You are to have the same law for the foreigner and the native-born. I am the LORD your God. Leviticus 24:22 (NIV). People sometimes say that the Old Testament is very harsh and the New Testament very loving.
But (although it is true that there is progression in the revelation of God in the Christian Scriptures through time) closer examination quickly dispels the idea that the Old Testament reveals a God of Judgement and the New Testament a God of Love.
Both Testaments reveal One God, complex (of course – He is God!) but totally consistent. This verse in Leviticus is a good example of one implication of that consistency.
When Jesus was asked to summarise the Old Testament Law, He did so in two striking Old Testament quotations (Matthew 22/34-40, Mark 12/28-34, compare a similar encounter in Luke 10/25-28):
37 Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’[a] 38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’[b] 40 All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”
(footnotes in the text are cross-references to Deuteronomy 6/5 and Leviticus 19/18).
In other words, love is central to the message of the Old Testament (‘the Law and the Prophets’).
Love and Justice
But this love is not a woolly feeling divorced from justice, as the parable that Luke records immediately after a parallel passage makes clear (Luke 12/30-37): true love, compassion and justice are all different sides of the same coin. We’ll come back to that.
Interestingly, children often have an inherent sense of the connection between love and justice (especially for themselves!). How many times have you heard the cry ‘that’s not fair’ at some injustice (real or perceived)? Kids seem to naturally understand that people should be just – and that if a parent is inconsistent, that is not being loving.
Which takes us neatly back to the text in Leviticus (24/22): This particular verse is about applying the law consistently, to foreigners as much as to the native-born. It is one of a series of verses about applying both the ceremonial and civil law consistently (cf. Leviticus 16/29, 17/8-15, Numbers 9/14, 15/13-16, 35/15, Deuteronomy 16/9-12).
These verses could not be clearer:
In English, the word that is most often used to describe our rebellion against God is the short word ‘sin’: it’s striking that ‘I’ am at the centre of this word – because the root of sin is displacing God from His rightful place and putting myself at the centre of my world.
And it is obvious from the teaching of Jesus that loving God and loving neighbour are parallel and inseparable commands.
So, the Bible goes further still: because God knows that the world is seriously messed-up and that in difficult times, people tend naturally to look after their own. It is right to look after our family and friends: we are commended, for example, to ‘honour your Father and your mother’ (Exodus 20/12). It is clearly also the responsibility of nations to look after their citizens. But the Bible makes very clear that loving our neighbour as ourselves is not about caring for ourselves at the expense of others. Love and justice are inseparable. The Bible is realistic about that natural tendency to care only for our own, which we see in whole nations, as well as in individuals. Sadly, many of us reading these notes (or using them for our sermons) have experienced injustice first-hand. This would be a good place to illustrate from our own experience or from that of our family or from the experience in either our own or our host nations.
The Bible challenges all of us – we should all be subject to the Rule of Law, whether we are ordinary citizens, police, judiciary or government officials. And the Rule of Law is to be fairly applied to all people, without distinction – because all people everywhere are made in the image of God (Genesis 1/27) and are to be treated with equal dignity.
Deuteronomy 10:17-18 New International Version (NIV)
17 For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who shows no partiality and accepts no bribes. 18 He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the foreigner residing among you, giving them food and clothing.
Deuteronomy 27:19 New International Version (NIV)
19 “Cursed is anyone who withholds justice from the foreigner, the fatherless or the widow.” Then all the people shall say, “Amen!”
Leviticus 19:33-34 New International Version (NIV)
33 “‘When a foreigner resides among you in your land, do not mistreat them. 34 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.
An even higher standard:
These commands already mentioned challenge the current realities in many parts of the world. In many places, the forcibly displaced and other vulnerable people are often severely disadvantaged, with little recourse to the protection enjoyed by citizens.
But the Bible seems to go further, calling for extra special care for the most vulnerable. These verses challenge all of us to change our attitudes and favour the disadvantaged:
Deuteronomy 24:17-19 New International Version (NIV)
17 Do not deprive the foreigner or the fatherless of justice, or take the cloak of the widow as a pledge. 18 Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and the Lord your God redeemed you from there. That is why I command you to do this. 19 When you are harvesting in your field and you overlook a sheaf, do not go back to get it. Leave it for the foreigner, the fatherless and the widow, so that the Lord your God may bless you in all the work of your hands.
Deuteronomy 26:12 New International Version (NIV)
12 When you have finished setting aside a tenth of all your produce in the third year, the year of the tithe, you shall give it to the Levite, the foreigner, the fatherless and the widow, so that they may eat in your towns and be satisfied.
Leviticus 23:22 New International Version (NIV)
22 “‘When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap to the very edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest. Leave them for the poor and for the foreigner residing among you. I am the Lord your God.’”
Galatians 2:10 New International Version (NIV)
10 All they asked was that we should continue to remember the poor, the very thing I had been eager to do all along.
Widows, orphans, foreigners – migrant workers, the forcibly-displaced, the poor.
What are the implications of all these Bible passages for our attitudes, for our churches, for public policy in our nations? Are those of us who profess to follow Jesus leading the attitudes and responses of our nations – or are we being shaped by values that are far from the values of the True and Living (and consistently loving and just) God?
One final question for further reflection
Is there special relevance (for World Refugee Sunday) of the Parable in Luke (12/30-37) where Jesus illustrates true love by telling the story of the compassion of a despised foreigner?
Samaritans were looked down upon by the Jewish people of Jesus day, because they had mixed the practice of other religions in with their historic Jewish faith, and were perceived as being unclean and unworthy of being the People of God – do research Samaritans and their history online, if you can.
Were the Samaritans of Jesus’ day maybe a bit like refugees today? On the margins of society, and not the kind of people befriended by most. But the interesting thing about the parable in the context of World Refugee Sunday is this: the Samaritan is the one giving the help. He is the one loving his neighbour – he’s the despised refugee, caring for the citizen who (until he was robbed) had all the protection afforded to citizens.
So, to the food for thought in our households and families, in these days of social distancing: Are we ready to learn from the forcibly displaced?