Loving the Stranger
You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.
~ Deuteronomy 10:19
The term “stranger” here imperfectly translates the persons to whom the commandment applies. To the Hebrews, a stranger was a person of another race or culture who lived, or sought to live, among them; what we would call a “Gentile.” In other words, the quote means “love the foreigner living among you.” Some Bibles, in fact, replace the word “stranger” with the phrase “foreigner living among you.”
The admonition caused the Jews of the Old Testament a great deal of consternation, for there were also rules, given under the Law of Moses, that forbade the Hebrews from some forms of interaction with Gentiles. Primarily, they were to “destroy” the tribes living in Canaan. They were required to tear down all of these tribes’ altars and heathen statues, they could make no covenant with them, and they could not intermarry with them. Deut. 7. In some specific cases, they were required to annihilate them, e.g., in Jericho the Hebrews “utterly destroyed everything in the city, both man and woman, young and old, and ox and sheep and donkey, with the edge of the sword.” Joshua 6:21.
But Deuteronomy gives a reason for these extreme measures. Intimate dealings with these tribes, and especially marriage, might cause the Hebrew to adopt their religious practices, such as the worship of idols. Deuteronomy 7:4.
We do not have nearly enough space here to flesh out the Hebrews’ proper relationship to Gentiles. The rules changed over time, applied with different force to different tribes (eventually, the grandchildren of marriage to Egyptians and Moabites would be accepted as Jews), and primarily dealt with marriage. What is clear is this: by the time of Christ, the extreme and nit-picking discrimination against Gentiles living in Canaan, created and enforced by the Pharisees, came from their own minds and not from the commandments of God.
We see the error of the Pharisees time and time again in the Gospels. They had stretched the rules to the extreme of forbidding Jews from eating with Gentiles; yet Christ freely ate with Gentiles. (E.g. Mark 2:15-17.) But Christ’s greatest pronouncement came in the parable of the Good Samaritan. The parable was a gloss to the pronouncement, “Love thy neighbor as thyself,” when He was asked, “Who then is my neighbor?” His answer was, in short, “Your ‘neighbor’ might be a Samaritan.” The inhabitants of Samaria were great enemies of Judea. Furthermore, Christ traveled to Samaria, spoke with a Samaritan “woman at the well” (John 4:4–42), and in all things treated them as He would treat a fellow Jew. (John 4.)
Christians have a similar problem, for the Bible tells us not to “yoke ourselves to non-believers.” (2 Cor. 6:14) We should not marry a non-Christian, yet, if we find ourselves married to one, we should not divorce him or her. (1 Cor. 7:12-13.) Most commentators believe that we should read this to mean that we may not become so closely bound to non-believers that we become participants to sin or find ourselves tempted away from the gospel.
Yet, like the Hebrews of old, we must love the foreigners who live among us. No matter where we live — in the United States, in Nigeria, in Brazil — we are going to have immigrants living with us, both Christian and non-Christian, whom it would be easy to dislike. Some of them will look odd to us, perhaps smell odd, speak our language with difficulty (if at all), dress oddly, have peculiar ideas about things, etc.
How does the Bible tell us to treat such people? Without any doubt whatsoever, it commands us to love them. If they are Christians, we must seek to treat them just as we treat Christians who are native-born. If they are non-Christians, we must still love them, although we might keep a bit more distance so that we do not become “yoked” to them.
Lord, let me always treat foreigners living in my community with love. Amen.
~ Mason Barge
Editor, Daily Prayer