They did not choose to leave their land. They were forced to. Violence pushed them out, and a search for survival pulled them forward. Joseph and Mary ran for their lives, carrying their child along dangerous roads full of bandits to the safety of an unknown place with a language strange to them. When we celebrate Christmas, it reminds us of God-with-us, Emmanuel—God is so much with vulnerable humanity that God became a fleeing refugee!
Millions of people are on the move today. Like Jesus’ family, they do not choose to leave. They are forced to. They are running for their lives across rivers, oceans, and deserts. They are fleeing untold violence and unsustainable living conditions: extreme climates, droughts, and floods. Unlike Jesus’ family, who settled for a time in Egypt, they are often arriving to inhospitable places where they are categorized and treated as criminals, shunned, and rejected.
What justification is typically offered for that rejection? Legality—or absence of it. Migrants are said to be entering countries illegally, breaking the law of the land. But this issue leads to another question: what law is pre-eminent and takes precedence over others? The United Nations’ 1951 Refugee Convention grants several rights to people fleeing serious threats. Among them are the right to not be punished for entering a territory of signatory countries (Article 31), the right to freedom of movement (Article 26), and the right to work (articles 17-19).
In addition, as the community of another king, the Creator God who rules over and above any nation or group of nations, Christians are held to an even higher law. Jesus summed it up this way: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’” (Luke 10:27). Without any mushy sentimentality, this demand sums up the entire law given by God to Israel from its very beginning. The law of Moses included explicit demands regarding the acceptance and care of vulnerable people, including foreigners. A couple of passages paint the picture:
“‘When a foreigner resides with you in your land, do not mistreat them. The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the Lord your God’” (Lev. 19:33-34).
“‘When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap to the very edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest. Leave them for the poor and for the foreigner residing among you. I am the Lord your God’” (Lev. 23:22).
Jesus affirmed that he had come not to abolish the law and the prophets, but to fulfill them (Matt. 5:17). As the only One who not only taught the law but lived it out perfectly, Jesus reached out to outsiders, walked through despised Samaria, and even healed the servant of a Roman centurion. We have only a vague idea of how old Jesus was when he and his family returned to their land after their time of asylum in Egypt. But one cannot help but wonder if he might not at least recall the stories of Mary and Joseph about that phase of his life. Perhaps those stories were in the back of his mind when, talking to his surprised disciples about the final judgment, he affirmed that whoever welcomes the stranger has received him (Matt. 25:38-40).
According to God’s law of love, welcoming the stranger is a measure of our love of God and a tangible way of welcoming Jesus himself. Might we, then, need to seriously question any pride, prejudice, or policy that hinders that expression? My prayer is that the Christmas celebration of God-the-refugee among us might open our hearts, neighborhoods, churches, and homes to those who seek safety at the end of their perilous journeys.