“You shall not wrong a sojourner or oppress him, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt. … You shall not oppress a sojourner. You know the heart of a sojourner, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt.” (Exodus 23:21, Exodus 23:9) “Cursed be anyone who perverts the justice due to the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow.” (Deuteronomy 27:19)
In the Old Testament, the “sojourner” – a resident alien, or an alien sojourner, the non-Jew who chose to live with the Jews and accept their fate and honor their God – belonged to a special class of people whom the Jews were not only to tolerate but to protect. The people of God were to love the sojourner because God Himself loved that alien. They were to have empathy for the alien sojourner because they themselves had once been aliens in the land of Egypt and they knew what it was like to be in that position. The resident alien, the stranger on earth, the outsider, holds a spiritual status in the eyes of God. All of God’s people are sojourners – exiled from paradise, from Egypt, from heaven, from Israel. Biblical scholar Frances Young in her book BROKENNESS AND BLESSING describes how her own mentally and physically handicapped son taught her the sense in which every human being is an alien, a stranger, sometimes to his or her own family!
Christians themselves have embraced the theme of being sojourners on earth – in exile not only from the heavenly homeland (1 Peter 1:17), but also in exile from the secular, post-modern society in which we find ourselves.
“Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul. Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation.” (1 Peter 2:11-12)
The notion that Christians should always see themselves as sojourning aliens on earth is sometimes forgotten by American Christians who see themselves first as Americans and who prefer to feel at home in America rather than to see themselves as sojourners on earth. In some ways they want America to be not only a Christian haven, but more so the Christian heaven – they no longer feel themselves as aliens on earth. This results in some embracing nationalism in a way unbecoming of Christians. For in so doing they not only forget the spiritual value of being sojourners, but they abandon the love for other sojourners who come into their churches. They want to embrace only people like themselves and to treat not as aliens but as enemies those who are differ in race, politics, life style, ethnic background, language or wealth.
In the 2nd Century EPISTLE TO DIOGNETUS, the author claims of Christians that, “Every foreign land is their fatherland, yet for them every fatherland is a foreign land.”
“Christians are not different because of their country or the language they speak or the way they dress. They do not isolate themselves in their cities nor use a private language; even the life they lead has nothing strange. … They live in Greek or in barbarian (foreign) cities, as the case may be, and adapt themselves to local traditions in dress, food and all usage. Yet they testify to a way which, in the opinion of the many, has something extraordinary about it. They live in their own countries and are strangers. They loyally fulfill their duties as citizens, but are treated as foreigners. … They dwell on earth, but are citizens of heaven.”
God expects us to embrace the role of sojourner for ourselves in our life on earth and also to embrace the sojourner – the other, the alien, the stranger – who joins us as we journey through time towards the Kingdom of Heaven. Embracing the alien sojourner, the stranger who comes to our parish community is our spiritual task. As Young writes, “we care for them (the stranger, the sojourner) because they reveal to us who we really are-that is how ‘the Other’ matters.” The stranger/sojourner reveals to us that we are also sojourners on earth and should embrace that status. And who then is that stranger that we should embrace? Anyone who comes into our parish community, no matter how strange they may seem to us. (remember how Jesus answered the question “who is my neighbor” in Luke 10:25-36? The answer is found in who proves himself to be a neighbor). If the stranger desires to walk with us and to experience our life in Christ, even while still remaining a stranger, then we are to embrace them as a sojourner blessed by God, as a neighbor, and perhaps one day as a brother or sister in Christ. Even God does not wait for our conversion before loving us – for while we were still sinners Christ died for us (Romans 5:8).