ONE CURRENT THORNY social issue stoking all kinds of emotions in many economically developed societies is the question of how to handle migrants, foreign workers, and refugees.
We live in an extraordinary time of global mass movement of people. Millions of people, particularly from less developed countries, uproot themselves at great personal sacrifice and costs to become migrants, foreign workers, and refugees in other lands. They do so because they seek a better future for themselves and their families. Some refugees have suffered persecution in their homelands and have fled for fear of their lives.
These people often bring to their host countries their own languages, mannerisms, different customs, strange foods and ways of cooking, and a multitude of beliefs. As they are in an unfamiliar environment, the poorer and less talented ones also become vulnerable and easy targets for exploitation.
We often have difficulty in truly welcoming and accommodating such strangers. The stranger is “not one of us”. They are treated with suspicion or quietly tolerated because of the backbreaking lowdown jobs, shunned by locals, that they take on even if they may be professionally qualified in their own countries.
During economic recessions, they are especially vulnerable as they often become convenient scapegoats unjustly accused of stealing local jobs. We might even question whether they really belong here and if they would be better off back in their homelands.
Discomfort with strangers was an issue the Israelites had to deal with in the Old Testament. An Exodus passage contains specific instructions on how to treat strangers: “You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Ex 22:20).
In another place, God gave this instruction to His people: “If a stranger lives with you in your land, do not molest him. You must count him as one of your own countrymen and love him as yourself – for you were once strangers yourselves in Egypt. I am the Lord your God”(Lev 19:33-34). These instructions tell us that God has a special place in His heart for the strangers who are most vulnerable in foreign lands.
Now as people of the Covenant, God has to remind His people who they were before, and how God cared for them. Therefore they must not do to others what the Egyptians had done to them.
Just as God protected them when they were strangers in Egypt, God will also protect the strangers in their midst. Just as God heard their cries in Egypt, God made it clear that He will also hear the cries of the strangers who are now in their land.
As believers in God who became human and vulnerable in Jesus, we need to ask hard questions about our own attitudes towards these strangers who lie outside our familiar circle of friends and community. Our attitudes towards them will reveal the depth of our belief.
In the first place, we need to honour and respect their humanity. They are not just workers doing unattractive jobs; they are fellow humans trying to make an honest living.
Many of them have made heart-wrenching decisions to leave their wives, husbands, children, and friends at home in order to give hope to their loved ones. The younger ones could have been schooling or preparing for marriage and other vocations in life.
Instead they have been compelled by economic necessity to put those natural human longings on hold in order to help their families out. In the process many of them incurred serious debts that need to be repaid.
To honour and respect their humanity is also to honour and respect our own humanity. It is to respect and honour the God who became one of us in Jesus.
As believers it is a gospel requirement that we treat these people respectfully and justly. Above all, we need to express our thanks and gratitude to them for being part of our social fabric in the contributions they make to our community.
While it is true that we might experience strangers as an uncomfortable presence, yet they often bring with them great gifts – gifts that we will receive if we open our hearts to the strangers in true hospitality. More often than not, they are God’s surprise packages.
Scripture gives us many examples of how strangers brought wonderful gifts to their hosts. Abraham’s three stranger guests brought him the good news of ageing Sarah’s impending motherhood (Gn 18); the two disciples on their way to Emmaus (Lk 24) were totally surprised that the stranger who walked with them turned out to be the Risen Jesus himself.
Perhaps the greatest surprise package these strangers may give us might be the gift of our own redemption. This is what we read in St. Matthew’s parable of the Last Judgement.
“The King will say to those on his right hand, ‘Come, you whom my Father has blessed. Take for your heritage the kingdom prepared for you since the foundation of the world... for I was a stranger and you made me welcome.’ ” (Mt 25:34-35)
By Father Bernard Teo, CSsR
Singaporean Father Bernard Teo joined the Redemptorists and was ordained a priest in 1979. He has taught moral theology at Yarra Theological Union, Melbourne, Australia, since 1991, and also regularly teaches theology in the Philippines.