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Jesus Christ: Asylum Seeker, Refugee and a Migrant

by Dr. Bahagt Saman, Coptic Orthodox Church in Egypt

This Bible Study was presented at the WSCF ExCo Meeting in June 2007, Alexandria, Egypt

The New Testament begins with a migration story, and perhaps the only documented, recorded “alien” story. Alien is a term that is offensive to many, as it brings to mind a vision of someone from outer space. Looking at it in that manner, one might say that perhaps Jesus was truly an “alien”. He came from heaven (the outer limits of space—although he did tell us the kingdom is within) and took the form of a human being to become for us the Refugee Christ. The reality is that all Christians owe their salvation to a refugee.

Jesus was born in Bethlehem, to which his parents had traveled because of the taxation decree.

Tradition says that the Christ Child was born in a manger, a stable, a shed-like the children of many of today’s migrants, who are born along the road as their parents seek work and a place to call home. The news of his birth was given first to the shepherds, the group of people lowest on the social scale at that time. They were also a group of migrants, who moved and lived with their flocks doing seasonal work. Also, at the birth of Jesus, “Magi” from the east, who were probably astrological magicians or sorcerers from Persia, Babylon, or Arabia, came to Jerusalem seeking the “child who has been born King of the Jews.” The Bible does not indicate that there were three Magi or that they were kings. In fact, a distinction of “King” and “Magi” is made in Matthew 2:1. The term “Magi” comes from the same root as “magic” and “magicians.” Such persons (Dan. 2:2) watched the stars, were able to predict solar and lunar eclipses, and attempted to predict events to come. Strangers/foreigners from afar read the stars and identified the Messiah.

According to Luke, Jesus, Mary and Joseph stayed in Bethlehem until they took Jesus to the temple in Jerusalem to be dedicated and then returned to Nazareth. According to Matthew, they stayed in Bethlehem until the visit of the Magi. It is estimated that Jesus was about two years old at the time. Once the Magi left, an angel appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him. Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, “Out of Egypt I have called my son” (Matthew 2:13-15).

Jesus, Mary and Joseph became asylum seekers in Egypt. Without travel documents, they crossed the border, looking for safety and sanctuary, Although they were strangers, someone took them in. Someone welcomed them and protected them. Meanwhile, in Bethlehem, Herod had plans to find and kill Jesus. When he discovered the Magi had left without telling him the location of the Child, he ordered the killing of all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old and under. Jesus and his family fled political and religious persecution. These are both present-day grounds for asylum and refugee status.

However, if the Holy Family arrived at a U.S. border today, it is most likely that Jesus would be sent to a children’s detention center, Mary to a women’s detention center, and Joseph to a men’s detention center. Each would be required to secure their own legal help, or plead their case, on their own, for asylum. Asylum seekers do not receive legal help from the government, and although there are a few family shelters in this country, most families are separated on arrival at the border.

After the death of Herod, the family was able to return to their home, in the district of Galilee, in a town called Nazareth. That was not Jesus’ last move. (Matthew 4:12) explains that eventually He left Nazareth and made His home in Capernaum by the sea. It was from there that He began to call His disciples to follow him.

Later in (Luke 9:58), Jesus says, “The foxes have holes and the birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay His head.” This is the migrant’s story. Like Jesus, who had a home in Capernaum, but often no place to lay his head because of his travels, today’s migrants, too, have homes in their countries, but no place to lay their heads in the country to which they have migrated. Throughout his life, Jesus moved around. He called his disciples to leave what they were doing and to follow him. In fact, if Jesus and the twelve disciples tried to enter the United States today, they would either be the victims of expedited removal, which means they would be immediately returned to their point of origin, or they would, most probably, be put in immigration detention.

They were thirteen Middle Eastern men. They had no specific home. They moved from place to place and often interacted with stigmatized communities. They went away into the mountains and across the lakes. They were suspected of trying to mobilize the masses against the government. It is not known how they supported themselves, and, at times, they met in rented rooms. Large crowds followed them and both the religious and political communities through they were instigating uprising of the masses of the poorest of the poor. On arriving in the U.S. today, they would be part of the targeted list of the high-level suspicion of terrorism-primarily because of their place of birth and physical appearance.

Jesus, Caring for the Strangers and Inclusive Hospitality

Jesus was quite active in supporting the people most in need. He readily saw the plight of the day laborers and resonated with their desire to make a living. Most notable is Matthew 20:1-16. In it, he likens the kingdom of heaven to a landowner who hires laborers for his vineyard. He hires people throughout the day and pays them all equally, finally summarizing what he does with “the last will be first and the first will be last.” Jesus understood the plight of the workers and resonated with the Hebrew mandate to treat the workers fairly.

This importance of just wages is seen in Malachi 3:5, when God says, “... I will be swift to bear witness against... those who oppress the hired workers in their wages, the window and the orphan, against those who thrust aside the alien, and do not fear me, says the Lord of Hosts.” The fair treatment of day laborers is seen in Leviticus 19:13, “you shall not defraud your neighbor: you shall not steal; and you shall not keep for yourself the wages of a laborer until morning.”

Jesus knew the scriptures very well. It is not difficult to imagine Jesus standing among the day labors on any city street looking for work. Christians who hire day laborers and undocumented workers are reminded of the biblical mandate to care for the strangers because he or she might be Christ in disguise. The importance of fair treatment of workers throughout the Bible is the basis for followers of Christ becoming involved in comprehensive immigration reform.

The most compelling argument Christ gave for caring for the stranger can be found in Matthew 25:35-41. In it he gives the inheritance of the kingdom to those who cared for him by stating”... for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me... Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”

All of the following are responses to the mandate to offer hospitality to the stranger: Food to the refugees—here and abroad; water to the migrants crossing the desert; an open church door to the stranger with nowhere to turn; clothing to the migrant newly arrived in the north or the refugee being resettled in your town; medical care for migrant workers, immigrants, refugees, asylum seekers prison visits to detained asylum seekers and immigrants. Responding to these needs can be the foundation of a ministry to the strangers in our communities and our land and are ways to practice inclusive hospitality.

Persons working with immigrant, migrant, refugee and asylum populations are often heard wondering how to convince more churchgoers to help these members of Christ’s family. Jesus was very clear in his message: Help them and you go to heaven. Don’t help them and you go to hell. Jesus came to bring a new commandment, a commandment of love of all people. He taught love of God, neighbor, and yourself; and he added a completely new thought—a completely new teaching—Love your enemy. With that he commanded us to love all people. There is no room in Christ’s teachings for “them and us” mentality. In Matthew 25:40, he clearly states that all, including people who might be seen as the “least of these” are members of his family. As we consider ourselves members of his family, obviously we are all in this together and called to care for each other.

When Jesus is asked by the young man, “Who is my neighbour?”, Jesus answers through the parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10:33, who was on a journey, came upon a man—not a Samaritan, most probably someone who would not have spoken to the Samaritan. However, the man had been badly beaten and was in need of help. When the Samaritan would have been considered the stranger in the land the outsider, not a citizen of the land. His presence was not wanted by the people of the land, and yet he the outsider is the one who helps the man who has been robbed. He shows compassion and responds by showing love to the person who would consider him an enemy. For this act he becomes known throughout history as “The Good Samaritan.”

Jesus’ life was a life of service to others, without regard for their national origin. His service to strangers can be seen in Luke 17:1-19 with the healing of the lepers. Ten are made clean, but only one returns. In verse 17-18, when only the foreigner returns, Jesus asked, “But the other nine, where are they? Were not ten made clean? Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” Jesus offered his healing love to all. We are called to do the same.

Jesus was not only a refugee and a migrant. He was also undocumented both as a child and at the end of his life. We know that Jesus was crucified “outside the gates” of the city because he was not a citizen (Hebrews 13:12). As Christians, we know that he died for the sins of the world, but at that time the theological implications of his death were not considered in handing down his sentence. Jesus was crucified because he was one with the oppressed and marginalized people of that time, and the religious and political powers reared he was instigating an uprising of the poor. The Romans thought Jesus was planning to overthrow those in power. He was one with the stranger the sojourner, the migrant, the day laborer, the least, the last, and the lost. He did not have the rights of a citizen, he was one with each and every undocumented migrant in the world. Because he did not have these rights, his crucifixion had to be outside the gates and it was in the garbage dump of the city. He suffered, so others would not have to do the same.

The next time you hear of the death of an undocumented person, stop a moment and think of the undocumented Christ and remember we never know when the person we are looking at is Christ in one of his disguises. Since 1995, over 3000 migrants have died crossing the U.S/Mexico border in their search for work and survival.

“The reality is that all Christians owe their salvation to a refugee... Jesus was not only a refugee and a migrant. He was also undocumented both as a child and at the end of his life.”

By reinforcing biblical hospitality, the New Testament urges validation of each person. (Hebrews 13:1-3) urges, “Let mutual love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it. Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them, those who are being tortured, as though you yourselves were being tortured.”

The Greek word for hospitality is “philoxenos.” It means love for the stranger and was recognized as a primary characteristic of the early followers of Christ. The mandate was, is, and remains clear: to live in inclusive hospitality, to recognize that Christ comes to us in the form of the stranger, and to be one with the prisoners, the persecuted, the undocumented, the refugee, the migrant, the immigrant, the stranger. Throughout the New Testament, we see people moving freely, without borders, and we see new life, as their lives are changed through contact with Christ and/or his disciples. Paul reinforces this teaching in Romans 12:13 which “Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.”

Jesus’ last message to his disciples was a migration/immigration message. It is a statement that not only calls for migration, but also insists on it. Matthew 28:18-19 is the great commission, in which Jesus says, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember I am with you always, to the end of the age.” Apparently, Jesus assumes the role of the migrant God traveling with each and every disciple as they move throughout the world. It is also important to remember that at that time, North America was not a known part of the world. At that time, it would have been considered the ends of the earth.

But the story was not over at that point. It continued, as followers of Christ became migrant messengers, taking his teachings throughout the known world. They recognize that divisions between all of humankind have been dismantled.

Galatians 3:29-29 states, “There is no longer Jew or Greek; there is no longer slave or free; there is no longer male or female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” They took this message and belief with them and they traveled as immigrants, as refugees, and as migrants. They were and are imprisoned, they were and are persecuted, and they were and are exiled.

The early disciples believed they were strangers in this life moving on to the heavenly kingdom. In I Peter 2:11-13 they are reminded that they are aliens and exiles in this world. They are the beginning of a long line of pilgrim people and a part of the continuing biblical migratory cycle following the mandates of God, the teachings of Christ and the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

The New Testament ends with John’s writing of the Book of Revelation, in exile, on the Isle of Patmos. The biblical story that began with migration ends with migration and exile, and continues as the migrant God accompanies each and every migrant on his or her journey of hope. And it extends far into the future, with the New Jerusalem, the city of God, on the move, coming from heaven to earth. When that happens, the circle of migration will be completed and the world made new.