In Matthew’s gospel, the story is told of King Herod who committed genocide on a scale we can hardly imagine. But before this happened, he was visited by Magi who told him they had traveled a far distance in order to pay homage to a new king that had been born. Neither Herod nor his scholars could figure out exactly where this new king was born. So he told the Magi to go and search diligently for him. When they found the child they were instructed to return to Herod and fill him in on all the details. Herod told them he also wanted to pay homage to this new king. But the Magi knew Herod better than that.
And so when they found the newborn king, they paid him homage and offered him gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. Then they left by another route in order to avoid running into Herod again. When Herod realized that he had been tricked by the Magi, he lost his mind and became enraged. He ordered his soldiers to murder all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under.
Before the slaughter began, the infant king’s father, Jospeh, had a dream. In this dream an angel of the Lord appeared and told him to get up, take the chid and his mother, and flee to Egypt. And so Joseph and Mary grabbed what they could carry and, in the middle of the night, fled to Egypt with their son, Jesus.
I cannot imagine the desperation and terror Joseph & Mary must have felt. But I have seen it in the eyes of those who have fled from countries such as El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. These people are seeking refuge from poverty, oppressive governments and violence in their streets. These people are seeking a place of safety for themselves and their children. They are risking EVERYTHING, in order to make it to the land whose Statue of Liberty proclaims:
“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!” But instead of finding a safe-haven, they are greeted with a brutality that matches the countries they came from. Those who brought children with them are having these children ripped from their arms, with no idea of where they are going or if they will ever see them again.
It’s hard to imagine people experiencing a horror such as this. It’s hard to imagine this happening in America, the country we know and love. But we saw it this week. And once you see something like this, you cannot unsee it. Once you see something like this, Jeff Sessions quoting Romans 13 to justify our government’s actions is absolutely outrageous. Once you see something like this, Corey Lewandowski mocking a child with Downs Syndrome who was taken from her parents, is about as low as humanity can go.
Once you see something like this, you cannot remain silent. You must speak truth to power. You must call your elected officials and protest the kind of heartless and cruel treatment we have witnessed in our nation with week. I have absolutely no problem with a country securing its borders. In fact, I think it’s essential for the safety of its citizens. However, I do have a problem with our nation doing it in a way that is inhumane by any reasonable definition of the word.
Thankfully, I don’t think Jesus was treated this way when he and his family arrived in Egypt as undocumented immigrants fleeing an oppressive regime. Matthew is short on details. He simply tells us that the holy family remained in Egypt until the death of King Herod. Then, and only, then did they return to Mary’s hometown of Nazareth. However, I suspect that if Jesus had been treated the way we are treating these children who are arriving at our border this week, he may have become a different person than the one we know and love, the one who gave his life for us, the one who is worthy of our worship.
I have no doubt that Jesus’ experience of being a homeless refugee, helps to explain his fondness for outsiders, as well as those who are oppressed or abused. It helps to explain why he set such a wide table and welcomed everyone to come and dine. It helps to explain why he told stories of extravagant grace, which he said are a signs of the reign of God; signs of what the world looks like when God is in charge, and oppressive governments and institutions are not.
One of these parables of grace is a story that has become one of the cornerstones of Christianity. It puts flesh and blood on Jesus’ command to love one another as he has loved us. This story is the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats. We know it well. But let me highlight the most important part of this story. On the day of judgment, God defines what it means to live a righteous life:
“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.”
Everyone who heard this was quite perplexed since they had not offered God such extravagant hospitality. So they began asking questions: “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 God answered 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.”
We have heard these words so many times that they may have lost their power to inspire us to serve the most vulnerable among us; to challenge us to stretch and grow in ways that are often uncomfortable.
Most Christians would agree that we are called to feed the hungry and take care of the sick. But what about clothing the naked, which means ministering to those who are poor and homeless? Some think they’re just lazy and should get a job.
What about visiting those who are in prison? I’ve done it several times in my ministry but it’s really hard. It takes a lot of guts to do this holy work on a regular basis. Thank God for chaplains who serve our prisons. To be honest with you, I don’t know how they do it. I don’t have the emotional strength to pull that off on a daily basis!
Then there’s a final saying in the parable, that speaks to us most strongly this week: I was a stranger and you welcomed me. Jesus couldn’t be any clearer. I was a stranger and you welcomed me. There’s no wiggle room here. I was a stranger and you welcomed me. The Greek word for stranger is XENOS. It means “foreigner” or “alien.”
A stranger is someone who is “not from here.” The Bible doesn’t say anything about whether they are legal or illegal. It doesn’t say anything about whether they are simply passing through or planning to stay, fleeting persecution or seeking asylum. It simply tells us to welcome the stranger. There is no other way to understand this command.
Jesus was building on a long tradition of the law and prophets who told us to do the same. Deuteronomy reminds the people, “For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who is not partial and takes no bribe, who executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and who loves the strangers, providing them food and clothing. You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” [Deut 10:12-19]
The prophet Jeremiah declared: “Thus says the LORD: act with justice and righteousness, and deliver from the hand of the oppressor anyone who has been robbed. And do no wrong or violence to the alien, the orphan, and the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place.” [Jer 22:3] The word “alien” has the same sense as the word “stranger.” It is someone who is an immigrant, who comes from someplace else.
The prophet Zechariah said, “Thus says the LORD of hosts: render true judgments, show kindness and mercy to one another; do not oppress the widow, the orphan, the alien, or the poor; and do not devise evil in your hearts against one another.” [Zech 7:9-10]
Then the prophet makes a sobering statement that we would do well to listen to today: “But they refused to listen, and turned a stubborn shoulder, and stopped their ears in order not to hear. They made their hearts adamant in order not to hear the law and the words that the LORD of hosts had sent by his spirit through the former prophets. Therefore great wrath came from the LORD of hosts. And God scattered them with a whirlwind among all the nations that they had not known. Thus the land they left was desolate, so that no one went to and fro, and a pleasant land was made desolate.” I’m just telling you what the prophet said. You can draw your own conclusions regarding how it applies to us.
So Jesus was citing the prophets of old, when he told us to welcome the stranger. But this is not an isolated teaching. Jesus’ call to radical hospitality, and showing mercy to the downtrodden, is found all throughout the gospels: In the parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus blew the doors off the definition of what it means to love our neighbor so that it included anyone who was in need. [Lk 10] In this story, the ability to show mercy to the injured man who is lying on the side of the road, is far more important than following the letter of the law.
In one of my favorite teachings of Jesus, he offered the following words of wisdom to those who criticized him for working on the Sabbath: “If one of you has a child or an ox that has fallen into a well, will you not immediately pull it out on the Sabbath day?” In other words, this should be a no-brainer.
Our ability to show mercy, to love all of our neighbors without exception, is what it means to be a Christian. We are called to serve one another, and never do harm to our neighbors in the name of following the law.
Friend in Christ, I could go on but I think you get the point. This is not a progressive vs. conservative issue. This is not a Democrat vs. Republican issue. It is a humanitarian issue and our country is in crisis. If we loose our capacity to love our neighbors, if we cannot welcome the stranger, the immigrant who implores us to have mercy, then we are headed for serious trouble. If we remain silent while children are being ripped from their parents arms in the name of following the law, then we are guilty of doing the deed ourselves.
I will not and cannot remain silent. What is happening in our nation is anti-Christian. It is a mockery of everything Jesus told us to do as his disciples. Lutherans have had a long history of working with immigrants and refugees. Our roots in this work run very deep. So educate yourself. Get involved. Call your elected representatives. Speak out. We are better than this as a nation and as followers of Jesus. AMEN
Copyright ©2018 by David Eck