Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me. . . . [J]ust as you did it for one of the least of these brothers or sisters of mine, you did it for me [Matt. 25:34-36, 40].And you probably remember what he says to the folks on his left.
Now, I think that the interpretation of this parable is often a case of "right doctrine, wrong text" (see also Phil. 1:6, but that's a different story). This text is often employed to prove that we need to help the poor because all the poor are the brothers and sisters of Christ. We do need to help the poor. But the "brothers and sisters" Jesus is talking about here constitute a narrower group. In Matthew 10:42, Jesus uses the term "little ones" (similar to "least of these" in this parable) to refer specifically to his humble disciples, and in a striking parallel to the parable of the sheep and the goats he says to his disciples, "Whoever receives you receives me, and whoever receives me receives the one who sent me" (v. 40). (For another oft-misinterpreted use of "little ones" in Matthew, see 18:1-14.) So the "brothers and sisters of mine" Jesus is talking about here are believing disciples of his who are in need and have been ministered to by folks on the King's right just because they are disciples of Jesus, which he rewards as service to himself.
So did you notice "I was a stranger and you invited me in"?
From the beginning of the Christian movement, all the way back to when Jesus sent out his disciples in pairs for their ministry practicum, hospitality to believers who came in Jesus' name was a big, big deal. Jesus' comments in Matthew 10 that I quoted above are part of his instructions to his disciples before they went out on their tours. Those instructions included,
Whenever you enter a town or village, find out who is worthy there and stay with them until you leave. As you enter the house, give it greetings. And if the house is worthy, let your peace come on it, but if it is not worthy, let your peace return to you. And if anyone will not welcome you or listen to your message, shake the dust off your feet as you leave that house or that town. I tell you the truth, it will be more bearable for the region of Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgment than for that town [vv. 11-15]!The pattern of hospitality continued into the first-century church. Paul, Peter, and the author of the epistle to the Hebrews all commanded the church to practice hospitality, with the latter making the astonishing claim that some have "entertained angels without knowing it" in the process. Paul made hospitality a required qualification for elders/overseers and inclusion on the widows' list. And an entire New Testament book, 3 John, was written and preserved to encourage showing hospitality to believers visiting from other churches. (Incidentally, 2 John was written to discourage showing hospitality to false teachers.) When Christians from foreign lands came to town, the church was expected to welcome them with open arms. And in fact, as a not exactly legal movement, hospitality to Christian strangers was the only way the church globally could maintain cohesiveness. (In other words, they didn't have quite as many conferences available to attend as we do today.)
Now it seems to me that there are two kinds of immigrants to the United States. Yes, legal and illegal. But the two kinds I'm thinking about are believers and unbelievers, people who are disciples of Christ and people who aren't. (By the way, I'll talk about the problem of immigrants who are both illegal and believers in Christ next time.) If the King were to return right now and judge American Christians on how well we "invited in . . . the least of these brothers and sisters of mine," which side do you think he'd put us on?
See, the huge, undifferentiated mass of humanity we call "immigrants" happens to include a lot of followers of Jesus Christ, our fellow workers, fellow servants, brothers and sisters in him. And Jesus accounts for how we treat him by how we treat them. Some of them are refugees from war-torn or oppressive lands like the Sudan or Burma, and part of the reason for their flight is persecution for the name of Christ. I'm not going to pretend that caring for such refugees, as many sincere believers do, is easy. It requires a lot of work and a lot of sacrifice by those who lend a helping hand and even invite the strangers into their homes. But in terms of gut-level prejudice, it is easier to treat the Sudanese or Burmese believer as we would treat Christ than to treat the Mexican believer as we would treat Christ. Am I wrong?
Regardless of the country and culture of origin, believers who are new to our land for whatever reason are an opportunity for us to be blessed. They are an opportunity for us both to receive encouragement from them and give encouragement to them. It is a tiny taste of the Great Reunion we will have in the new creation when the redeemed from every tribe, tongue, people, and nation stand before the throne of the Lamb.
But not only that—we also have an opportunity with the other group of immigrants, the ones who don't believe in Jesus Christ. Do you realize how much sacrifice, suffering, and sweat American missionaries have given for the last 200 years to go across the seas to tell people about Jesus Christ who have never heard? Do you realize that for many Americans all we need to do to do the same is walk down the block? Isn't that amazing to contemplate? But it's true—God has brought vast numbers of unbelievers right into our communities so that millions of Christians can engage them as cross-cultural missionaries. Are we blessed or what? We should be ecstatically grateful for this opportunity!
And yet, American Christians who spend millions of dollars every year to go or send their brethren on short-term missions trips around the world (which, for the record, I think are frequently awesome and I strongly endorse) begrudge the existence of the mission field that God has brought to us. A church I know well has staunchly supported international missions for generations, even giving sacrificially to that cause while their own finances dwindled away and the church faced its own demise. And all that time, the reason the church faced its demise has been its fear and resentment of the vast numbers of immigrants that surround the church building on every side—a throng that included believers that they loved enough to rent to and even on occasion worship with, but not to accomodate to the point of becoming a new, blended church and losing their cultural dominance.
Will Jesus reject the wider church in America as he has rejected that particular church because it rejected him? Are we destined for a fate worse than Sodom and Gomorrah? The stakes before us could not be higher. "Depart from me you accursed, into the eternal fire that has been prepared for the devil and his angels! For . . . I was a stranger and you did not receive me as a guest" (Matt. 25:41-43).