Our world has become increasingly violent and war-torn. One of the consequences of this has been a dramatic increase in the number of refugees fleeing violence and poverty and seeking to make a new life for themselves in more peaceful countries such as Canada and the United States. Canada has taken a leading role in refugee sponsorship, having welcomed tens of thousands of refugees from Syria and other countries over the past few years. Despite this (or perhaps because of it), immigration has become a volatile issue, especially in the United States, but increasingly in Canada as well. So, what should be a Christian’s response to refugee sponsorship? What guidance does the Bible give us on this topic?
Let’s look first at the Old Testament. It’s interesting that the phrase, “love the stranger,” occurs 36 times in the Old Testament. Throughout the Old Testament, God keeps reminding the Israelites that they, themselves, knew what it was to be poor and to be strangers in a land that was not their own. This memory was supposed to prompt them to show compassion to the dispossessed among them. Moses reminded his people of their origins with these words: “My father was a wandering Aramean, and he went down into Egypt with a few people and lived there...” (Deuteronomy 26:5). The Israelites had once been refugees and thus were to show compassion to refugees. That is why, in the Old Testament, the Hebrew word for refugee is often clumped in with other marginalized groups in society—the poor, widows, orphans, and hired hands.
The New Testament opens with Jesus’ birth—far from home, far from family, with very few financial resources. Shortly after His birth, to escape violence from political and military leaders, Jesus and His parents become refugees in a foreign land, Egypt. Even as an adult, Jesus lived as an itinerant preacher with “no place to lay his head” (Matthew 8:20). Is it any wonder that Jesus told His followers that, when we welcome a stranger, we are welcoming Him? Have we forgotten Jesus’ words when He said, “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me” (Matthew 25:40)? Is there anyone who could reasonably claim that refugees are not included among “the least of these?”
Former British MP Sarah Teather says, “Over and over again in the Bible, the stranger—the foreigner—is presented to us not as a threat, or even as a subject for pity, but as gift, as truth teller, and as teacher.” Teather goes on to remind us that in the Old Testament, it is Melchizedek who feeds and blesses Abraham, it is Balaam who blesses Israel, it is Cyrus who delivers the Jews from exile, and it is the Moabite woman, Ruth, who becomes the ancestor of King David and, ultimately, the Messiah. All of these people were non-Jews--foreigners.
In the New Testament, Teather reminds us, it is the Samaritan who is modeled as the good neighbour, it is a Samaritan who is the only one of ten lepers healed who returns to thank Jesus for his healing, it is the Roman centurion who is held up as a model of faith, and it is a Syro-Phoenician woman who is the only person in all the Gospels to win an argument with Jesus! (see Mark 7:24:30).
Teather concludes: “In the Christian story, we find that the stranger is often the hand of God. Not the drainer of resources but the donator of gifts. Not the harbinger of scarcity but the sacrament of abundance.”
Our country’s attitude towards refugees has been framed as a political issue, an economic issue, a resource issue, and a safety issue. The Bible frames it as a moral issue. As Christians, we had better be sure that our treatment of refugees is in line with the values and priorities of God as reflected in Scripture. If they are not, we may find ourselves coming under God’s judgment for our treatment of those whom God meant to be a blessing to us.