The Hebrew word for “sojourner” (גֵּר, gēr) can also be translated as “foreigner” or “stranger.” Thus, whenever we read about someone “sojourning,” they are a foreign person migrating somewhere. Often, when we think of a “stranger,” we use it interchangeably with “neighbour,” someone we don’t know or have never met. But this is not how the Scriptures use the word. Whenever the Scriptures speak of someone sojourning, they use the word for someone who is “strange” in the sense of being foreign. Foreigners are “strange” not in the derogatory sense but in the sense that they are different than us. Our ears perk up when we hear a foreign accent in our native tongue because it sounds “strange,” that is, different. We’re not used to it.
God’s love and compassion for foreigners is ubiquitous throughout the Torah, as well as in other places in the Hebrew Scriptures. But for now, we will only be looking at several verses in Exodus. We will be utilising my own translations.
Exodus 12:49, “‘There shall be one Torah for the native and for the foreigner who sojourns among you.'” Exodus 22:21, “‘You shall not mistreat a foreigner or oppress him, for you were foreigners in the land of Egypt.'” And Exodus 23:9, 12, “‘You shall not oppress a foreigner. You yourselves know the life of the foreigner, for you were foreigners in the land of Egypt.'” In these verses, we see two things.
First, we see God’s love and compassion for foreigners in that He commands the people of Israel to welcome them—and not just simply welcoming them but welcoming them under the Torah. There would be one Torah—or Law—for both the native and the foreigner. This welcoming means an inclusion of the foreigner into Israel’s laws, cultures, and customs. This means the foreigners assimilated into Israel’s culture, and in other places in the Torah we also see that foreigners were not exempt from its punishments (Leviticus 18:26; 20:2; 24:15-16, 22; Numbers 15:30).
Second, God appeals to the Israelites’ own experience. God commands them to be just toward foreigners and not to oppress them because they themselves were foreigners in a foreign land within which they themselves suffered injustice and oppression. As God says, “You yourselves know the life of the foreigner.” Israel knew what it was like to be foreigners in a strange land. Therefore, when a foreigner walks into their land, they should respond to him or her with the utmost sympathy and hospitality, and that is exactly what God commands.
So, what about us? How does this apply to us? In one way, it doesn’t since these laws were written to a specific people at a specific time and place. But in another way, it still applies because of God’s immutability. To understand this, we will first look at some words from Jesus, then some words from St. Peter.
Because God is immutable, His love and compassion for foreigners or strangers has not changed. And because Jesus is God, He says this about His Parousia:
“When the Son of Man comes in glory, and all the angels with Him, then He will sit on His glorious throne. Before Him will be gathered all the nations, and He will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. And He will place the sheep on His right, but the goats on the left. Then the King will say to those on His right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave Me food, I was thirsty and you gave Me drink, I was a stranger [can also be translated foreigner] and you welcomed Me, I was naked and you clothed Me, I was sick and you visited Me, I was in prison and you came to Me.’ Then the righteous will answer Him, saying,’Lord, when did we see You hungry and feed You, or thirsty and give You drink? And when did we see You a stranger [or foreigner] and welcome You, or naked and clothe You? And when did we see You sick or in prison and visit You?’ And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these My brothers, you did it to Me.'”Matthew 25:31-40
Thus, from Jesus’ own mouth, by welcoming a foreigner (ξένος, xenos), it is as if we are welcoming the Lord Himself. As God, Jesus expects us to be hospitable to the foreigner among us. After all, He Himself came from a foreign place—the throne of God—to dwell among us and live as one of us.
Lastly, inspired by the Holy Spirit, St. Peter also appeals to our experience as Jesus’ disciples by using a synonym (πάροικος, paroikos), “Beloved, I urge you as sojourners [literally, resident aliens] and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul” (1 Peter 2:11). In context, Peter is urging his audience to live as God’s “chosen race, royal priesthood,” and “holy nation” (v. 9), which is the fulfilment of God’s promise in the wider context of Exodus 19:5-6.
Because Christ’s church is the fulfilment of this promise in Exodus, that means we are also foreigners in a foreign land, or more literally resident aliens, that is, immigrants. (For a comparison, my wife recently got approved for her Green Card, which makes her a permanent resident alien of the United States.)
We are resident aliens in the world (John 17:14-16, “I have given them Your Word, and the world has hated them because they are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. I do not ask that You take them out of the world, but that You keep them from the evil one. They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world”).
Every Christian experiences this “foreign-ness,” or strangeness, in the world. Living as God’s holy people—or literally people who are set apart—we live and think differently than everyone else. We don’t quite belong. Everything in the world doesn’t quite sit right with us. From sex scenes and profanity in film, to immodest dressing in public, legalised drug use, legalised murder (= abortion), obscene talk in casual conversation, and so on, we don’t seem to fit in. That’s because, as citizens of God’s kingdom, we don’t really belong in the world; we’re foreigners here—resident aliens. Therefore, we desire a new world, which is the new creation Jesus will herald in at His Parousia. Therefore, we pray, “Come, Lord Jesus.”
Furthermore, considering Jesus’ words about welcoming the foreigner and Peter’s Spirit-inspired words that we are the fulfilment of Israel living in a foreign world, how should we respond to the foreigner among us? To rephrase this, how should we love the immigrant among us? To answer this question, I want to pose two other questions for you to ask yourself, ponder, and then answer. Both questions have to do with the missio Dei (mission of God).
The first is: How do I separate politics from God’s mission? By examining our “yesterdays”—that is, our history—Dr. Justo González leads us to ask some important questions considering this historical cognisance in a speech he gave. The first is: Can western Christians separate politics from the missio Dei? When speaking on the “yesterdays” of the Catholic Church, González said, “the church as a hierarchical institution became an agent of colonial policies. Bishops were appointed, not on the basis of their pastoral experience in the colonies, but rather on the basis of their political contacts in Spain or Portugal.” Thus, “the entire colonial enterprise was also a Christian enterprise” (González, 25).
The Catholic Church has an unfortunate history of co-mingling religious motivation with political motivation, which is reminiscent of the Crusades era. It seems that in more recent history—more recent yesterdays—this cult of personality has not entirely left the Catholic Church.
I wonder to what extent this is also true of Protestant and Lutheran churches. Of immediate relevance is immigration. How many Christians and how many church bodies are capable of separating politics from the missio Dei that is observably taking place among immigrants? The mission of God amongst these peoples—and all peoples—has naught to do with politics, yet we keep tainting the missio Dei with politics. We replace the Word of God with the rhetoric of our favourite political pundits. Thus, when I say, “As Christians, we have the moral obligation to be hospitable to the immigrant among us,” conservative Christians will retort with, “Well what about this or that law” while parroting the mantras of their political idols. To which I respond: What of these commands of men? My main concern is the second greatest commandment of God, “Love thy neighbour as thyself.”
It’s not that we shouldn’t consider certain political dilemmas when participating in God’s mission, such as the practicalities behind helping undocumented immigrants become documented to help them become good and legal citizens (and, therefore, obeying the 9th and 10th Commandments). However, it becomes problematic when political allegiance hinders the missio Dei. When this happens, repentance must necessarily follow.
The second question you ought to ask yourself is: Am I afraid of aliens? According to González, “the Latino experience of the church under the Roman Catholic colonial regime, and even after independence, has been one of a church that is both profoundly enmeshed in the life of the common people and haughtily aloof from the struggles of that life. It is a church both profoundly ours and yet strangely alien” (González, 30).
We can apply this to our own church body as well. In the LCMS, we have a small handful of Hispanic congregations, but the synod at large is “haughtily aloof from the struggles” of Hispanic lives. In other words, our synod—and its members—don’t quite understand the life of a foreigner and/or immigrant like the Israelite would’ve understood the life of a foreigner among them. Therefore, we are unable to empathise with immigrants and put up the barrier of political platitudes that prevent us from loving our neighbour.
Why does this happen? Is it due to ignorance, apathy, or fear? Hence the self-evaluating question, “Am I afraid of aliens?” Unbelievers might be afraid of space aliens, but many people—even Christians—are afraid of the human aliens among us, that is, not only aliens in the sense of immigrants but also aliens in the sense of people who are different than us.
So, what accounts for the lack of Hispanic and other non-white representation in our church membership and leadership? Do we value politics over the missio Dei in that we cannot separate our political leanings from the Great Commission? Are we afraid of aliens—those different than us? Or worse: do we simply not care?
This pastoral thought is a bit longer than my thoughts tend to be, so let’s break it down: God exhibits His love and compassion for foreigners in the Torah, as we have examined in Exodus. Because of His love for them, He commanded Israel to welcome the foreigner into their land by helping them assimilate into the one Torah, that is, their laws, culture, and customs. This assimilation also means the foreigner is not exempt from the Torah’s demands. God also appealed to their own experience as foreigners in a foreign land to exhort them toward this hospitality.
Because God is immutable, Jesus speaks as God when He says that by welcoming the foreigner among us, we welcome Jesus Himself. Later, in his first epistle, St. Peter appeals to the Christian experience of being foreigners in a strange land, that is, the world as we endeavour to live as God’s holy people.
Therefore, with Christ’s exhortation to welcome the foreigner and the Holy Spirit’s reminding us, through Peter, of our foreign status in the world, how ought we to respond to the foreigner and/or immigrant among us? That is, how do we love them as our neighbour? Can we first separate politics from the missio Dei as we endeavour to welcome them among us and make disciples of Christ according to the Great Commission? Are we afraid of them for some irrational reason?
In short, what inspires our interactions with the foreigner among us: God’s compassion as His resident aliens in the world, or fear and hatred of these people different than us who are nevertheless created in God’s image?
Theology Terms Used
- New Creation: the new heavens and the new earth that Jesus Christ will usher in at His second coming.
- Parousia: the second coming of Christ.
González, Justo, J.A.O. Preus III, Douglas Groll, Auerlio Magariño, and Gerald Kieschnick. Under the Cross of Christ Yesterday, Today, and Forever: Reflections on Lutheran Hispanic Ministry in the United States. Saint Louis: Concordia Seminary, 2004.