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Love the Strangers

Thursday, 30 August 2012  | Philip Zylstra

The book of Jasher was an ancient text used by the Biblical writers of Joshua and 2 Samuel to validate their accounts, often providing a lot of additional information. In describing one particular nation, the writer says that “they had abundance of food, and had tranquillity amongst them”. It details a community that provided for its own to the extent that anyone who attempted to redistribute wealth to strangers was treated as a thief and punished harshly.


This not to say that the laws of the land were restrictive; on the contrary, in many ways this community had the hallmarks of one of the first free-market economies. Indeed, when outsiders complained that their businesses were not practicing fair trade, the authorities would not interfere but consistently upheld the right of the market to self-regulate. The community therefore gained the reputation of one that treated strangers with contempt and cruelty, exploiting anyone weak or unable to contribute to the economy. Hungry people were left to starve. Women were swapped between men like property rather than persons. But of the eight accounts of Sodom recorded in the Book of Jasher, seven dealt specifically with the treatment of strangers.


The writer tells us that God was outraged by the fact that they had plenty but did not help the people that came to them in need.


Consider why. Love is—by the Apostle John’s definition—“laying down your life”. It is to devote yourself to the welfare of another even if that means giving up everything that defines life for you. It is not reserved for a chosen few: not just for friends and family, people you think deserve it; not just for Christians. That kind of tribal thinking is a normal part of biology. Dogs will defend their pups; ants will give their lives for their colony. In contrast, Jesus taught in his Gospel of the Kingdom:


You have heard that it was said ‘love your neighbour and hate your enemy,’ but I tell you: love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in Heaven. (Matthew 5:43-45a)


To be heartbroken at the thought of your child suffering is good and normal. To be equally heartbroken at the thought of a stranger—even your enemy—suffering is to bear the image of God, to become identifiable as his sons.


Genesis tells us that the outcry to God was so great that he had to see it for himself. He could hear the cries of the strangers that came for help but were met with cruelty and he could not ignore them; so to test the charges he sent two strangers. And the people of Sodom tried to gang rape them.


Attempts to make this passage into a commentary on homosexuality pretty much miss the point (as if the gang rape of women would have somehow been ok). It’s a mark of our human nature when we respond more to the things that shame or embarrass us than to genuine acts of cruelty. Throughout the Bible, Sodom remains the archetypal image of a society that mistreats the needy coming to them for help. Despite Israel’s ‘religious’ devotion, Isaiah compared them to Sodom and Gomorrah (1:9-10; 3:9; 13:9); saying that all of their prayer and worship were ‘detestable’ to God until they began to practice justice toward the needy – the comparable Greek word in the New Testament is most often translated as “righteousness”. Ezekiel made the same comparison and summarised Sodom with the words:


Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy. (Ezekiel 16:49)


If I have any integrity though, I can’t sit and shake my head at evil Sodom or selfish Israel when my own country is proposing to spend $1 million per person just to keep people who are escaping horrors I can’t imagine from coming to us for help.


Not when we have the sixth highest per capita GDP in the world and one of the smallest trickles of asylum seekers, yet complain that it’s too much to ask of us.


Not when one of the only things both Government and Opposition could agree on was to throw the needy in prison indefinitely, with new legislation to put them beyond the reach of any court of law where these decisions could be made transparent or challenged.


Not when countries like Sweden process more than three times as many in only seven days, compared with our current 228 day average.


Not when those that give up on Australia are left with even more dangerous journeys or nowhere to run at all; not when all of this is marketed in the worst kind of Orwellian doublespeak as “saving lives”.


Not when I know that I can do something.


Jesus’ parable of the sheep and the goats speaks of the nations that will be divided based on whether they fed and welcomed the needy. Each of us is held to account for the actions of our nation for one reason: we are here to light up the darkness.


Jesus’ Gospel of the Kingdom is not about individuals being ‘privately’ good, nor is it merely some kind of otherworldly ‘fire insurance’. Announcing the arrival of the kingdom, John the Baptist taught that repentance means giving away your second coat to the person that has none. According to Jesus, this kingdom has been forcefully advancing and is here to change the world here and now: “Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven”.


There is no “balanced” approach to that.


We either want to see strangers in need treated the same way as they would be in God’s own country or we don’t. We either seek first this kingdom of God’s will on earth as it is in heaven, seek first his righteousness—his justice—or we don’t. We either bring heaven or we bring hell, Gehenna – the valley where the fallen kings of Israel used to sacrifice the weak for their own welfare.


We either receive, embrace, fiercely lay hold of Jesus’ way of love even for our worst enemies and trust him in it, or we say that he was wrong and walk away.


We can change this nation of the arrogant, overfed and unconcerned because we are called to be the light of the world; but first we need to stop being arrogant, overfed and unconcerned ourselves. We don’t have a good life because God has blessed us for our faithfulness, but because we were born in the ‘right place’. It’s time to stop congratulating ourselves for God’s undeserved kindness and begin breaking our hearts for the Hazara girl that watched her mother stoned to death, the West Papuan man tortured for peacefully protesting, the Iraqi Christians fleeing the wrath of a country that blames them for the 100,000 civilians killed by the so-called “Christian West” in its push for their oil.

Until our throats choke at the pain and our blood boils at the injustice, we cannot even begin to relate to the God that hears their cries. But when we do, when we turn our backs on empty, hypocritical worship and let justice flow like a river, when we love even our worst enemies, then we will be recognisable as sons of our Father in heaven. Then the light will come on and people will begin to see the face of God at last, and they will be drawn to his kingdom like the fowls to the mustard tree.

Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. (1 John 4:7b-8)

God, make us brave.

Dr. Philip Zylstra is an environmental scientist with a passion to see the Kingdom of Heaven impact on the way we live our lives. He has been working with West Papuan refugees to see justice and reconciliation in their country since 2006.



Marie Zylstra
August 30, 2012, 7:41PM
We live in a society that does not even begin to put themselves in others shoes--that is why it would be really good to somehow arrange through government decisions that people go to a nation, that they have to not only live in for a certain period of time at the standard of living that the people live. Somehow in our well off society, we forget that we are here, not because we are better or more deserving, more educated than people in developing countries, but because we were born here, or enabled to migrate here. God put me in Canada, and eventually Australia, but not because I deserved it. It was mercy, and I should have mercy on others who suffer too.
Pat hansel
August 30, 2012, 9:51PM
Strong and convicting words with truth. I find it so hard to listen to people's uncaring ways ! Thank you, God, for your grace on my soul ! I pray to always love and help those in need, and moreso those who hate me because of you so your name is glorified !

Time for us all to be informed and show love to one another :-)
Mary Arch
August 31, 2012, 7:49AM
Thank you, Phil. Strong and necessary words that ring clear and true like church bells. May these words travel far and be a call to many.
Ian Clarkson
September 4, 2012, 3:10AM
Thanks, Phil - a compelling article. What do you say about the refugees waiting in camps (worse than detention centres) to be accepted as refugees to Australia only to be told, "You have to wait longer. A group of people who could afford the money have found their own way there by boat ahead of you?"

We have increased the numbers. Yes, I would like us to take in many more, like all the Iraqi Christians who fled to Syria. But shouldn't we take the weakest and poorest ahead of those who can afford their own travel?
John Zylstra
September 4, 2012, 8:57PM
Thanks, Phil.
This a a strong,well reasoned response. As Christians we do have the duty to speak out for those who are genuinely in need and as a rich nation we have the duty to reach out and share our wealth with them.
Phil Zylstra
September 15, 2012, 9:14PM
Thanks, everyone, for your thoughts and sorry for the slow response.

Ian, I think the issue there is the fact that those in camps are told this at all. This was a rule brought in under the Howard Government and which the latest review has said needs to be scrapped because it is an artificial queue. Whether you can afford a boat trip or not should not affect whether you are given protection from people attempting to kill you; many on boats could not afford it but relatives have sold fields and homes to pay for them. In the end it's not about who gets in first but about whether we treat those coming to us justly and compassionately. Whatever we do to them, we do to Jesus.

Our refugee intake is about 1% of our immigration; it's not right that the very tiny proportion of these fleeing to us are blamed for the others not being given a place when we could take so many more. Especially when groups like Hazara have so little possibility of reaching a refugee camp in the first place.
Geoff Boyce
October 4, 2012, 10:05AM
As others have said, a clear and strong affirmation of the Biblical injunction to offer hospitality.
But interestingly, I note in the comments above the tendency to think in terms of the Christians who are fleeing persecution rather than all people of all faiths.
Philip Zylstra
May 28, 2013, 12:55PM
There is a definite tendency to do that Geoff, I agree. When we agree to care for the strangers, our tendency is to care for the ones most like us. I look forward to the day when people will see that we're sons of God because as Jesus says, we love our enemies.

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