Jesus Was a Refugee


As we approach Bethlehem through the shadows of Advent, the deeper meanings of Christmas shine bright.  The Word becomes flesh and dwells among us as a child – but not just any child. God arrives as an infant who has nowhere to lay his head, and must spend his first vulnerable days of life not in a home or a hospital but in an improvised, makeshift shelter (Luke 2).  God arrives as part of a family who must hurriedly flee a campaign of terror (the “slaughter of the innocents” ordered by King Herod) into a foreign country, the desperate and difficult flight into Egypt (Matthew 2:13-15).

In a word, Jesus was a refugee.

And this was no accident, no minor detail in the Christmas story.  On the contrary, it was the opening note in the song that would become his life and ministry, and at the same time a clear echo of the larger divine symphony that begins in the Book of Genesis.  For that young refugee grows up into a teacher well acquainted with scripture, with its oft-repeated refrain to welcome the foreigner, indeed to “love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Deut 10:19).  

According to the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus concludes his formal teaching with one last parable, a story that puts the premium not on any particular confession of faith but rather on whether we serve “the least of these”:  “feeding the hungry,” “clothing the naked,” and also and in particular “welcoming the stranger” (Matthew 25:31-46). Jesus explicitly takes up solidarity with those who need the basics of food, clothing, and shelter in this parable, as if to say, “If you’re looking for me, you’ll find me among the most vulnerable.”

And so Christians can put it this way: Jesus was a refugee – and Jesus is a refugee.

Nor can it escape our attention that Jesus constantly warned – and warns – his followers against clannish thinking, against serving the insider group at the expense of alleged outsiders.  The famous “Good Samaritan” parable is a case in point: Jesus calls us to embody neighborly mercy, no matter the culture or creed or religion of those we seek to serve. After all, what is “good” about the parable’s Samaritan is that he serves across lines of religious and cultural hostility.  He puts tangible mercy above all supposed divisions, and Jesus tell us to “go and do likewise.” Accordingly, the Christian commitment to serving those in need cannot and should not be limited to serving Christians any more than Muslims, or Jews, or any other religious or non-religious group.

The recent controversies regarding refugees and immigration more generally are an affront to these core Christian values.  This is not a matter of who the president is or which party is in power; rather, this is a matter of Christian witness and discipleship.  We should be turning toward refugees from vulnerable parts of the world, not away from them.

Jesus would have none of this.  Jesus was a refugee. Jesus is a refugee.  Those of us who seek, with God’s help, to follow Jesus as best we can do well to turn toward those who most need refuge and assistance, without regard to their religion or national origin.

And Jesus would go even farther: Follow the Samaritan’s example, he’d say, as well as the example of the ancient prophets.  Reach out in a special way to supposed outsiders, so as to welcome the one who is a stranger, the one who is a foreigner, the one for whom your mercy, your imagination, your love must stretch the farthest.  For that is the supple and surprising shape of God’s mercy – the same God who came to dwell with us that first Christmas morning as a vulnerable, needy infant with nowhere to lay his head.


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