Loving the stranger

There is a lot of discussion about immigration and how the church should respond to the current issues. While I’m not qualified to discuss the politics surrounding some of these discussions, the Bible has plenty to say about how to love and care for the immigrants among us. Much of it is based on what the Bible has to say about the experience of the exodus.

If you were an Israelite wandering in the desert during the exodus from Egypt you could have described your experience this way: we had been in bondage in Egypt, enslaved in a foreign land and under the threat of death. But God showed mercy, and we took shelter under the blood of a lamb, which literally coated our doorframe.

God led us out of slavery through his grace — not because of anything we did to merit it. Afterwards God gave us his law to follow because it told us how to live. While we are in the wilderness life is hard, and though we often don’t know where we are going, we have hope that we will eventually be brought into the promised land one day. That is what every Israelite at some point could have said.

Interestingly, Alec Motyer, in his commentary, points out that Christians can say the same thing. Christians were in slavery, in bondage to sin, we took shelter under the blood of the true lamb — Jesus who sacrificed himself for us, led us out of slavery by sheer grace, and now we obey him out of love and gratitude. While we are still in the wilderness life is hard, and we are wandering and are aliens in a foreign land, but we have hope that one day we will be with him in the promised land — one day we will be brought home. The parallels between the OT exodus and the NT understanding of what it means to be a Christian are pronounced.

On one level, to be a Christian means to understand that we were all once enslaved, we were in bondage — but now we have been rescued. We are to see ourselves as outsiders and foreigners as noted in 1 Peter 1:1, which is addressed, “To God’s elect, exiles scattered through all the provinces.” Then in Hebrews 11:9, 10 the writer says “Abraham by faith made his home in the promised land like a stranger in a foreign country (here being an immigrant is positive), for he was looking forward to the city with foundations whose architect and builder is God.”

In other words Christians are immigrants, we are foreigners, this is an identity we should own and embody because whatever physical place we call home can’t really be home. It’s a temporary residence.

I think we see this regularly in NYC where to some degree everyone knows what it feels like to be a foreigner. You can’t get on the subway without looking around and saying “whoa, I’m different from everyone else. I’m a stranger, I’m a foreigner.” It’s tiring to be an outsider and to to live in NYC, because when you are a foreigner you don’t know the culture, you don’t know the language, you don’t know all the customs, which is exhausting.

This is one of the reasons I think we like to wear earphones on the subway — to block out the difference out there and stay inside our own heads. It’s hard to get outside yourself; it’s hard to get into another person’s world.

Christians should understand this particularly as well because on one level the people around us don’t quite get us, people don’t understand us. Our motives, our purpose, our customs are distinct and at some level the narratives that run our lives are different than those around us. It’s always awkward for me in a group setting when people ask what I do. Eventually it comes out, “I’m a minister at a Presbyterian church;” and suddenly it’s crickets — no one ever knows what to say!

Our reason to care and be good to all strangers and immigrants is that we were once that way ourselves — spiritually — and at the same time we still are physically. And if we really are immigrants, all of us, why are we not trying to help out our fellow immigrants? Go back to the Exodus account — if we were wandering out in the wilderness and knew what is was like to be disenfranchised for 40 years, then of course we would know what its like for others who are in the same situation, no matter where they are from in this world.

God commands us to be good to aliens and immigrants “because you, too, were once immigrants in a foreign land.” Exodus 22:21 “Do not mistreat or oppress a foreigner, for you were foreigners in Egypt yourself.” Can we remember we were spiritually and still ARE physically aliens in a foreign land, and therefore we must take care of others who are as well? The exact way we take care, the process, the means, the degree are all factors that are conditional, but what is not conditional is the posture and attitude found within our own identity as wanderers.

Jesus was the ultimate alien. His life was a life of being rejected, living as a foreigner with no one who understood him, rejected by the people he loved. He doesn’t turn us away though we turned him away; He doesn’t withdraw. He says, “My life for yours, not your life for mine.”

When you see that you were so precious to him he would die for you and pay the penalty for your sin, then he becomes precious to you. When that happens, finally you come to him, but you don’t just do that, you also adopt his mission and turn outward to meet the needs of others.

Since we were needy, but brought in by grace, how can we not do the same for others?

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Articles in this Issue

Download a free MP3 of “Love and Power” by Tim Keller
Gospel humility and the compassion of Christ
Peter Ong
Embodying God’s mercy thanks to your generosity
Turning toward love