The recent debates about immigration made me think of the ancient Israelites and their own mixed feelings on the topic.
When we think of Old Testament forms of justice -- of all the laws and ordinances outlined in Exodus, Leviticus and Numbers -- most of us probably remember best the doctrine of "an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth." With only that in mind we conclude that ancient Israel's judicial system was something grim and oppressive. The truth is that the heart of the Torah is a heroic attempt to reflect the love and justice of God in all human circumstances. The legal mandates in the Old Testament are unique among the other known Near Eastern judicial systems in their consistent and outspoken protection of "the stranger, the widow and the orphan" -- that is, the weakest, least protected members of the society. Again and again the statutes and ordinances of Old Testament law explicitly list those three groups as worthy of special kindness, extra thoughtfulness, and intentional consideration.
Equally revealing is the Old Testament insistence that there be only one law of the land -- with that law applying equally to both Israelites and to the "stranger that sojourns among you" (Exodus 12:49; Leviticus 16:29; 18:26). There was no double standard in God's Torah. For strangers and other resident aliens who chose to live among the Israelites, there was both equal responsibility and equal protection. "Strangers" were often listed with "widows and orphans" because these three groups shared a common handicap -- they lacked any kinship-connection that would naturally serve as a buffer between them and the harsh demands of life. They were alone and on their own in a time when one's whole identity came from the tribe or the clan.
Strangers or foreigners were entitled to certain protections and could claim some specific rights (such as gleaning), and were even in some cases invited to fully participate in the life of Israel, as shown in Deuteronomy 16:14 where the Lord commands "and you shall rejoice in your feast, you and your son and your daughter and your male and female servants and the Levite and the stranger and the orphan and the widow who are in your towns." Yet, there was still a great chasm between acceptance as a stranger and acceptance as a member of the covenant community. This is vividly evident in Numbers 3:10, "And thou shalt appoint Aaron and his sons, and they shall wait on their priest's office: and the stranger that comes near shall be put to death."
Paul recalls the depth of this rift when he begins our epistle passage by recalling what it used to mean to be a Gentile. They used to be "aliens," they had "no hope," they were utterly "without God in the world" (v.12). The remarkable, redeeming message for the stranger now is that "in Christ Jesus" there has been a miraculous joining together. A humanity that used to be fragmented has now been made whole by the gift of Christ's blood. When Christ died on the cross his one body became the means to "reconcile both groups to God" (v.16). Christ has "broken down the dividing wall" between all who come together in his name.
In the church there is no wall between rich and poor. In the church there is no wall between those who run the office during the day and those who seek shelter on the floor at night. In the church there is no wall between the youth group and the Survivors. In the church there is no wall between the church school teacher and the chair of finances. In the church there is no wall between the powerful and the powerless. In the church there is no wall between the eloquent and the hesitant. In the church there is no wall between the well-educated and the illiterate. In the church there is only one humanity, one body, one peace.
How can we bring this way of life beyond our circle of believers into the wider world? Ronald M. Paterson, a pastor in Dayton, Ohio, shares this story that could point the way for us: “The way of God is from closed to open. Recently I heard a woman talking about her fears for our nation. One of the things she said was that the loudest and most painful noise she hears in our beloved country is the sound of minds snapping shut all over America. Her point was that too many of us are becoming people whose minds are closed and whose opinions are set in a sort of fatal concrete which threatens to sink the fragile nature of our democracy. She pointed out that this beloved ship floats on the willingness of diverse people to work with one another despite their differences of opinion, to find ways to get along with one another. Do you remember Jesus seeking out strangers and the outcast? Do you remember the unconditional love which he showed and which he commanded of those who followed him? The way of God is the path which leads people to work together for the common good.
Our calling as Christians is to see strangers as brothers and sisters in Christ. Might there be danger in this? Of course! But the danger of not reaching out and engaging others with the message of our oneness in Christ is even greater. Rather than spreading the ethic of the Kingdom of God, we are pretending that the church is a Citadel to be isolated and protected from the world. What happens to a castle under siege? Eventually it runs out of resources and falls. No, we must be bold to believe what Paul told us, “For He is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall of hostility between us.” We need to courageously engage the world with the love of Christ, building a society that treats all people, native or alien, family or foe, as if they were beloved of Christ, because they are. Amen.
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Rev. Dr. Shannon Smythe
United Presbyterian Church