“You must not exploit a resident alien or oppress him, since you were resident aliens in the land of Egypt.” (CSB – Read the chapter)
Being the new kid is tough. From the moment you walk into the room, it feels like everybody is looking at you suspiciously. Who are you? What are you like? Are you going to upset the fragile social structure they have managed to achieve in their time together without you? Okay, that last question may not be asked intentionally or out loud, but it’s there all the same. This kind of thing happens on a small scale in something like a classroom. It also happens on the much larger scale of nations. There are people living in our country who were not born here. The question we have to wrestle with as a nation because of this is: What is to be done with all of these people? That’s a political question with no easy answers. There’s another question, though, that often gets ignored in public debates (except perhaps to score political points), but is nonetheless just as important: How should they be treated? For followers of Jesus, this one is much easier to answer. Let’s talk about it for a few minutes this morning.
As I have begun looking through the Scriptures through the lens of God’s heart for the stranger, my journey has so far been limited to the books of the Law. I have read Genesis through Deuteronomy several times. In those various readings, I have occasionally noticed several references to “resident aliens.” I honestly didn’t give these references too much attention because I was looking for other things. This reading, though, has highlighted for me the fact that they are all over the place.
Again and again God makes reference to this group of people. I have no idea what percentage of the population of ancient Israel these “resident aliens” comprised. I’m not aware of historical or even archaeological records that would allow us to make an educated guess at such a number. And yet, the sheer number of times they are mentioned in the Law would suggest it was at least a significant enough percentage to warrant some real attention.
And yet, who exactly were these folks? The Hebrew word being translated by this phrase is the word “ger.” It referred to someone living in Israel who wasn’t born there, but who had chosen to make Israel their home and (more importantly) Israel’s God their God. They desired to be a part of the covenant and had made the necessary adjustments to their life to make this desire a reality. In other words, they were what today we might call naturalized citizens. These were not folks just passing through. They were not temporary residents. They weren’t political or religious refugees. They certainly weren’t looking to cause trouble or otherwise undermine Israel’s society. They wanted to be Israelites and were willing to do what it took to make that a reality.
The trouble was, people then were incredibly tribal. We still are. We divide ourselves into all kinds of different groups and exhibit a fierce loyalty to whatever we have determined our core group to be. In the ancient world, tribalism like this generally fell along literal tribal lines. And if you were a member of one tribe, no matter how much you tried to join my tribe, I was always going to look at you through a lens of suspicion. You were a “come here,” and that wasn’t ever going to change.
The way this prejudice played out was that “real” Israelites constantly looked down on the resident aliens living among them. They didn’t invite them to the neighborhood barbecues. They constantly talked about them suspiciously behind their backs. A business owner looking to hire a new employee wouldn’t give these folks a meaningful look making getting work to feed their families difficult. People also brought these local suspicions into their more corporate civic functions. This resulted in the making of rules both formal and informal that were designed to keep them down. Yet the only thing of which these folks were actually guilty was the crime of being born somewhere else. That gave them a scarlet letter they couldn’t get removed no matter how hard they tried.
Is any of this starting to sound familiar? Are we not guilty of these same kinds of prejudices and injustices today? Our nation’s history is littered with examples of “real” Americans treating one class or another of “come heres” terribly. We have had loud voices actively nurturing suspicions among neighbors. Laws have been passed limiting what people without the right ethnic pedigree can do and accomplish in society. We may have proclaimed a doctrine of equal justice before the law (and indeed, as a nation we have gotten closer to that ideal than any other nation in history), but in practice, we have nonetheless still often landed rather far from it.
Even though we are not ancient Israel, and even though our relationship with God as a nation isn’t like what they had with Him, still His character has not changed. And so, when we see Him express a passion for these folks, and give commands regarding how this vulnerable group of people are to be treated to Israel, we are wise to pay attention to this. What we see here when Moses was still giving the first laws to the people is a theme that appears over and over throughout the rest of the books of the Law. God wanted Israel to be abundantly clear about something: When it comes to these folks, you aren’t to treat them any differently than you treat each other. He makes it clear that the Law is supposed to apply equally to both groups. The social and cultural expectations on both groups were to be the same. The civic responsibilities were alike. In other words, because they have now joined your tribe, you are to treat them as if they have joined your tribe. Period.
And the reasoning behind God’s commands is something we also see laid out here. The people were to have compassion and work for justice for the resident aliens among them because they were once resident aliens themselves. They lived for a very long time in a land that was not their own. They journeyed from afar and settled there. Rather than being received and accepted, though, they were constantly treated by the Egyptians as outsiders. They were sectioned off away from the rest of the population. They were denied opportunities. They were eventually subjugated and made into slaves at which point they were persecuted and abused ruthlessly. What God was calling them to was to remember their experience and learn from it, not repeat it with someone else as the victim.
Again, despite the fact that we are not Israel, we are nonetheless a nation of immigrants. Even the people we now call Native Americans for reasons of political correctness weren’t really native. They’ve been here longer than anyone else, but they came over from Russia through Alaska and gradually settled across the nation, dividing themselves into numerous tribes that reflected the regions in which they settled. And because all of us are come heres if you go back far enough, we should be driven to treat the more recent come heres with compassion and kindness, making sure that they are afforded the same opportunities we have enjoyed. Nothing short of that adequately reflects the justice and righteousness of our God.
Now, how this plays itself out on a national scale is a political question, and a divisive one at that. Yet this baseline expectation of equal justice and opportunity before the law must be the foundation of all the policies we pursue. That goes for both the privileges and the responsibilities of being a citizen. We must not give one without expecting the other. We must not expect one without giving the other. But at the local level where we all have the chance to make an impact, we must always remember that people who are new don’t need suspicion. They need compassion and an ambassador. As followers of Jesus, that is exactly what we are expected to be. We can help acclimate them to this nation, and then from those relationships, we can help introduce them to the kingdom of God. This way we are being good citizens of this nation and of our heavenly home. That’s a good goal to achieve.