Jesus was formed by and affirmed the prophetic witness of the Hebrew Scriptures
The Hebrew Scripture is full of voices who proclaim God’s mercy and love for the poor, the stranger and asylum seeker, and of the need for those who know and love God to live in ways that reflect the breadth and depth of God’s goodness. These scriptures also contain many stories that show that God’s understanding of who is included in his covenant of love is wider than we can imagine.
This tradition stretches back to God hearing the plight of the Israelites languishing as slaves in Egypt. God raised up Moses and Aaron and Miriam so they could speak God’s desire that the people of Israel not be enslaved and to provide leadership that would lead them to liberation and through the wilderness.
The prophetic tradition of the exile is full of commands to love the poor, the widow, the stranger and the orphan as the truest form of worship and faithfulness. The poor, the widow and stranger are those displaced from country and community and the prophets instruct the people of God to both welcome them and include them fully into community.
True worship shapes our engagement in society and our commitment to include all in the commonwealth of our land. The prophets constantly remind God’s people that to separate one from the other is be engaged in worship that doesn’t please God.
At a time when the Israelites wanted to draw ever tighter boundaries about who was in and who was out, about who could be included in God’s covenant and who couldn’t, stories like Ruth and Jonah were written. These prophetic stories counter the narrative of narrow inclusion and invite the people of God to see how the outsider can have a place in God’s heart and mercy.
In the story of Ruth, the outsider Ruth demonstrates loyalty to her mother-in-law, pledging in love that Naomi’s people and God would become her people and her God. This pledge is met with the support she receives from Boaz as he remind us that at the heart of the message of God’s covenant is the inclusion of the stranger and the outsider in God’s ways of salvation.
Ruth, the one who at one level didn’t belong, is given an honoured place in the community, and from her, a line of kings was born including the King of Peace, Jesus of Nazareth.
Jonah’s story is one of a person of God who does not want to believe that God can and should extend forgiveness and mercy to the other – the ones outside Jonah’s idea of who are God’s children.
So incensed is he by this idea he travels in the opposite direction to God’s plan for him but discovers that you can’t run from God’s inclusive mercy. In the belly of a whale he repents, at least a little, and travels to Ninevah, the home of the outsider. He continues to disbelieve that those he considers outsiders can hear or heed God and sulks when he discovers they can.
Again in this story we are reminded that God’s mercy and desire to include the other is deeper and wider than we can ever conceive and that we need to live and advocate and act in ways that reflect God’s radical inclusion. We cannot, as a nation, be like Jonah and sulk at who comes or give into fear and turn from those who come wanting welcome and safety.
There are many other stories I could have drawn on from the Hebrew Scriptures, stories of a widows’ generosity and the healing of an enemy solider. What is clear is that a key motif in the Hebrew Scriptures is the full welcome of the stranger.
This tradition from Moses, through the prophets and Ruth and Jonah and others, is the faith tradition that formed Jesus. Its influence in his public ministry is seen in his sermon at the synagogue in Nazareth where he quotes from the prophet Isaiah, in the Sermon on the Mount (or the plain if you prefer). It is in the Golden Rule where Jesus restates the Jewish law, in his parables of finding, welcoming and making whole.
We also see it in the way Jesus seeks to include those so often excluded by mainstream society. This inclusion includes eating with sinners, allowing a rejected women to wash his feet and calling disgraced tax collectors and humble fishermen. We see it in the community of women and men who gather around Jesus. And we see it in his willingness to give up his life for the whole world. In Christ’s dying and rising, God makes clear that no one is excluded from the embrace of God’s divine mercy.
Guest and host
The image of guest and host and the changing of these roles is also in the story of Abraham and Sarah. They act as host to three strangers, welcoming them and inviting them to a meal. During the course of that meal they find that they are hosting more than three strangers – they are hosting messengers of God who come with news of a child, a dynasty and a place in God’s plan to make a covenant with a people.
In this exchange, the tables are turned and the hosts also become guests, as they are welcomed into God’s plans and God’s ways, guests in God’s divine action in the world.
In the incarnation we see Jesus, whose word brought creation into being, entering into human history, becoming a guest on earth, living in our neighbourhood. Jesus gives up the role of host and becomes guest.
This dynamic of changing is seen in the story of Zaccheus, where Jesus acts as host inviting himself to be guest in the home of an excluded and despised one. He becomes guest as he eats at Zaccheus’ table, host as he welcomes Zaccheus into God’s radical way of living, and offers Zaccheus a new way to live restored to community.
In the road to Emmasus, we again see Jesus move between being guest and host. The two friends welcome Jesus as a fellow traveller into their companionship. He then hosts them in an unfolding of scripture, they host him as their guest to a meal, and then he becomes host at the table of thanksgiving and they are welcomed into God’s new life.
In this dynamic of changing roles I see a model for how it is we are called to engage in advocacy and welcome for refugees and asylum seekers.
We are welcomed into the reign of God by a God whose love hosts us and makes us welcome. We become members and participants in that reign. So as hosts we seek to welcome the other in our midst but in the course of this act of welcome we so often find we are hosted and made welcome by the other.
We have been welcomed into this self-giving, all loving community through the sending of Jesus Christ and are sustaining the presence of the Spirit. Such welcoming love also pushes us to be engaged in God’s world, participating in God’s mercy and witnessing to God’s goodness through our engaging in acts of solidarity and advocacy for asylum seekers and refugees.
At the heart of the churches’ engagement with refugees and in advocacy for refugees is the deep heart knowledge that God has loved, welcomed and embraced us into God’s reign.
As people who are loved and welcomed, we are called and compelled to reflect that love and welcome in our living.
This can take many forms, from offering friendship and support to refugees currently in Australia, to engaging in political actions on behalf of refugees detained by our government, to advocating for more rights for asylum seekers both here in Australia and those awaiting resettlement.
This can be seen as being political, and it is, but it is also deeply spiritual because it is an act of gratitude to God who loves us, an act of prayer on behalf of those who are marginalised, an act of recognising the image of God in each and all of God’s children, and an act of discipleship as we participate in making visible God’s promised future.
Moderator, Uniting Church Synod of Victoria and Tasmania.
Prepared for and delivered at the Victorian Council of Churches refugee and migrant Sunday forum August 28 2016