Having heard a very different speech earlier in the day, my Dominican brothers and I sat down in our chapel a few Fridays ago and heard these words from the Prophet Moses:
On your fathers did the Lord set His affection to love them, and He chose their descendants after them… He executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and shows His love for the alien by giving him food and clothing. So show your love for the alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt. (Deut 10:15, 17-19)
Elsewhere in the Torah, the LORD Himself says:
When a stranger resides with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt… I am the Lord your God, who brought you out from the land of Egypt. (Lev 19:33-34, 36)
Of all the nations on earth, the Jewish people knew well the pains of exile. From Egypt, Babylon, Rome, New York, Anatevka, or Auschwitz they often set their thoughts on the banks of the Jordan and the hills of Jerusalem. Even the beginning of their history – the call of Abraham – testifies that the Chosen People is a pilgrim people. Yet, understanding their weakness, the Lord reminded His people to treat well the aliens living among them. God showed them that in the land He was giving them, bountiful and peaceful (as long as they remained faithful), they could and should welcome the foreigner, and love him as they loved themselves.
There is a certain parallel between Israel and our own nation. As a people, we too have been strangers in a strange land. From the nomadic tribes of the Natives, to the first Spanish and English settlers in Florida, Virginia, California, and Massachusetts, to the millions who arrived through Ellis Island, to the many multitudes who to this day seek refuge in this land of liberty, our nation has always been formed from strangers. As Cardinal Dolan put it recently, the United States often was and still can be a sanctuary where the life and dignity of all persons is respected and their common good championed.
Of course, this need not mean that our borders should be thrown open indiscriminately to anyone, and we see that the Scriptures warn against such imprudence. The peace and security of a people necessitate safeguards against those who would abuse their welcome. But, since we are a nation of immigrants, a nation founded on Judeo-Christian principles, the love of God and of our neighbor must rule how we approach challenges posed by immigration and the refugee crisis.
Love for the stranger is one very concrete form taken by our Christian vocation to love our neighbor. The immigrant or refugee is one of the brokenhearted to whom the Lord is close. For few leave their native soil when their people dwell in peace and their homeland offers hope for a good life. Most who look for sanctuary flee hunger, unemployment, war and many forms of violence that threaten them and their families. Yet even in the worst circumstances, it is painful to leave behind one’s earthly patria – its food, landscapes, climate, language, traditions, and its familiar people. It is hard to arrive as a stranger to a new place and integrate into its society. And after moving, the stranger rarely feels at home anywhere.
Only love eases the stranger’s pain, heals his wounds, and offers him a new home. First, healing comes from the hospitable Love of God. For God so loved the stranger that He sent His Son Jesus and His Family to suffer with and for him as they fled to and stayed in Egypt as part of the mystery of His Redemption. In his preaching, Jesus specifies the stranger as one of those least of the brethren with whom He most identifies. Furthermore, the Lord charges his People, of both the Old and New Covenants, to be ambassadors of His love to those strangers in their midst. And in their charity the stranger also finds a refuge.
So today, as our nation and world face very significant crises concerning the migration of many people, let us hear the Word of God and pray that our hearts not be hardened. Let us pray for all immigrants and refugees whose homelands are suffering and who are looking for sanctuary. Let us pray too for all political leaders seeking solutions to these problems, that they may be moved by prudence and compassion. And may we ever open our hearts in love to the stranger, recognizing how he suffers, remembering we once were in his position, and especially understanding how much he is cherished by the Lord.
Image: Rembrandt van Rijn, Flight into Egypt (public domain).