Jesus the Refugee

Refugees on a Boat

Ecuadorian refugees to Guatemala.

Jesus and his parents Mary and Joseph were refugees.

God could have come as a prince or at least a priest. That would be a little more expected, at least from the perspective of privileged Western eyes. In the original Jewish context, steeped in the Hebrew Bible stories of refugees, immigrants, and other outsiders – the first time the command to “love your neighbour” is given, it is specifically in the context of immigrants – it would have made some sense, but despite that history many of them were still expecting a more privileged Messiah.

Instead of a prince or a priest, God incarnated as a poor son to an unmarried mother of a small disrespected town. And then, he became a refugee, one of the less respected groups of people still today:

The Escape to Egypt

13 Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.”14 Then Joseph[h] got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, 15 and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, “Out of Egypt I have called my son.”

The Massacre of the Infants

16 When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men,[i] he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men.[j] 17 Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah:

18 “A voice was heard in Ramah,
    wailing and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
    she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.”

The Return from Egypt

19 When Herod died, an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, 20 “Get up, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who were seeking the child’s life are dead.” 21 Then Joseph[k] got up, took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel.22 But when he heard that Archelaus was ruling over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. And after being warned in a dream, he went away to the district of Galilee. 23 There he made his home in a town called Nazareth, so that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, “He will be called a Nazorean.”

(Matthew 2:13-23 NRSV)

Jesus comes under threat by a tyrannical ruler. This ruler is so paranoid he’ll kill everyone in the area to try to make sure nobody is a threat to him. Joseph, at the leading of an angel, takes a risk to get his family out of there. It would be dangerous. They did not have a lot of money as they packed in a hurry to travel to Egypt. They presumably didn’t know anybody there they could guarantee could support them. They didn’t know if they would be outcasts, denied a chance to make a living simply because they were from a different country. What they know was that their current situation was virtually guaranteed to kill them (at least Jesus, but probably Mary and Joseph with them). So they took a chance. Because of that chance, and because nobody dismissed their refugee status as inferior and unworthy of life, Jesus saved the world.

Later, Jesus talks in Matthew 25 about we will be judged based on how we treated the least of these:

31 “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. 32 All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, 33 and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. 34 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; 35 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, 36 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.’ 37 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? 38 And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? 39 And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ 40 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,[g] you did it to me.’ 41 Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; 42 for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ 44 Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ 45 Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ 46 And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”

That refugee in a boat from Syria to Europe right now? That is Jesus. He wasn’t just the least of these in an abstract sense of sympathizing with them. They are not just Jesus in the theological sense that they bare the image of God just as much as I do. He experienced many of these things himself. Our call is still to care for all those Jesuses now.

This article is part of a MennoNerds synchro-blog on the refugee crisis. Read more posts from other MennoNerds.

Ryan Robinson

It is easiest to identify Ryan as both theologian and tech guy. By day, Ryan is a Technical Consultant work with PeaceWorks Technology Solutions. There, he works on websites, CRMs, and SharePoint implementations. Along with blogging here, Ryan is a founding member of the MennoNerds blogging network and a contributor to the book A Living Alternative.