Tuesday, May 9, 2006


The issue of immigration reform is a hot-button issue. Congressmen and other politicians all wax eloquent about the problem or problems: 12 million illegal aliens, “porous” borders, the necessity for cheap labor, assimilation, etc., etc. And of course, my e-mail friends have forwarded to me various opinions.

I don’t have a simple solution to the problems, but I feel that as a Christian I must first go to the Scriptures to find out what they have to say. And they say a lot!

The Hebrew Old Testament uses at least two words over 100 times, which are essentially synonymous, Ger (verb form Gur) and Zur, both usually translated “stranger,” sometimes “alien,” or “sojourner,” depending on the English version. The words are usually applied to people living in the land of Israel who were not of Israelite stock. Sometimes, of course, they were used of the Israelites themselves. The Israelites were to take special care of strangers or aliens because they themselves had been strangers in Egypt. “You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Exodus 22:21). Strangers were included along with the poor, widows and orphans as objects of their and God’s care (Exodus 22:21-27; 23:9-12).

The original “Law of Love,” often quoted in the New Testament was first stated in Leviticus 19:18, “ ... you shall love your neighbor as yourself; I am the LORD.” And it is clear that the word neighbor did not apply only to one’s fellow Israelite as verse 34 shows, “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.” So when Jesus quoted the law of love, He would have understood it to include “the stranger,” as the story in Luke 10:25-37 shows. (Except in this story, it is the “stranger” who demonstrates love.)

When we come to the New Testament epistles we find that this teaching is expanded. “Hospitality” is a desired virtue. But this is not talking about coffee and cookies with our fellow church folks after the service. The Greek words usually translated hospitable and hospitality are philoxenos and philoxenia, literally "love of strangers" (1 Timothy 3:2; Titus 1:8; 1 Peter 4:9; Romans 12:13; Hebrews 13:2). The word xenodocheo ("entertain strangers," in the sense of having them in for a meal) is also used in 1 Timothy 5:10.

In the movie, “My Big Fat Greek Wedding,” the bride’s father referred to her husband-to-be as a "xenos." The word for stranger (xenos) is used with a broad range of meanings, but usually had the idea of someone or something foreign or unknown.

In 1 Peter 4:9, we are told to be philoxenos to one another, which would seem to imply a mutual hospitality among believers. However, in Romans 12:13, it is part of the list which includes "sharing the needs of the saints," so it must go beyond “the saints.” In Hebrews 13:2, it is in addition to brotherly love (philadelphia) in verse 1. Also this verse goes on to say that by practicing this "some have entertained (xenizo) angels without knowing it."

When we tie this to the New Testament teaching that WE (Christians) are "aliens and strangers" in this world, I think we can begin to see a biblical rationale for "hospitality."

Putting these all together, I'd say that biblical hospitality includes, but goes beyond mutual entertainment. It implies also a reaching out to those "outside," and possibly opening our homes to them.

When we look at Matthew 25:31-46, it gets pretty convicting. “I was a stranger and you invited Me in. ... when did we see You a stranger and invite You in? ... to the extent that you did it to the least of these brothers of Mine, even the least of them, you did it to Me.” The word "stranger" (xenos) is used four times and is classed with other groups of people in need. Also see Luke 14:12-14 (though the word "stranger" isn't used there).

So, when trying to come to a position regarding “aliens” (illegal or legal), we need to consider first, not the economic or political questions, though they may be important, but the biblical command to love; and the love which is commanded is not to be a love for self, or even “my country,” it is to be a love that desires to meet the need of those in need, especially the poor and the stranger.

“If Jesus should come and knock on your door,
For a place to lie down, bread from your floor.
Would you welcome Him in, or would you turn Him away?
Then God would reward you on that great judgment day.”
(“The Tramp on the Street,” traditional folk song)

Bill Ball

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