Most of us have read or heard the story of the Pharisee who asked Jesus what the most important commandment in scripture is. He responded that the greatest command was two-fold: Love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your strength, and all your mind. And also, love your neighbor as yourself. How important are they?
On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets. (Matthew 22:40 KJV)
The neighbor, though, is not the only person we are commanded to love.
You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. (Deuteronomy 10:19 NRS)
Would it surprise you to know that the command to love your neighbor appears only once in the Old Testament, but the command to love the stranger appears 34 times? Is that because it is 34 times as important to love the stranger as it is to love the neighbor? Is it because we should love the stranger 34 times as much as the neighbor? I don’t think so. I think the constant repetition of this command indicates how much harder it is to love the stranger – different race, different nationality, different language, different ethnicity, different culture, different religion – than people we know and who are like us.
Coupled with the command is the reason: because you were strangers in the land of Egypt. The reason is expanded in this command regarding the offering of first-fruits to the LORD.
4 When the priest takes the basket from your hand and sets it down before the altar of the LORD your God, you shall make this response before the LORD your God: “A wandering Aramean was my [father]; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number, and there he became a great nation, mighty and populous.
6 When the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us, by imposing hard labor on us, we cried to the LORD, the God of our ancestors; the LORD heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression.
8 The LORD brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with a terrifying display of power, and with signs and wonders; and he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey.
10 So now I bring the first of the fruit of the ground that you, O LORD, have given me.” You shall set it down before the LORD your God and bow down before the LORD your God. (Deuteronomy 26:4-10 NRS)
So every time they brought first-fruit offerings, they reminded themselves,
- Their ancestors wandered with no land to call their own
- They settled in a foreign nation and prospered there, despite being aliens
- The Egyptians treated them harshly and oppressed them
- They cried out to the LORD, and the LORD heard them
- God delivered them out of bondage in Egypt and gave them a land flowing with milk and honey
- Now that they are settled and established in the land, they offer to God the first-fruits of what the land produced for them.
The Syrian refugee crisis is on a scale we have seldom seen in human history. The command of the LORD is clear: Love the stranger, for you were once strangers in a foreign land. Isn’t that the American experience as well? Unless you’re Native American, your ancestors came here as strangers. Why is it so hard now to obey God’s commandment?
There has been so much fear of immigrants in the last several years, mainly since 9-11. If those immigrants are Muslim, forget it. We don’t want them. Fear of the stranger coupled with fear of terrorism. While that is understandable, I don’t think it excuses us from taking in refugees.
Look at the scriptures above again. The Israelites recited these words repeatedly. They made sure to pass them on to each generation, so they would remember it. We were oppressed in Egypt. The LORD delivered us out of bondage and brought us into this blessed land. Notice, in each generation, they don’t say, “Our ancestors were oppressed…” They say, “We were oppressed…and the LORD delivered us.”
Hear the word of the LORD. Love the stranger and welcome him or her. You were strangers once in this land. I am the LORD who blessed you and gave you a home here. Don’t EVER forget that.