spend two months on a sabbatical leave, I was quite relieved to see a bottled-water dispenser in my host family's kitchen. I had a reliable source of clean drinking water.

Acquiring and dispensing potable, or drinkable, water is a rather expensive undertaking in many parts of the world. In fact, water scarcity is rapidly becoming a major issue in more and more countries, including right here in the United States. When was the last time you paid a dollar for a bottle of water? Do you realize that it may be costing you more than gasoline?

In a similar way, pure spiritual water is a rather scarce thing in today's world. Just like the orange water we saw in the middle and left bottles in the picture, much of the spiritual water available and promoted by the world today is filthy and spiritually harmful--it's full of spiritual giardia. Would you drink the contaminated water from the middle bottle? I hope not!

To what source should we turn to get our own spiritual water? The ultimate source is, of course, the Savior. He taught this beautifully to the woman of Samaria at the well.

Jesus answered and said unto her, Whosoever drinketh of this water shall thirst again:

But whosoever drinketh of the water that I shall give him shall never thirst; but the water that I shall give him shall be in him a well of water springing up into everlasting life. (John 4:13-14)

Notice that it "shall be in him a well of water"; this well comes from the Savior and becomes an internal water source--one that comes from within. How do we acquire and then drink from this well of spiritual water? We can come to devotional, feast on the scriptures daily, fast, commune with our Heavenly Father in prayer, worship on Sunday, and attend the temple. These are all ways to drink deeply from this well. How do you drink from the well? Just as our physical bodies cannot survive very long without water, our spirits also have need of spiritual water.

We are reminded of this water in several ordinances of the gospel, from the water in the sacrament, which represents the blood our Savior freely spilled for us, to the waters of baptism, through which we may become clean from sin and be born again in a new spiritual life.

"I was thirsty and ye gave me drink" (Matthew 25:35).  

3. "I was a stranger, and ye took me in"

Next: "I was a stranger, and ye took me in" (Matthew 25:35). What exactly does that mean? As a linguist, I am interested in words, what they mean, and where they come from. In the Russian Synodal translation of the Bible, the phrase "ye took me in" is rendered vy prinjali menja, using the verb prinjat', which means "to accept, receive; admit; allow to join." In Russian, many words may be broken down into smaller meaningful chunks, or morphemes, which, as my students can attest, often brings greater insight into those words. The verb prinjat' is made up of three morphemes, meaningful chunks: pri-, which means "bring near"; -nja-, which means "have or take"; and -t', which means it is a verb. So a literal translation of the phrase "ye took me in" in Russian would sound something like "ye took me near, or close" or "ye have me near, or close." Isn't that what the Savior invites us to do: to have Him near us, close to us? Isn't that beautiful imagery?

In the Latin Vulgate Bible, the phrase "ye took me in" is rendered collexistis me, using a verb which usually means "to collect together, assemble, or gather in" and is related to the English words colleague, college, and collect. So if we took all these meanings--accept, receive, admit, allow to join, collect together, assemble, gather in--and squished them all together, to use a technical linguistic term, I think we would have a good sense of what the phrase "ye took me in" means.             
But what about the "stranger"? "I was a stranger, and ye took me in." The Bible Dictionary defines stranger in this way: "The word is frequently used to denote a man of non-Israelite birth, resident in the promised land with the permission of the Israelite authorities" (Bible Dictionary Stranger). So in the biblical sense a stranger was a person from another country, from another place.            

Let's pull all of our definitions together: I was a person from another country, from another place, and ye accepted me, received me, admitted me, allowed me to join, collected me together, assembled with me, gathered me in. As we "take in or receive" others, it is as though we are taking in or receiving the Savior Himself.

What exactly does that mean for you and for me, right here, today? Who are these "others," the "strangers" of which the Savior speaks? I think I might have an answer. Take a moment to look around you. Do you see people you don't know? Are they from another place or even country? Unless you are in a room with only your immediate family members, I would say that you have found "strangers." Are we not all strangers - people from different places, different countries?             

How do we take people in, as the Savior instructs? Does this mean that we open our apartments or homes to everyone everywhere? That's probably not very practical. There will be times when we can literally welcome others into our homes, as so many people have done across Europe with the ongoing refugee crisis there. The generosity and service shown by the people of Rexburg and the surrounding area during the Teton Dam flood of 1976 are an instructive legacy of selfless service for this region. But we don't usually have refugees or floods pouring through our communities on a regular basis. How, then, do we take people in?             

Think back to the definitions I gave for the phrase "I was a stranger, and ye took me in." Considering this in a more spiritual or social sense, isn't Christ inviting us to accept, take in, and admit "strangers" into our own homes, circles of friends, wards, and stakes? I invite you to take a minute and think about "strangers" around you. Is there someone in your apartment, your ward, your classes, or perhaps your neighborhood that might feel like a total stranger? Perhaps he or she is new to the area or doesn't seem to fit in. Do you think he or she might feel like a total stranger sometimes? Have you yourself ever felt that way? My invitation for all of us here today is to find a "stranger," take him or her in, and help him or her feel what Paul describes in his epistle to the Ephesians:

"Now therefore ye are no more strangers and foreigners, but fellowcitizens with the saints, and of the household of God" (Ephesians 2:19). This is our Savior's invitation to us.

"I was a stranger, and ye took me in."    


4.  "Naked, and ye clothed me"

Next: "naked, and ye clothed me." I'm sure very few, if any, of us passed by someone who utterly lacked clothing on our way to this devotional today. But how many of us have donated clothing to Deseret Industries or Goodwill or other charitable thrift stores? How often do we contribute to the Humanitarian Aid program of the Church? In the April 2016 general women's session of general conference, Sister Linda K. Burton, general Relief Society president, extended the following invitation: "It is our hope that you will prayerfully determine what you can do--according to your own time and circumstance--to serve the refugees living in your neighborhoods and communities. This is an opportunity to serve one on one, in families, and by organization to offer friendship, mentoring, and other Christlike service and is one of many ways sisters can serve" ("I Was a Stranger", Ensign, May 2016). I think it would be appropriate to extend that invitation to all of us.

How can we get involved? How can we help? There are great resources, videos, ideas, and links on a special page dedicated to the refugee relief effort on the Church's website at lds.org/refugees.

As the Savior instructed the prophet Joseph Smith, "Wherefore, be faithful; stand in the office which I have appointed unto you; succor the weak, lift up the hands which hang down, and strengthen the feeble knees" (D&C 81:5).

Let us do more in our efforts to clothe the naked and relieve suffering wherever it may occur.             "Naked, and ye clothed me."  

5.  "I was sick, and ye visited me"

Fifth: "I was sick, and ye visited me." I'm sure we have all been sick at some point in our lives. And when you're feeling under the weather, who doesn't appreciate a reassuring visit from family or friends? I think of loneliness in this same category of need. When I was in graduate school in Illinois, I was home teacher to a dear elderly sister in our ward, Zada Purrington. She lived alone in an assisted living center but made great efforts to come to church. We lived far from our own families and grandparents, so Zada became a kind of adopted grandparent for our young children. We loved to visit and spend time with her, even though she could barely hear us. I know she was lonely and was often sick, but she was always happy to see us. I'm sure (I hope!) she appreciated our visits with three young girls in tow, and I know we certainly were greatly blessed by our association with her. This kind of service brings blessings in abundance to all involved.

We recently had the missionaries visit our home for dinner and a message. They shared with us a video from the Mormon Messages series entitled "Lift: The Power of Service." You'll find it on YouTube--just search for "Mormon Messages Lift." Not right now, of course; we're not quite done. But once the devotional is over and you have a few minutes, I would highly recommend you watch it. After the elders showed the video, they challenged us to think of people we know, people we work with, people we go to school with, and decide on a specific way that we will reach out and serve them in the coming week. I now echo their invitation and extend it to all of you: Think of a way you can reach out and serve someone in this coming week. Then go and do it!

"I was sick, and ye visited me."  

6. "I was in prison, and ye came unto me"

And number six: "I was in prison, and ye came unto me." I believe that one of the principles the Savior is trying to teach us is not to judge. Notice that he didn't say, "I was in prison, and ye considered whether I was worthy of a visit or not." When someone is in prison, this is probably one of the lowest points of their life. It is exactly at this point that the Savior especially invites us to reach out and visit. My parents-in-law served a Church service mission as Addiction Recovery missionaries at the county jail near where they live. The people they met and had the chance to serve and teach had hit low points in their lives. The hope, though, that the gospel of Jesus Christ offers these people was often transformational. They knew that someone cared.

I've mentioned physical prisons, but are there not also spiritual prisons in which many are incarcerated? In Doctrine & Covenants, section 84, we read, "And the whole world lieth in sin, and groaneth under darkness and under the bondage of sin" (D&C 84:49). Whether they be prisons of addiction, depression, doubt, or sin, many among us find themselves so bound. How do we help? How do we "come unto them" that feel they are in a very real kind of bondage? Elder Holland, in the 2013 October general conference, movingly spoke of his own struggles with depression and gives counsel on how to help: "So how do you best respond when mental or emotional challenges confront you or those you love? Above all, never lose faith in your Father in Heaven, who loves you more than you can comprehend. As President Monson said to the Relief Society sisters so movingly last Saturday evening: 'That love never changes. . . . It is there for you when you are sad or happy, discouraged or hopeful. God's love is there for you whether or not you feel you deserve [it]. It is simply always there' " (Jeffrey R. Holland, Ensign, November 2013).

I had an experience several years ago that taught me the power of asking and its role in bringing comfort. One day I noticed that one of the students in my Russian class was visibly distraught when she arrived for class. We had a few minutes before class was to start, and she sat down in the back of the classroom, near the door. As the rest of the class chatted and prepared for class, I thought to myself, "Hmm... Maybe I should go talk to her." I walked back and, out of earshot of the others, asked her if she was okay. She shook her head and asked if we could step out in the hall. She then confided in me that on her way to my class she had learned--on Facebook, of all places--of some devastating news about her family situation. She didn't know what to do. I suggested that she skip class--can you believe it!--and take time right then to deal with the situation. She thanked me and left. I was proud of her for just showing up to class and am sure she would not have learned or retained anything about Russian short-form past passive participles that day. Looking back, I was glad that I had asked that one simple question. I checked in from time to time with her on how things were going, and my sense was that she was appreciative that someone cared, and cared enough to ask.

 "I was in prison, and ye came unto me."

Those who heard Jesus give these six directions had likely never personally seen the Savior in the circumstances he describes in Matthew, chapter 25. They may well have asked themselves the same question that Jesus then posed: "Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, and fed thee? or thirsty, and gave thee drink? When saw we thee a stranger, and took thee in? or naked, and clothed thee? Or when saw we thee sick, or in prison, and came unto thee?" (Matthew 25:37-39).  Do we not sometimes ask ourselves similar questions? If the Savior were in prison, would we not all go to visit Him? If He came to our home, would we not take Him in? If He were sick, would we not visit him?

The Savior's conclusion to this teaching may hit us close to home: "Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me" (Matthew 25:40). When we reach out and serve others, we are serving the Savior Himself.

I testify that our Heavenly Father lives and loves us, that Jesus is the Christ, and that Thomas S. Monson is the Lord's prophet today.

That we may feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, take in the stranger, clothe the naked, visit the sick, and go to those in prison is my humble prayer in the name of Jesus Christ, amen.

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