“Do not deny justice to a resident alien or fatherless child, and do not take a widow’s garment as security. Remember that you were a slave in Egypt, and the Lord your God redeemed you from there. Therefore I am commanding you to do this.” (CSB – Read the chapter)
Experience is a teacher. Exactly what kind of teacher it is depends. Depends on what? Well, to a very great extent, it depends on us. It depends on how we respond to it and the lessons we learn from it. The people of Israel had been through a school of experience in Egypt and God wanted to be sure they learned some particular lessons from it in terms of how they treated others. We may not be Israel, but I think there is something here for us too if we’ll pay attention. Let’s talk about it.
Our history as a nation with immigration is complex. On the one hand, we are a nation of immigrants. The vast majority of our population didn’t come from this country. Yes, there are folks who can trace their heritage back several hundreds of years, but at some point, someone in their family arrived on our shores on a boat. Their trip here may not have happened of their own free will, but it happened all the same. Because of that, in a certain sense, nearly everyone here is an immigrant if you go back far enough.
Being an immigrant isn’t easy. Now, no, I can’t say that with quite the same kind of experienced authority that some folks can, but I have moved a handful of times in my life. I have at least a general familiarity with spending the night for the first time in a place that isn’t your home while at the same time it is your home. You’ve never slept there before, but you’re not on a vacation such that in a few days you are going to go back to your own bed. It is your own bed, it’s simply in a new location.
When you wake up in the morning, you are going to walk out your door into a world that is new. You don’t know the customs. You don’t know at least the cultural language. It took me most of the first winter where I live now to figure out that people didn’t wear sleds on their heads. People would tell me they liked my toboggan leaving me to wonder if they had been in my garage to see the old one we had hanging on the wall. I finally figured out that they call stocking hats (or simply, hats, to me) toboggans here. I still occasionally like to point out that if you google the word “toboggan,” you are only going to find yourself looking at pictures of long sleds.
Worse than not knowing the cultural language, though, you may not know the spoken language. You don’t know your way around from place to place. You’re dependent on a map and perhaps a good cell phone signal. People who have lived there most of their lives may very well look at you a little funny, especially if your skin color or accent happens to not match theirs. You don’t yet understand how the social system works for that area. You don’t know where to shop or where to go to get the various government tags and licenses you need. It can all feel more than a little bit overwhelming.
This experience – like all experience – is a teacher. It will necessarily shape us in one of two directions. For some folks, the experience of being an immigrant can make them hard, especially toward other immigrants. It’s almost like they feel it is their duty to give more recent immigrants a hard time because experiencing a hard time as an immigrant is a sort of rite of passage. Bullied people often become bullies themselves because they don’t know any different.
Certainly we have seen this kind of thing in our own nation’s history. Think about the great cultural clashes in places like New York City in the 19th and early 20th centuries when groups of immigrants who had a longer tenure in the country actively harassed immigrants who hadn’t been here for quite as long. While the great musical and movie, West Side Story, may be a retelling of Romeo and Juliet, the cultural clash between different immigrant cultures in New York was drenched in history. Similar cultural clashes have happened in other nations and across the whole history of humanity. It’s just what we do.
For other folks, though, the experience of having to start over somewhere new and difficult can form in them a natural compassion and kindness for others going through a similarly hard time. They look for opportunities to make the lives of these folks easier. They jump with both feet into ambassadorial roles for these newer members of their communities. If they are followers of Jesus themselves, they see all of this through the lens of extending the love of Christ in ways it was extended to them.
This latter response is what God was calling the people of Israel to have to their own experience of being immigrants at one point in their nation’s past. They were to remember how hard life was and the awful things they went through as a people. Then, they were to remember the kindness and compassion of their God. Combining these two things, when they found people in their future societies who were similarly vulnerable and at risk of being overwhelmed by the pressures and dangers of doing life, they were to actively step in with the same kindness and compassion.
The same lesson applies to us who are following Jesus today. There are people around us who are lost in sin and who are victims of sin’s awful brokenness. Some of the blame for this lies at their own feet, but as slaves of sin, at a certain level they can’t help themselves. Sin is all they are able to produce with their lives. And it is making a mess. Well, if you are a follower of Jesus, it is easy to look on their misery with a sort of smug satisfaction. They are sinners getting what they deserve. Everything is right with the world.
And yet, once you were a sinner like they are. Perhaps your sin was not the same, but it left you no less separated from God and in a place of total hopelessness. It wasn’t until the grace of God in Christ came and rescued you from your sin that you were able to leave it behind and experience the wonders of grace in the kingdom of God. And now, you hold the key to turning their pitiful situation on its head just as yours once was. The question you have to answer is simple: Will you extend them that grace or keep it for yourself? What Jesus would do is clear. Whether or not you will follow suit reveals just how closely you really are following Him. Today, look for someone you can bless even as you have been blessed. You’ll both be glad you did.