A Time to Speak – ‘Who is my neighbor?’

Flynn-5-14-15-wSome years ago I took a red pen and opened my Bible to underline the words “immigrant, foreigner, stranger” — words that are used interchangeably for the same concept. I have red-lined those words almost 100 times— and counting.

I noted too how many times Moses used the word immigrant (foreigner, stranger) in the context of a commandment. “If a stranger lives with you in your land you shall not molest him. You must count him as one of your own countrymen, and love him as yourself” (Deut. 19:33)

Wouldn’t that make a great 11th Commandment?  Or maybe the first.

That commandment is so little known, a well-kept secret from me as well as from most people who profess such fidelity to the 10 Commandments, memorized in childhood, carved in stone, made into a best-selling movie.

Long before making any commandments for Israelite refugees fleeing Egypt, Moses named his first child “Gershom” because, Moses said, “I am a stranger in a foreign land” (Exod. 2:23). His child thus became face and flesh as the constant reminder of Moses’ own immigrant origins.

I am reminded of a Mexican family I know who named their daughter “America,” born after they arrived in the U.S. This daughter is face and flesh that reminds them of their immigrant presence.

How few faithful Christians know about the numerous biblical commandments and references to welcome immigrants, foreigners and strangers.

Every Saturday for the past three months I have participated in one-hour vigils. Participants hold up a large banner that says “Immigrants and Refugees Welcome” and has an image of Mary and Joseph carrying their infant Jesus, fleeing to Egypt — immigrants and refugees seeking welcome.

Hardly anyone knows about the frequent commands to welcome immigrants and refugees in the Bible. Many fundamentalist Bible devotees have even raised voices and votes against immigrants and refugees in this country.

In spite of all that, now all of us have been blessed to learn about those biblical passages and commands, not by reading words in that famous book, but by seeing those passages in the faces and flesh of immigrants and refugees in our neighborhoods, the very ones Moses was so concerned about.

The words of Moses have become flesh: “You must love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev. 19:18).

Jesus, too, puts a face and flesh on those words of Moses in the famous story of a Good Samaritan in the Gospel of St. Luke, pointedly answering a vexing question “Who is my neighbor?” (Luke 10:29-37).

For Jesus, the face and flesh of the immigrant takes on ultimate meaning in his final sermon in the Gospel of St. Matthew: “I was a stranger and you made me welcome” (Matt. 25:35).

Most people have not read those commands about immigrants and refugees in the Bible, a book held so precious. But those words have now become flesh and live in our midst.

Father James Flynn is a retired priest of the Archdiocese of Louisville.

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