Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem. As he entered a village, ten lepers approached him and threw themselves at his feet, begging Jesus to “have pity on us.” If you were the leader of a religious movement with political change in mind and on your way to the capital city, as was Jesus and his followers; these leper people would not be your first choice in forming a coalition.
After simple instructions from Jesus, they are miraculously cleansed and healed. Great news! However, as they went on their merry way, presumably to joyously return to their families, jobs and communities; only one of them came back to say thanks. “Were not ten made clean?” Jesus asks, “But the other nine, where are they?” The Bible does not record the answer of the one who returned to say thanks. But we do know that he was a Samaritan, a foreigner-type-of- leper that Jews such as Jesus believed to be a potential enemy. Most of Jesus’ followers would not have associated with a Samaritan and yet Jesus healed him.
But just two months ago, the photo of a three year old Syrian refugees’ body lying face down on a beach where he had washed ashore shocked the world. The American public compassionately offered a home to a few thousand more children like him. My, how quickly things can change.
Last Thursday, in response to the Paris terror attack, the House of Representatives (Republicans and many Democrats) voted by a large margin to dramatically tighten screening procedure for refugees from Syria. Additionally, more than two dozen governors, including one Democrat, have said they would try to block Syrian refugees from entering their state. “People are very nervous, very worried about this” said Speaker Paul D. Ryan. Meanwhile, President Obama tweeted, “Slamming the door in the face of refugees would betray our deepest values… That’s not who we are. And it’s not what we’re going to do.” Obama emphasized that refugees were subjected to “the most rigorous vetting process that we have for anybody who is admitted.” Others vehemently disagreed. Donald Trump has voiced his support for the registration of American Muslims that has been likened by Republicans and Democrats to the forced registration of Jews in Nazi Germany. On the other hand, the Governor of the State of Washington writes that he will continue to welcome refugees who have been appropriately vetted. The lines are drawn, as are the weapons of vote and veto.
The point of this epistle is not to tell you what to think. On the topic of terrorist attacks and refugees; people are all over the map. The point of this epistle is, however, to say that, as Christians it is imperative to refer to our faith, our relationship with Jesus and with God, and with our scripture to see what our precedents are.
In many ways, Syrian refugees are the lepers of today’s society. Their plight has caused them to be banished to remote areas. Contact with them, it is feared, could inflict terror and physical danger on the community. Thus mercy and pity have been supplanted by fear and exile. Syrian exiles have thrown themselves at our feet, begging us, like the lepers begged Jesus, for mercy. Like lepers, the refugees cannot return home and yet they also have no other place to go. They are afflicted by a condition beyond their control and yet are treated as if they were the cause of it. They are like the Hebrew people led by Moses out of hostile Egypt who find themselves with the sea in front of them and at their backs are the angry agents of the government from which they have fled. And like the price-gougers and opportunists that appear in the aftermath of any disaster ~ the owners of flimsy, unsafe and massively over-crowded boats will take the desperate refugees to hopeful safety for an exorbitant amount of money. And as you know, and as they know, many of them will die at sea seeking safety.
Refugees are certainly looking for safety, but they are also looking for mercy and deliverance. We are in the position to offer mercy and deliverance; and doing so is in direct accordance with the mandate of Jesus himself who said, in Matthew 25: When I was hungry, you fed me; when I was naked, you clothed me; when I was in prison, you visited me. The disciples, as we know, asked Jesus when he was hungry, homeless, naked and in prison. And he replied that whenever and wherever any of the “the least of these” is in such peril ~ the way we behave toward them is as if it is the way we treat Jesus himself.
I am not making any of this up to fold it into my own philosophy. I am merely repeating what is found in our scriptures where it is obvious that when we don’t welcome the foreigner, Jesus takes it very personally. We, as Christians, are mandated to offer food, shelter and clothing to the refugees. Even if only one out of ten of them respond in the exact way we would like them to ~ respond we must. What form our welcoming of refugees takes can and will be debated. Politicians and historians will affirm or deny that America is or should be beacon of hope for those chased from their homelands. What is not debatable is that Christ welcomed us as he would have us welcome each other.Soon our churches will be decorated for Christmas and we will, for the next month or so, gaze upon the nativity scene that depicts a Middle Eastern family who were looking for a place to stay, only to be told there was no room for them. We will tell our children in church the story of how, after his birth, Mary and Joseph fled with the baby Jesus to Egypt… as refugees fleeing from actual and threatened violence. The tragic irony of the overlap of terrorism, refugees, deliverance and hope may be coincidence. But it also may be divine providence ~ granting us the strength with which help can supplant abandonment; hope can supplant helplessness; compassion can supplant callousness; faith can supplant fear; and peace, with God’s guidance and our help, can supplant everything.
Dwight Leee Wolter is the pastor of the Congregational Church of Patchogue on Long Island, New York. He blogs at dwightleewolter.com
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