This final blog on Immigrants and Refugees will deal theme of the refugee in the Gospel of Matthew. Read part I here, and part II here.
Flight into Egypt
The Gospel of Matthew picks up some of these themes in the conclusion of the birth narrative and the Last Judgment scene in chapter 26.
The Matthean birth narrative rearranges sacred geography. The astrologers come from the East, i.e., Babylon, the place of exile. In the threefold division of the genealogy which opens this gospel, the first division begins with Abraham, the second with David, while third begins with “After the Babylonian exile” (Matt 1:12). This breaks the expected pattern of beginning with names and draws attention to the event of exile.
The Matthean birth narrative ends with three short scenes.
After the astrologers depart, “a messenger of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph, saying, “Get up, take the child and his mother and flee to Egypt“ (2:13). They are refugees from the political persecution of Herod, the Roman client king. This reverses Israel’s sojourn in slavery in Egypt. Egypt now becomes a place refuge and protection. All of this is given a divine warrant:
This happened in order to fulfill the prediction of the Lord spoken through the prophet: I called my son out of Egypt (2:15).
The quote is from Hosea 11:1 which the author seems to be following in Hebrew. The Septuagint reads, “out of Egypt I have summoned his children,” which would not work here.
Sacred geography has now been completely overturned. The astrologers come from the east to pay homage to the child, Egypt is the place refuge, and Jerusalem is the place of a King of the Jews who seeks to kill the real king of the Jews.
The concluding scenes of the Matthean birth narrative are powerful indeed, but they have not become the dominant themes of modern Christian celebrations of Christmas which reinforce notions of family and belonging. But the Matthean story ends on a tragic note with scenes of political violence that turn those without power into sojourners, refugees, and migrants. Herod kills all the children two years old and younger and Rachael weeps for her children “because they were no more” (2:18). Jesus is now a ger, a refugee in Egypt.
In the last judgment scene (Matt 25:31-46) The sole criterion of judgment is how the least were treated (vs 40). No mention is made of faith in Jesus. As examples of this criterion, the following are given:
For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat; I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink; I was a foreigner and you offered me hospitality; I was naked and you clothed me; I was ill and you visited me; I was in prison and you came to see me (vss 35-36).
The Greek word zenos translated as “foreigner” could also be translated as stranger. It is the same notion as ger in Deuteronomy.
For Matthew, Jesus is the stranger, the alien. The reader must identify with the stranger. Matthew wants the reader to understand that the stranger is us. Matthew’s gospel ends with the command “Make disciples of all the nations” (28:19). The ethne (nations) everywhere else in Matthew’s gospel has represented the other (e.g., 6:32). Now Jesus tells the disciples to make disciples of the other.
In the late first century and on into the second century beginning with Hebrews and 1 Peter, the notion of resident alien was used as a way for Jesus groups to understand their own emerging sense of identity within the Roman Empire. This became common in the second century. Benjamin Dunning in Aliens and Sojourners has admirably pursued this theme. While drawing on the material we have been considering, employing the alien as a metaphor for self-understanding moves in a different direction.
Immigrants, refugees, asylum seekers, and migrants once again make headlines around the world, and societies debate what to do, and demagogues play on our fears. Just as in the ancient world, the same social dislocations—war, famines, droughts—have created these modern migrants. Neither Israel nor early Christianity solved these problems. But their thinking about them is still relevant. Importantly it reminds us whose side they think God is on.
This post is the opinion and contribution of the author. It does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Westar or its scholars. Westar welcomes diversity of thought. If you’d like to contribute to the blog, click here.
Dunning, Benjamin H. Aliens and Sojourners: Self as Other in Early Christianity. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2009.
Bernard Brandon Scott is Darbeth Distinguished Professor Emeritus of New Testament at the Phillips Theological Seminary, Tulsa, Oklahoma. He is the author and editor of many books, including The Real Paul: Recovering His Radical Challenge and The Trouble with Resurrection. A charter member of the Jesus Seminar, he is chair of Westar’s newly established Christianity Seminar. He served as chair of the Bible in Ancient and Modern Media Section of the Society of Biblical Literature, as well as a member of several SBL Seminars including the Parable Seminar and Historical Jesus Seminar. He holds an A.B. from St. Meinrad Seminary and School of Theology, an M.A. from Miami University, and a Ph.D. from Vanderbilt University.
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