Jared Witt l December 1, 2016
Since, later this month, I’ll be celebrating the birth of someone who started his life a refugee and ended it a political dissident, I thought it might be interesting to see what the Bible says about refugees, immigrants, and strangers.
If you’re not interested in providing hospitality to those people who are “other,” this doesn’t apply to you. I’m only writing for people who are interested in Jesus' way of doing things.
The command on God’s people to provide hospitality to refugees is constant and consistent throughout the Hebrew and Christian testaments. I’ll just write about one example, Zephaniah 3.
Zephaniah, a prophet from the land of Judah (latter day Jewish territory), spends the beginning of his short book doing something that any nationalist in his own society might have actually appreciated under any other circumstance: he calls out all the sins of surrounding nations. The nations of the Cherethites and Philistines are bound for destruction. The incessant taunting of the Moabites and the Ammonites will be their downfall. The lands of Cush and Assyria won’t fair any better and so on and so forth (Zeph. 2).
This should all sound like music to the ears of the cynical speech writers in the “Make Judah Great Again” camp. But, unfortunately, Zephaniah keeps talking. He is not interested in simply buttering them up. His bigger concern is the plank in Judah’s own eye.
There is something going around in the attitude and spirit of his society, which Zephaniah sees as completely toxic and repugnant to God. Here, “officials” and “judges” are shamelessly corrupt. Powerful men prey on the fears of less informed people like lions and wolves, manipulating weak minds with circuitous and self-serving rhetoric, all the while devouring the society’s resources for personal gain. Where their cynicism isn’t total, their arrogance makes up the difference, and they are impervious to reason, facts, or any sort of correction (Zeph. 3:1-3).
While this goes on, the elites and priests of the establishment are fickle and spineless, undoubtedly preaching safe religious doctrines and politically moderate sounding platitudes while they live off the earnest piety of the poor. Fat, dumb, and happy, nothing could be further from their minds than voicing the true state of the society and holding its politicians accountable. In that failure they “profane what is holy” and “do violence to the law” (v. 4).
You’d think, at this point, that the impending downfall of the society would be so apparent to even the most narcissistic elites that they would see it in their own long term interest to change, but instead, they double down, eager to cash in a few more dividends before the whole thing falls apart (v. 7). And, of course, it’s lost on them how their insular little system of personal gain might look from the outside—how it might cut them off from other nations and cause a deep-seated resentment, which will finally be their downfall.
Will they ever learn? Likely, no, at least not before the moral and cultural degradation of the society has run its course.
BUT if that ship has sailed, and this nation can no longer avoid some severe material consequences, there is still a chance, a chance, for them to find their soul. And true to form, God will use the unlikeliest of outsiders to help them find it.
The people whom God will use to restore this nation’s soul to them will be of such little worldly significance that God will have to stack diminutives, one on top of the other, to even identify them: “the daughter of my dispersed ones…a people humble and lowly” (vv. 10, 12). That these men, women, and children can’t be identified any more precisely than this, speaks volumes about who they are.
These people don’t strictly belong to any particular jurisdiction. And it would be misleading to put them under the heading of any particular nation state. Their religion and ethnicity are of little consequence as it concerns God. What's clear is that, in the clash and friction of national tectonic plates, these are the people who fell through the cracks. These are the lost ones. The best we can do is say that they come from somewhere “beyond the rivers of Cush” (v. 10). They are the refuse that no one will claim.
...No one, that is, except for God. While politicians angle for seats of power and priests congratulate themselves in religious high places, God has been paying special attention to what goes on in the dead zones, the lands “beyond the rivers,” the places that Haitians in our time refer to as the peyi andeyo--the “country behind the countries”—where neither vote is cast nor decision made but one can only be tossed about by the feuds and ambitions of the vain.
Are these humble ones merely a charitable concern for God? Absolutely not. They are subversive agents of his. It will be through them that Judah will find its redemption. These daughters of the “dispersed ones,” central to nothing and nowhere, will turn out to be the beating heart of God’s plan for the world.
“They shall seek refuge in the name of the Lord” (v. 12), right here in one of the many societies that had forgotten them. And when they do, that society will be reminded of what it is supposed to be.
When this people remembers what it is, the “proudly exultant” and the “haughty” will make themselves scarce in the midst of the humble. But for “those who are left,” who are not too far gone, and who still have eyes to see, God is not interested in rubbing their noses in past shame (vv. 11-13). God is interested in reconciliation.
Then maybe this will be a nation worthy of the name. A nation which only looks out for itself is no longer a nation in God’s eyes. The difference between a nation and a mere collection of animals is the ideal that God handed on to Abraham long ago: it’s a people whom God has blessed “so that you will be a blessing” (Gen. 12:2) to others.
Is any of this relevant to our world right now? I don’ know. I’m just a Bible teacher.
Peace and Cheers,
Jared Witt (Twitter: @prjwitt) is a pastor in the ELCA and, along with Aaron Schmalzle, is a Founding Director of Castle Church Brewing Community and Castle Church Faith Community.
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