When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God. (Leviticus 19:33-34; NRSV)
. . . for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me . . . (Matthew 25:35 NRSV)
So many biblical passages exhort us to treat the immigrant well, to welcome those from another country who live in our midst. Some scriptural passages remind us that we were immigrants (sojourners, strangers, or foreigners in the King James Version) in Egypt. This is cited as a rationale for treating immigrants as we would want to be treated. I am descended from immigrants, from Germany, Ireland, and Scotland. I have no proof that my ancestors entered the United States legally. Indeed, I have been conscious for a long time that I am not a part of the indigenous people of America. I am the offspring of sojourners.
Though the Bible is an important conversation partner in theological reflection (along with tradition and human experience), we tend to emphasize some portions of Scripture over others. We cling to some biblical passages as formational to our own theological point of view, while we virtually ignore others. The “sojourner passages” are among those with which we are seldom familiar. How I wish we would revive our attention to passages such as Leviticus 19:33-34.
Leviticus 19:33-34 appeals to the reader to love the immigrant as we love ourselves. Interestingly enough, elsewhere in Leviticus 19, we find a portion of verse 18 made famous by Jesus, “you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the LORD.” Christians are intensely familiar with verse 18, but just a few verses away is the exhortation to love the immigrant as ourselves.
Jesus’ words in Matthew 25:35 suggest that the righteous individual, the one who is an integral part of Jesus’s reign, is the one who feeds the hungry, who gives drink to the thirsty, and who welcomes the stranger. The righteous individuals who are gathered into Jesus’s reign are those who reach out to the immigrant and make her feel welcome. They are the sheep. Those who did not take in the immigrant are the goats in the passage. According to Matthew 25, they are not included in the reign of Jesus.
I shall close with a Lenten prayer:
“Most gracious God, may I become like the sheep in Matthew 25. Please open my heart and instill a spirit of generosity within me, that I may welcome the immigrant, feed the hungry, and give the thirsty drink. Help me to see myself in the face of the stranger and to love the stranger as I love myself. O great-hearted God, shape me in your image and make me a person who strives for righteousness that I may share your generous bounty with all those I encounter. I pray in the name of your Son, who equated help for the immigrant with service to Him. Amen.”
Dr. Sarah J. Melcher is the current chair of the Theology department. She received her doctorate in Hebrew Bible from Emory University and M. Div. from the Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary. She teaches Scripture in Emancipatory Perspectives, which stresses African American and Feminist/Womanist approaches, and African American Biblical Interpretation. Sarah Melcher is passionate about theology and reflects that passion to her students.