Our Christian Call to Care for the Strangers in our Midst

A Biblical and Theological Reflection

Maggie Helwig
The Hebrew scriptures are deeply marked by the experience of displacement. The story of the exile of Jacob’s descendents in Egypt, their time of wandering in the desert after being delivered from slavery, and, later, the deportation of a large part of the population of Jerusalem to Babylon, all became part of the self-understanding of the ancient Israelites. These stories of being uprooted and endangered in unfamiliar lands influenced the ethical teaching of the scriptures; frequently, the Israelites are reminded of their obligation to care for the stranger and the exile, “for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Exodus 22:21, Leviticus 19:34, Deuteronomy 10:19). Care for the displaced person is a priority in many Old Testament texts, not simply as an act of charity, but out of a sense of identity with the outcast.
The New Testament continues this emphasis on hospitality to the stranger and the alien. Throughout the gospels, Jesus is shown interacting with people who are foreign to his culture – a Samaritan woman (John 4), a Syrophoenician woman (Mark 7:25-30) – and the stories are told in a way which emphasizes the “border violations” involved. Outsiders and those whose status is “irregular” clearly have a particular importance in Jesus’ ministry.
Moving even beyond the Old Testament sense of identity with the stranger, the New Testament texts present the foreigner and the outcast as those in whom we directly encounter God. In Matthew’s judgement parable (Matthew 25:31-46), the Son of Man presents himself as one who was “a stranger” and received welcome or rejection. Similarly, the author of the letter to the Hebrews draws upon Abraham’s hospitality at Mamre to stress that we encounter God in the person of the stranger (Hebrews 13:2).
Perhaps most important of all, when we read the nativity stories in Matthew and Luke, we find Jesus himself entering our world as one of the excluded. In Luke’s gospel, Mary and Joseph are forced by imperial order to leave their home, and must search for shelter in a busy city where there is no room for an unimportant peasant couple. In Matthew’s gospel we see Jesus as a refugee baby, whose family must flee into a foreign country to avoid a politically-motivated massacre. In these stories, God comes among us as a wholly vulnerable displaced person.
In a meditation on the nativity story, the Cistercian monk Thomas Merton wrote,
Into this world, this demented inn, in which there is absolutely no room for him at all, Christ has come uninvited. But because he cannot be at home in it – because he is out of place in it, and yet must be in it – his place is with those others who do not belong, who are rejected because they are regarded as weak; and with those who are discredited, who are denied the status of persons, and are tortured, exterminated. With those for whom there is no room, Christ is present in this world. He is mysteriously present in those for whom there seems to be nothing but the world at its worst.
The imperative of care for the displaced and endangered is profoundly rooted in our Christian narrative; if we neglect this imperative, we are, in effect, turning away Christ himself. And we believe that the uninvited, displaced Christ meets us, sometimes, in those who come from situations of violence and oppression, those who have been “denied the status of persons” in their countries of origin, and who seek safety in Canada.

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