Caring About Strangers

“Do not forget to entertain strangers, for by so doing some have unwittingly entertained angels” (Heb 13:2).

Had an angel over for dinner lately? Abram and Lot, almost certainly those referred to in this verse, surely had no idea that morning who would show up at their doors. And the writer’s point is this: we don’t either. One thing we do know. There are more “strangers” in the West than ever before—millions of them.

According to Francine Blau and Christopher Mackie, editors of “The Economic and Fiscal Consequences of Immigration,” released in 2016, “More than 40 million people living in the United States were born in other countries, and almost an equal number have at least one foreign-born parent. Together, the first generation (foreign-born) and second generation (children of the foreign-born) comprise almost one in four Americans. It comes as little surprise, then, that many U.S. residents view immigration as a major policy issue facing the nation.”

There are between 11-12 million illegals (often referred to as undocumented or unauthorized) in the U.S., according to the Pew Research Center. More than half are from Mexico, but Pew also notes that “Populations went up most for unauthorized immigrants from Asia and Central America, but the number also ticked up for those from sub-Saharan Africa.” The “open borders” issue is a big factor in the present political debate.

But it isn’t just in the present U.S. election that the subject of immigration is front and center. The recent unrest and violence in Germany, France, Belgium and elsewhere in Europe, the population displacements caused by war in the Middle East, and the Brexit referendum in the U.K. have all featured immigration woes prominently.

The questions seem to be endless: Does illegal immigration rob Americans (fill in your favorite Western country) of jobs they want? How can citizens be expected to cover the cost of feeding, housing, educating and providing healthcare for these floods of immigrants? Should immigrants be expected to at least want to fit in with the receiving country? Should they be expected to give their first loyalty to their adoptive land? Learn the language of their new country? What about security issues? Some even doubt the morality of having national boundaries at all.

But, for the purpose of this article, my dominant question is this: What should the Bible-believing Christian’s view be on this subject? Does the Word provide a comprehensive answer for us? It is important to notice that Israel was clearly instructed by the Lord regarding the strangers in their land. For example, “You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the heart of a stranger, because you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Ex 23:9).

This line of reasoning sounds familiar. In the debate today, one common refrain is heard, “We are a country of immigrants, and should continue to be a welcoming nation for those who come to our shores.” After all, the Lady with the Lamp still stands in New York Harbor, emblazoned with the well-known words:

“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

Of course, anyone who has actually tried to work with U.S. Immigration would realise the words are often more poetry than fact these days. And it should be remembered that Emma Lazarus wrote these words in 1883, not 1983. As Milton Friedman pointed out, the U.S. had completely unrestricted immigration before 1914, and most people agree that was a good thing. But why is free immigration such a hot topic today? Because, says Friedman, “It is one thing to have free immigration to jobs; it is another thing to have free immigration to welfare.”

Are you old enough to remember when “welfare” was a good word? As in “Mordecai the Jew was next to king Ahasuerus,…seeking the welfare of his people” (Esther 10:3). The word “welfare,” traced back through Old English to Germanic, meant to travel well. From there it took on the idea “to get on well” in life. Seeking the welfare of others was to “help them on in their journey” or to “entertain strangers.” What does God tell Israel about this?

The gleanings of farmers’ fields were to provide “workfare” for strangers as well as for the Jewish poor (Lev 19:10; 23:22; 24:20). As the harvest was being gathered, the land owners were to purposefully overlook some olives, grapes and figs, etc., on the branches as well as leaving unmown the corners of their fields. It was not a free bread program; the strangers and poor must gather their own crop, make their own flour, and bake their own bread, but they were helped to that end by being given limited access to Israel’s fields once the harvest was complete.

There was even a special tithe taken every third year just for the support of “the Levite, the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow” (Lev 26:12). As the psalmist points out, the Israelites’ care of strangers, widows and the fatherless was to be but a reflection of God’s care for these same disadvantaged groups: “The Lord watches over the strangers; He relieves the fatherless and widow; but the way of the wicked He turns upside down” (Ps 146:9).

However the Lord added this instruction as well: “If one of your brethren becomes poor, and falls into poverty among you, then you shall help him, like a stranger or a sojourner, that he may live with you” (Lev 25:35). In helping the strangers, the people of Israel were not to overlook their own fellow citizens! Benefits given to strangers should not, in consequence, put the native poor at a serious disadvantage either. How fair is our God!

One group of prominent “strangers” among us are international students. According to the Brookings Institute, the number of foreign students on F-1 visas in U.S. colleges and universities now exceeds half a million. “The sharpest increases occurred among students from emerging economies such as China and Saudi Arabia.” Although we live in small-town America, we have been privileged to show hospitality to students from around the world. Many of these would be very difficult to reach in their home countries, but the offer of sincere friendship and a home-cooked meal brings them eagerly around our dinner table. It seems to be one application of the startling words of Leviticus 19:34, “The stranger who dwells among you shall be to you as one born among you, and you shall love him as yourself; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” Wow! How are we doing with that?

Non-Israelite strangers were to have the same legal standing as their Israelite neighbors: “One law shall be for the native-born and for the stranger who dwells among you” (Ex 12:49; see Deut 1:16). The cities of refuge were equally available to strangers and Israelites (Num. 35:15). But this could hardly be construed to apply to “sanctuary cities” in America. According to Jessica Vaughan of the Center for Immigration Studies, “About 300 jurisdictions have been identified by ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) as having a policy that is non-cooperative and obstructs immigration enforcement.” Encouraging lawlessness can never be a good thing.

In Israel, if immigrants were going to choose to live among the Israelites, they were required to conform to the ways laid out by the Lord for His people. This required public education that included the strangers so they understood these ways and were part of the society in spirit, not merely by geography: “‘Gather the people together,’ said the Lord, ‘men and women and little ones, and the stranger who is within your gates, that they may hear and that they may learn to fear the Lord your God and carefully observe all the words of this law’” (Deut 31:12).

Newcomers often have a sincere curiosity regarding our festivals and celebrations. This is an open door for the gospel. If you have neighbors from foreign countries, most are looking for friends and are eager to learn about the culture of their new land. And what is more culturally significant than to explain the celebrations of Christmas, Easter and Thanksgiving? I leave to others the debate regarding how “Christian” the first two are. My point is this: what better use of these holidays than to tell to them the story of the incarnation, crucifixion and resurrection of our Savior? To explain why we are so thankful to God “for His indescribable gift”!

Whether we have gone to all the world with the gospel, the world has certainly come to us. Christians who have felt like rejecting or even fearing those who have come to our shores should remember this. And lest we should think the land where we live is more ours than theirs, remember what the Lord told Israel: “The land shall not be sold permanently, for the land is Mine; for you are strangers and sojourners with Me” (Lev 25:23; see 1 Pet 2:11).

We’re all strangers on this little orb. We’re only here for a few pirouettes of the planet through space. We would do well to use our time in entertaining strangers, because you never know when an angel may show up.