Commentary on John 3:1-17
The Bible is the library of books bearing stories of God’s interactions with people on the move (1 Chronicles 17:5). God’s evening visits with Adam in the garden of Eden, the call of Abram, the missionary journeys of the Apostles and modern missionaries are stories of God’s active engagement with individuals and communities of sojourners driven by the divine hand of providence. These biblical stories are roadmaps for dealing with the hypersensitive issue of immigration and immigrants in twenty first century America.
The juxtaposition of Abraham’s call story to that of Nicodemus’ nighttime visit with Jesus is telling. Abraham is urged to leave his homeland for a faraway uninherited land. Nicodemus, fully at home in the land promised to Abraham, is redirected by Jesus as to what it takes to enter into the reign of God. God has a way of keeping people of faith on edge. Our Lord Jesus, in contrasting heavenly and earthly reality, speaks to the interconnectedness between the physical and spiritual. The way a society treats those on the margins defines its spiritual well-being.
The Psalmist’s “lifting-up of the eyes to the hills/mountains” (believed to be the dwelling place Yahweh) points to the active and abiding presence of God with traveling pilgrims. The bold declaration, “I lift up my eyes to the hills — from where will my help come? My help comes from the Lord who the made heaven and earth” in this pilgrim Psalm speaks to the Psalmist’s unwavering faith in God.
God pays careful attention to the treatment of immigrants and refugees by those who host them. The Bible is very consistent on God’s command to Israel to treat aliens and refugees well:
“‘When a foreigner resides among you in your land, do not mistreat them. The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the Lord your God.” (Leviticus 19:33-34)
“ You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Deuteronomy 10:19).
I witnessed the blessings that accompany adherence to the command to treat aliens and refugees with compassion. I am native of Liberia, a country with long historical ties to the US. I arrived in Philadelphia nineteen years ago and was resettled as a refugee. I am now a very proud citizen of the USA. Liberians, like people in biblical narratives, left behind everything we knew and owned, except our faith in God. We fled into neighboring countries during the long Liberian civil wars (1989 – 1996, 1999 – 2003). I experienced God’s active presence in preserving my life and providing for my needs during my teenage refugee years as we moved from one country to another. It’s hard to believe, but it’s been thirty interesting years since our journey from Liberia to the USA, the last fifteen at Faith-Immanuel Lutheran Church, East Lansdowne, Pennsylvania.
Living as an alien is not a choice for many who find themselves in this classification. The good news for migrants is that there are resounding commands and promises. Matthew 25:34-46 is Jesus’s reiteration of God’s command for people on the margins to be treated with compassionate care.
“Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; 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, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’
Matthew concludes his Gospel with this assurance in the Great Commission: “…And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:18). Indeed, living as a migrant or refugee requires personal resilience and divine providence. Lutheran Christians in North America share this resounding heritage of which I am very delighted to be a part. SHALOM!
Rev. Dr. Moses Suah-Dennis, D.Min
Pastor, Faith-Immanuel Lutheran Church, East Lansdowne, Pennsylvania
President, Association of Liberian Lutherans in the Americas
To see a video of Faith-Immanuel’s reception as an organized congregation of the ELCA in 2012: www.ministrylink.org/FromLiberiatoEastLansdowne