He who welcomes the stranger welcomes God

  • In NEWS
  • September 15, 2022
He who welcomes the stranger welcomes God

Migration in the Bible


Already in the first chapters of the Bible we find the basic experience of humanity: home can be lost, it is not something permanent or self-evident. The first humans lost their first home with God through sin (Genesis 3 and 4). In both cases, God cares for the exiles (Genesis 3:21 and Genesis 4:15). The story of exile, expulsion, migration, alienation and diaspora occurs in the Old Testament as the revelation of God himself. Migration constitutes the fundamental experiential space of the ethical, spiritual and theological self-understanding of Jews and Christians from the very beginning. Almost all persons in the Hebrew Bible have a decided migration background. In the Old Testament, the theme of migration is closely linked to the question of law and justice and is grounded in the creation-theological realization that all human beings, regardless of ethnicity, color, gender and religion, are the image of God and are therefore entitled to the same status of well-being and dignity. The migration context begins in the New Testament with the story and person of Jesus: As an itinerant preacher in Galilee, Jesus’ life begins with his flight from Egypt and is constitutively determined by the experience of homelessness, which becomes an obligation for his disciples to be able to proclaim the kingdom of God. It is thus part of the self-understanding of early Christianity to be on earth as “strangers” and “guests”: Responsibility towards the stranger is elevated to an ethical imperative and thus to a place of encounter with Christ and specific forms of experiencing God.


Determining migration as a locus theologicus inevitably follows the underlying migration phenomenon in the Holy Scriptures and their theologies, the fact that the majority of the texts were written in the context of exile, flight, expulsion, wandering and diaspora situations: Judaism as well as Christianity are constituted in a tense interplay of experiences of settledness as well as migration.[1]


The legislation in favor of strangers in the Old Testament is noteworthy: “and he doeth justice to the fatherless and the widow, and loveth the stranger, to give them meat and raiment: therefore ye also shall love the stranger: for ye also were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Deuteronomy 10:18-19). The Bible expresses extraordinary empathy and love towards the strangers, combined with strong ethical and religious appeals: Deuteronomy 26, 5-10 finds that the whole Israelite creed is directed towards solidarity with the stranger, the refugee.[2] Central to this is the idea that flight in many places is explicitly based on the will of YHWH: “You shall be unsteady and fugitive on the earth”. (Genesis 4, 12).


In the biblical context of the New Testament, the term “stranger” (παροικία) used in Greek initially means a dwelling in a foreign land: what is meant is that Christian existence on earth is far from the heavenly home.[3] This understanding emerges above all from the Letter to Peter (1 Peter 1:1, 17; 1 Peter 2:11). The idea of being chosen or elect (ἐκλεκτοῖς) is connected with homelessness, insofar as the singling out of the church by God leads to foreignness: The Christian believer lives in strangeness in that his way of life is opposed to that of his environment. The place of this life is the diaspora, which makes the believer live out of his election far from his heavenly home in the dispersion of the world.[4]


The seeking and longing for the heavenly fatherland, which appears in the distance, is like a movement forward and upward: “But now they long for a better fatherland, which is heavenly” (Hebrews 11:16, see also Hebrews 11:14). Here the thought is laid down that life on earth is only a short stay and earthly life is generally foreign. Only the heavenly realm is the home and future city to which Christians aspire: “For here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come” (Hebrews 13:14). We are strangers even in our own body, since being in the body is being far from God” (2 Corinthians 5:6). Strangeness is thus inscribed in man as a being-in-the-world from the ground up.


The theme of hospitality is particularly evident in God’s call to the banquet, which is a call to community (Luke 13:29; Luke 14:16-24). The hosting of a stranger is equated with the hosting of Jesus himself (Matthew 25:35, 38, 43f.). This means at the same time that not welcoming a stranger corresponds to not welcoming Jesus.[5] In the Matthean world judgement speech, among other things, helping strangers is decisive: “I was a stranger and you took me in”. (Matthew 25:35). In the same way that man in the Old Testament encounters the God of the Exodus in the refugees, in the New Testament he encounters Jesus in the needy stranger.[6]


Hospitality is referred to several times in the New Testament letters: “Do not forget hospitality” (Hebrews 13:1); “Seek hospitality” (Romans 12:13); “Be hospitable to one another without grumbling” (1 Peter 4:9). This encouragement to hospitality is based on the experiences Jesus had during his wanderings: He also had to experience rejection. The fact that Jesus “came into his own and his own received him not” (John 1:11) was taken up in Jesus’ preaching and the missionary preaching of the apostles. The Bible’s overall message on migration is clear and unambiguous: He who welcomes the stranger welcomes God.


By Dr Yassir Eric


[1] Cf. Lohfink, Norbert (1987): Bücherei und Buch zugleich. Die Einheit der Bibel und die neueren deutschen Übersetzungen, in: Lohfink, Nobert: Das Jüdische am Christentum. Die verlorene Dimension, Freiburg/Basel/Wien, S. 217-234.

[2] Cf. Michel, Andreas: Flucht, in: https://www.bibelwissenschaft.de/stichwort/200066/ (17.08.2019), 1.6.

[3] Lang, Manfred (2010): Fremde (NT), in: https://www.bibelwissenschaft.de/stichwort/48872/ (18.08.2019), 1.

[4] Cf. Lang (2010), 1.

[5] Cf. Lang (2010), 2.

[6] Cf. Michel (2015), 2.

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