The rancor swirling around social justice issues, such as immigration, among Christians is breathtaking. Could we heed James’ advice and listen more before taking our positions of attack (James 1:19-20)? Take a fresh look at what the Bible says about immigration in general, devoid of the present situation in America. What does the Bible say about what to do with foreigners?
Do not mistreat or oppress a foreigner, for you were foreigners in Egypt. Do not take advantage of the widow or the fatherless. (Exodus 22:21-22 NIV)
When giving Moses the Law, God commands Israel that they are not to mistreat or oppress a foreigner living among them. Why? Israel shared a similar history with those same foreigners (see also Lev. 19:34; Deut. 10:18- 19). You might say this is an application of the Golden Rule that Jesus later gave in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 7:12).
Cursed is anyone who withholds justice from the foreigner, the fatherless or the widow.” Then all the people shall say, “Amen!” (Deuteronomy 27:19 NIV)
Imagine for a moment that everyone in our churches shouted “Amen!” when we boldly pronounced our meticulous care for the most vulnerable in society. Does it matter that God said this to national Israel and not the Church?
It seems safe to say that God’s heart for the vulnerable in society didn’t morph from the Old Testament into the New Testament. If God wasn’t clear enough when He gave the Law, He is even more forceful through the Prophets.
This is what the Lord Almighty said: ‘Administer true justice; show mercy and compassion to one another. Do not oppress the widow or the fatherless, the foreigner or the poor. Do not plot evil against each other.’ (Zechariah 7:9-10)
It is evil when God’s people oppress the vulnerable, rather than help them. Notice how the “foreigner” continues to get lumped into lists of specific types of weak and defenseless people. God explicitly points the foreigner out because they are vulnerable. God has no political agenda; He has a theological one!
This is what the Lord says: Do what is just and right. Rescue from the hand of the oppressor the one who has been robbed. Do no wrong or violence to the foreigner, the fatherless or the widow, and do not shed innocent blood in this place. (Jeremiah 22:3)
Jeremiah’s list of vulnerable peoples is slightly different but still includes the foreigner. The constant theme we see is that God’s heart breaks for the weak, the poor, the oppressed, the downtrodden. God doesn’t condone exploitation at the expense of the already-weak. This hits a nerve with God.
“Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice
and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free
and break every yoke? Is it not to share your food with the hungry
and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter— when you see the naked, to clothe them,
and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?
(Isaiah 58:6-7 NIV)
Tell us how you really feel, God! In this diatribe, God doesn’t care about his people’s religious ritualism of giving up eating food for a day if they are willingly going to oppress others in distress. No, we are not under the Law. But we learn very important principles from this text.
First, obedience is not a matter of blind rule-following; it is more nuanced and comprehensive than that. God desires that obedience to Him spill over into the betterment of other people—especially the vulnerable.
Second, God is practical in how we roll up our sleeves and help the vulnerable. Remember how John chides the patronizing words of actionless Christians? This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters. If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person? Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth. (1 John 3:16-18 NIV). In other words, act like Jesus and stop claiming our only calling is to meet people’s spiritual needs.
For example, when you are hungry you desire food. Imagine going to a church service after not eating for three days. How well would you be able to concentrate on worship and preaching from the Word? I wouldn’t be able to think about anything but the gnawing pain in my stomach.
We need to stop separating spiritual needs from physical needs. (I’m thankful to be part of a Fellowship that is doing wonderful things to intersect these two for the advancement of the Great Commission!)
I’ve only taken a selection of passages addressing the treatment of foreigners from the Old Testament. Our hermeneutical hurdle comes when we try leaping into the New Testament. What does it say about how to treat the foreigner?
Not much. We do have the oft-quoted scene from the Olivet Discourse in Matthew 25 where Jesus separates the “sheep” from the “goats.” The line of demarcation is how the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick, and those in prison are treated. Jesus says, “…whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers or sisters of mine, you did for me” (Matt. 25:40). Other than this passage, the New Testament is virtually silent regarding the treatment of foreigners in the same sense the Old Testament means.
Is it because God suddenly laid aside His concern for foreigners? Is it because God only wanted Israel to care for foreigners and not His Bride, the Church? Is it because God forgot to mention it? Or is there a simpler way of evaluating the Testamental leap?
God didn’t lay aside His concern for the vulnerable. God didn’t have a different standard for the Gentiles than He did with ethnic Israel regarding foreigners. And He definitely did not forget to mention it in the New Testament. The answer is that the cultural situation changed between the Testaments.
National Israel in the Old Testament had borders and a theocratic government. When the New Testament opens, ethnic Israel is scattered, and Jesus is talking to them about how to treat the Romans, who aren’t always the kindest of masters (i.e., Matt. 5:38-48). Israel was no longer a sovereign nation with borders and a theocratic government; Israel is under the thumb of Rome.
Any commands to not oppress the foreigner within the Roman context in the New Testament would have been odd. So, let’s not argue from silence that the Bible has nothing to say to the Church about how to treat the foreigner. If anything, we need to evaluate our understanding of how our present national loyalties collide with what the Bible demands from us.
We could summarize:
- God cares for the vulnerable in society.
- The list of who is vulnerable may change, but God’s heart is consistent.
- Governmental policy does not dictate how the Church ought to care for the foreigner.
- One’s loyalties and preferences as the citizen of a country are secondary to God’s expectations for how foreigners in that country are to be treated.
- The Bible does not give us prescriptions for how America should address our immigration challenges as a nation. It does, however, give God’s Church it’s marching orders to reflect the heart of God for all vulnerable peoples we might call our “neighbors” (remember the parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10:25-37).
And one last reminder we could also conclude as well:
- Our divided culture desperately needs to see a united Church that disagrees on the application of the text while maintaining a vibrant love and deliberate unity that only the Holy Spirit can produce (Eph. 4:2-7). — by Jeremy Wike
Jeremy Wike is the pastor of Community of Hope Grace Brethren Church in Columbia City, Ind.