On this day in which we commemorate the Prophet Zachariah (ca. 520 B.C.), we can consider a small portion of the word he received from God in prophecy.
“Thus says the LORD of hosts, Render true judgments, show kindness and mercy each to his brother, do not oppress the widow, the fatherless, the sojourner, or the poor; and let none of you devise evil against his brother in your heart.” (Zechariah 7:9-10)
The Old Testament teaches that God’s people are to show kindness and mercy to one another. This same scripture text also gives commands regarding the needy and the sojourner/stranger who might be living with God’s people. They too are to be treated fairly and not oppressed because they are poor or are foreigners. The reason Israel is to love the sojourner who happens to live with them, so God reminds them, is because Israel itself was once a homeless people, sojourning through a desert. Israel in fact is supposed to always remember it is a sojourning people on earth.
For the LORD your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great, the mighty, and the terrible God, who … executes justice for the fatherless and the widow, and loves the sojourner, giving him food and clothing. Love the sojourner therefore; for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt. (Deuteronomy 10:17-19)
God reminds the Jews that God Himself protected Israel when Israel was the sojourning people, threatened by the people around them, to whom the Israelites were unwanted foreigners. Israel is to learn from God and to do as God did to them when dealing with those who sojourn in their midst.
When they were few in number, of little account, and sojourners in it, wandering from nation to nation, from one kingdom to another people, he allowed no one to oppress them; he rebuked kings on their account, saying, “Touch not my anointed ones, do my prophets no harm!” (Psalm 105:12-14)
Treating the sojourner with love is thus an Old Testament idea that is part of Christian tradition as well. Sojourners/strangers are also often found among the poor and needy, and so are to treated fairly and with mercy by God’s command.
You shall not oppress a hired servant who is poor and needy, whether he is one of your brethren or one of the sojourners who are in your land within your towns… (Deuteronomy 24:14)
Mistreating the needy or sojourners has consequences as God warns Israel:
You shall not afflict any widow or orphan. If you do afflict them, and they cry out to me, I will surely hear their cry… (Exodus 22:22-23)
God says that He hears the cry of the poor, the needy, the sojourners and the strangers and God promises to make right for them how they are treated. So, we come to understand the importance for Christians of maintaining a sojourner or pilgrim mindset on earth. As Israel once was a homeless, sojourning people, so too Christians are reminded that life on earth is a temporary part of our existence. We are passing through this earth on our way to our homeland – God’s paradisical Kingdom. Being a sojourner/stranger is to be part of our spiritual identity.
Today in the world, we call sojourners other names like refugees and immigrants (as well as a host of pejorative and negative names). Yet, God still commands us to treat them fairly and not to oppress them, which becomes a challenge for modern nations who also are concerned about protecting their borders. Nationalistic interests often conflict with God’s commands and will. However, if we remember we are a sojourning people, we can have greater empathy for the sojourners we see today in the world. Those unwanted souls are still valuable in God’s eyes. Those sojourners are us as we travel through a world that often dislikes people who live by the values of God’s Kingdom.
Russian Orthodox theologian Nikolai Berdiaev once commented on Christians failing to maintain that sojourning spirituality:
The bourgeois spirit wins every time when, among Christians, the City of the earth is mistaken for the City of heaven, and when Christians stop feeling as pilgrims in this world…” (LIVING ICONS, p 232)
The materialistic values of the middle class causes them to lose sympathy for ‘sojourners’ because they see them as threatening strangers and definitely not as human as themselves. They see them as a threat to their accumulated possessions and social position. When we begin to get comfortable in our lifestyle, we don’t want to be reminded of those still struggling. We want to rejoice in the blessings we have from God – which we come to believe we deserve or have earned, while dismissing the sojourners as those God chose not to bless. We come to believe “we have made it” and decide it is to our advantage to keep others out. But it is a spirituality which is rejected by the God who hears the cries of the downtrodden sojourner.