Chances are you are familiar with the Exodus story. Charleston Heston leads the Israelites to escape the Egyptian army though the Red Sea every year around Easter. It shows how the Hebrews escaped from slavery thousands of years ago. Do you know how they became slaves in the first place? They were not stolen from their native land and transported across the ocean via slave ships. They were not captured and turned into slaves by enemy armies.
The Hebrew story was one of human migration. Their land fell into famine. There was no food to sustain them. The Hebrews moved to Egypt because they faced starving to death. Egypt was good to them at first. They settled and were fruitful and multiplied. They multiplied so well in fact that the Pharaoh feared their number. Dig down deep enough, and fear is usually the motive behind human oppression. He enslaved them; he pressed them into hard labor to build his mighty structures; he beat and whipped them so subdue them.
As the story is told throughout our scriptures, God is on the side of the oppressed, not the powerful who live in fear of foreigners who multiply in their land. The Biblical story is one of liberation. It’s a story of people wandering—becoming foreigners—refugees—immigrants. It happens over and over. It’s a story of liberation from slavery—and returning from exile, and finding a land to call home.
The Old Testament scriptures remind the Israelites—who they are, where they came from, and how to live with others. Their text says, ‘remember you were in slavery—remember God led you to freedom—remember how bad it was to be without a land, to be strangers, aliens, foreigners, and their remembrance is woven into their laws and rituals.’ Therefore, the Levitical law reads:
‘When strangers reside with you in your land, you shall not wrong them. The strangers who reside with you shall be to you as your citizens; you shall love each one as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt; I the Eternal am your God.’
I know, I know. We don’t like Levitical law. We do not live by Levitical law. Leviticus sets forth lots of laws that we don’t obey. It doesn’t count some might say. Well okay, but it’s not just Leviticus. This mandate is also found in Genesis, Exodus, Deuteronomy, Job, Psalms. The Hebrew writings that affirm kindness to foreigners—cause you were one once—cause God said so. It’s repeated throughout Israel’s story. Ah, but some say, “Old Testament scriptures are OLD.” Yes, I know that’s where we get the Ten Commandments, but still some say, “Jesus changed all the Old into New!”
Ok, let’s see what Jesus has to say. Before Jesus could say anything, a birth narrative was crafted that told of another leader who feared a threat to his throne. As the story it told, the Holy Family awoke from a dream knowing that Jesus was in danger, so they got up and fled into Egypt. They became political refugees back in the land their ancestors knew as slavery. Jesus was an immigrant. When he was older, they returned to their native land. Jesus began to teach, mostly in parables. He tells one in Matthew 25, “for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”
Jesus is said to have noted, “I was a stranger and you welcomed me… when were you a stranger and we welcomed you? Whenever you did to least of these who are members of my family, you did to me.”
“Okay,” you might say, “he was a stranger.” That just means that he was a neighbor that they didn’t know. Someone lived down the street or across town. Strangers can be just someone who lives next door—that we haven’t met yet—you know, someone like us—we offer hospitality —coffee and donuts—to others like us. But that’s not the word “stranger” found here. In Greek, Xenos means a foreigner, one from a foreign land.
Jesus says, ‘you welcome me, when you welcome the hungry, thirsty, naked, sick, foreigners. For the least of these foreigners are members of my family.’
Jesus as a political leader advocates welcome and care and compassion for the weak and the vulnerable who come to us from foreign lands.
Jesus does not offer a political platform to say, “build a wall, make them pay for it, stand guard on top of it with weapons of steel. Sit on your wall and eat of the abundance of your heartland grown food, drink of the vineyard to your delight. Look down from your fortified wall to those in anguish, to those fleeing war, to those who are attempting to cross your desert who are perishing from thirst turning your southern border into a mass grave, look down upon your walls of power watching bodies wash ashore and lay lifeless on your sandy beaches, and say to yourself those people don’t count, they don’t belong here, they don’t deserve what we have… because they aren’t like us and we are afraid of them.”
That is not the way of Jesus.
On Friday, the Nebraska Legislature heard testimony regarding LB966. It outlined one way Nebraska could relate to refugees. According to the bill, a refugee resettlement agency (anyone who assists with resettlement—nongovernmental) is liable for cost of prosecution, victim damages or injuries caused by criminal act committed by any refugee assisted by agency within five years of relocation. Therefore, all resettlement agencies must have 25 million dollar liability insurance. Every day the agency does not have proof of liability a $1,000 fine for noncompliance will be imposed. Basically, this bill attempts to shut down any agency that assists refugees in Nebraska. It prohibits compassion and care, water for the thirsty, food for the hungry, shelter for the exiled.
It doesn’t sound anything remotely possible for those who claim to follow in the Way of Jesus.
Our faith traditions warns us, as much as it did ancient Israel, don’t forget. Don’t forget that all of us were once foreigners in a strange land or our ancestors were. Prior to our ancestors’ arrival, these lands were not vacant lots. There were indigenous peoples here. People who cared for the land and knew their connection to it. People who had their faith traditions and knew the Mother Earth and Father Sky as sacred. They were Spirit People. Members of God’s family.
Our great-grandmother arrived on these shores, and they had a funny accent. Our great-grandfather didn’t speak their language, and he didn’t learn the native language. They didn’t adopt the culture of the natives; they didn’t adopt the dress. Our someone was not native to these lands.
Our faith tradition echoes through the centuries: When strangers reside with you in your land, you shall not wrong them. The strangers who reside with you shall be to you as your citizens; you shall love each one as yourself, for you were once foreigners too; I the Eternal am your God. I am their God. I AM.
Jesus shows the way to live in God. To love God is to love all humanity- not just the ones who look like us, or talk like us, or dress like us, or worship like us.
That is a truth that Jesus taught the world. People in power might not appreciate this today, not any more than people in power appreciated Jesus’ radical political ways 2,000 years ago. He said it anyway.
May we be bold enough and faithful enough to follow in his way.
Thanks be to God.