by Bruce Epperly
The outcry against immigrants is great these days. Candidates vie with one another in terms of who will be harshest in responding to undocumented workers in our land and how to most vigorously protect our southern border from hordes of immigrants from Mexico and Central America. “Build a wall!” one candidate shouts. And, if the Mexicans don’t pay for it, he continues, “We will build one ten feet higher!” Immigrants are blamed for everything from unemployment to terrorism. Even Syrian immigrant children, properly vetted, are seen as threats to national security. Christian politicians are seen as weak whenever they propose a compassionate approach to immigrants and undocumented workers.
For those who know the Bible, Ruth is not just a sweet love story. It’s a story of immigration in its many dimensions. The story begins with Naomi and Elimelech leaving Bethlehem for Moab to escape starvation. Famine hurts the working poor and the lower middle class hardest. When there is no choice, people leave their homelands not because they want to, but because they have to, simply to survive. Naomi and Elimelech, like today’s immigrants, cross the border to Moab. We don’t know how they were received, but like so many immigrants today, they work hard, raise a family, and establish themselves in their new land. Their two boys even marry Moabite girls. We don’t know how Naomi or Elimelech felt about this mixed marriage, or how Orpah’s or Ruth’s families responded to their daughters marrying Israelites, but ultimately the two couples were accepted by both families, we suspect.
Tragedy strikes. All three males die, and three women are left without means of support in a patriarchal society. Hoping to avoid starvation once more, Naomi sets off to her homeland, this time with extra baggage, a childless Moabite widow. Both women band together out of love, but also simply to survive.
We don’t know if Ruth was accepted at first by the women and men of Bethlehem. She was, after all, a Moabite, and Moabites were viewed as spiritually inferior and morally suspect. Their women were sexually promiscuous, they worshipped other gods, and they were seen as military enemies throughout history. But, as the story goes: Ruth and Boaz meet and marry, have a son, who eventually becomes the grandfather of the great king David. Imagine, David, Israel’s greatest ruler, the descendant of a mixed marriage!
The story goes on. Centuries later, another child is born, Jesus our Savior, a descendant of this immigrant woman. To add to the drama, this child’s parents flee to Egypt, immigrants themselves, to escape danger like so many immigrant families today. Did the holy family survive in Egypt because someone provided hospitality to strangers and immigrants?
Christians, especially preachers and politicians, would do well to read their bibles. Sadly, many Christians embrace racist attitudes rather than rational hospitality. They sink to the lowest common denominator, clapping and shouting approval to anti-immigrant harangues and opposing any support for the “least of these,” little children in search of safety and shelter.
Ruth reminds us that when we welcome immigrants, we may just be welcoming Jesus’ ancestors. Jesus challenges us to see his face in the “least of these” and goes even further to proclaim that God feels the joy and pain of the most vulnerable people we meet.
A bumper sticker announces, “Honk, if you love Jesus.” In response, another bumper sticker proclaims, “If you love Jesus, seek justice, any fool can honk!” Today’s Christians would do well to go “back to the Bible” and learn lessons of hospitality to immigrants. This doesn’t mean that we make our border porous. It does mean that after properly vetting immigrants, we welcome them into our land as God’s beloved children, who will bless us and our nation by their gifts. (For more on the story of Ruth, see Ruth and Esther: Women of Agency and Adventure, Energion, 2016)