We are both Christians and Americans. When we face problems which affect our nation and define us as Americans, how do we Christians know how to answer questions such as those concerning immigration and how to treat aliens within our borders? Whenever we are faced with such decisions to be made in our everyday lives, it is best if we do a thoughtful theological evaluation of the problem, which I hope to illustrate in this pastoral note to you.
Real theological reflection on any issue always includes consulting Scripture as the basis for our understanding. As Christians, we give priority to the teaching of the New Testament. But we should remember that Jesus, Peter, Paul, and all the writers of the New Testament were versed in Hebrew Scriptures, which shaped their perspective and ethical framework. We therefore cannot discount what the Torah taught them. When they address the situation of sojourners or aliens among the people of Israel, for instance, the Torah commandments are clear. First of all, the Lord recognizes sojourners or aliens within the land of Israel and directs that, these “outsiders” are to be treated as fully human and given respect. This is clear in the commandment concerning the Sabbath, for the sojourner is also entitled to the freedom of the day of rest, just as the Israelite enjoys it.
But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; in it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your manservant, or your maidservant, or your cattle, or the sojourner who is within your gates. (Exodus 20:10)
Not only are sojourners allowed the Sabbath rest, but provision is made even for them to participate in the holy festival of Passover, which marks God’s act of deliverance (see Numbers 9:14). God stresses this need for equitable treatment in the commandment, “You shall have one law for the sojourner and for the native; for I am the Lord your God.” (Leviticus 24:22; see also Numbers 15:15)
Recognizing our human propensity to take advantage or oppress those who are different, the Lord repeatedly commands that no such oppression is allowed. In fact, Israel is to take special care to provide for the needs of aliens, like other poor and oppressed groups. They are to be given the opportunity to support themselves and the means of living:
And you shall not strip your vineyard bare, neither shall you gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and for the sojourner: I am the Lord your God. (Leviticus 19:10)
God instructs Israel, God’s Cherished People, to show their love by justice, which cares especially for those who cannot fend for themselves:
For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great, the mighty, and the terrible God, who is not partial and takes no bribe. He executes justice for the fatherless and the widow, and loves the sojourner, giving him food and clothing. Love the sojourner therefore; for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt. (Deut 10:17-19; see also Deut 14:29)
Pay particular attention to that last phrase, for the Lord reminds Israel that they themselves were once aliens and sojourners in Egypt, where they were oppressed – and God heard their cry; therefore, Israel shall not be like Egypt to its sojourners and aliens. In fact, the Lord reminds Israel that the whole world—including the land of Israel– is His, and therefore even those who have possession of the Promised Land do so as temporary sojourners with God’s blessing.
The land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is mine; for you are strangers and sojourners with me. (Leviticus 25:23)
The point is clear: God alone is sovereign, and all people and their lot in life come under God’s surveillance.
When we turn to the teachings of Jesus himself, two examples will serve to illustrate how Jesus equated aliens even with the most “righteous” of his own people and followers. For example, the parable of “The Good Samaritan” shows how putting into practice the key commandment to “love your neighbor as yourself” is exemplified by the alien Samaritan, in contrast to the religious leaders of Israel (Luke 10:25-37).
But even more telling is the parable of the Last Judgment found in Matthew, chapter 25.
When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. (Mt 25: 31-2)
The Son will reward those who were compassionate and righteous in their dealings with the needy, specifically equating their needs to His own person:
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. (Mt 25:35-6)
When those being rewarded are confused about what Christ refers to, He clarifies by stating, “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.” (Mt 25: 40) In so doing, the parable equates the person of Christ with all those who were in need—including the “stranger.” Response to their needs wins His approval, while neglect of those same persons and their needs brings under judgment those who lacked the compassion to respond. The parable is clear that it is the actual stranger or needy ones whom we must address if we are to show our love for Christ and serve God.
Finally, Paul uses the alien/stranger metaphor as the means to explain the reconciling work of Christ:
Remember that you were at that time without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us… So he came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; for through him both of us have access in one Spirit to the Father. So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. (Ephesians 2: 12-14, 17-22)
In this statement, we are told that we were once aliens, outsiders, strangers—but that is no longer the case because our alien nature has been obliterated by the work of Christ. Thus, in the true spirit of Christian community, we not only respect the alien and care for them, but we are told that all such distinctions and separate natures disappear. As our own alien status has been removed through Christ, now all are equally part of the community. Where, therefore, is there ground for any who are in Christ to condemn, persecute, or turn away from the stranger or alien, if Christ Himself has abolished such distinctions in our understanding?