The sermon at my church last week focused on the passage in Luke 4 where, after earning the praise of the people of Nazareth for his “the gracious words that came from his lips,” Jesus quickly says some further things that turn the crowd against him, so dramatically so that they try (unsuccessfully) to throw him off a cliff.
My pastor, Stewart Ruch, suggested that the seemingly irrational, angry response of the crowd was because Jesus had exposed an idol, something God gives us as a gift that we have turned into a master. In this case, the people of Nazareth had turned their national identity—as God’s chosen people—into an idol. In their pride at being Israelites, they had forgotten that God chose them not because of their superiority, but to be a conduit by which to bless all people (Genesis 12:3). Jesus challenged their nationalistic idol by noting that though there were many Israelite widows during the time of Elijah, God sent Elijah to miraculously provide for a non-Israelite widow in the region of Sidon (Luke 4:26). Though there were plenty of Israelites suffering from leprosy, Elisha did not heal any of them, but he did heal Namaan the Syrian (Luke 4:27).
Jesus may be the King of Kings, but I think it’s fair to say he would never have been elected as President of the United States. He would have made a lousy politician. Can you imagine an American political candidate extolling a foreigner—let’s say a Chinese person, or a Mexican, or someone from France—as having greater faith (or entrepreneurialism, intelligence, or indefatigability) than any American he had ever met. You don’t usually win votes by insulting the electorate. And yet Jesus, on another occasion, marvels at a Roman Centurion, saying, “I have not found anyone in Israel with such great faith” (Matthew 8:10).
Jesus’ insistence on highlighting God’s love for all people—not just the Israelites—touched a nerve because these people in Nazareth had turned their national identity into an idol. As my pastor noted, we have some distinctly American idols that we have allowed to master us, such that we respond fiercely when they are threatened, even by Scripture. We hold tightly our right to self-determinism, for example, or our sexual expression. But I think that many in the American church have also bowed before precisely the same idol as this crowd in Nazareth: idolizing our national identity. We are proud to be Americans—some go so far as to think that America has a unique, “chosen nation” relationship with God—and as such some react forcefully, even vitriolically, whenever they encounter anything—or anyone—that they see as changing the character of the country or threatening to share in the country’s wealth. I believe that is one of the central reasons that some Christians (though a decreasing number, I hope) view immigrants as a threat.
Please don’t misunderstand me: I’m grateful to be a citizen of the United States. Citizenship in this country—imperfect, to be sure, but blessed in so many ways—is a gift. But if we allow that gift to become our master, it has become an idol. Scripture explicitly teaches us to beware this idolatry, telling us that our primary identity is as citizens of God’s heavenly Kingdom (Philippians 3:20) who are merely “aliens and strangers on earth,” searching for a better country (Hebrews 11:13-14).
When we recognize that it is a gift to be a U.S. citizen, our response should be to want to share that gift with others, emulating as a nation the broad welcome that God offers to us, rather than insisting that the gift is ours alone, allowing it to master us. That’s one reason I believe it is important that as our legislators consider various immigration reform proposals, those who are currently undocumented should eventually be allowed—through a measured, fair process that allows those currently waiting outside of the U.S. in backlogs to be able to enter lawfully to come in first—to become Lawful Permanent Residents and then, if they can meet all the requirements under current law, U.S. citizens. (Another, more practical reason that I think citizenship should be the ultimate goal for those who want to earn it: I believe our entire society is stronger when people are integrated into our communities, rather than marginalized and isolated in a second-class status, a model that many European nations have tried, with significant unrest and lack of social cohesion as a result).
When we challenge people’s idols, they sometimes respond with what seems like irrational anger. The people of Nazareth went very quickly from praising Jesus’ thoughtful words to seeking to kill him. Politicians from both sides of the partisan divide who have spoken up for just, compassionate immigration reform in recent weeks have been derided and threatened, as have some church leaders who have joined in those calls. If we are to follow Jesus’ example, though, we must press forward, gently but firmly insisting that we take a biblical view of immigration even when it challenges our cultural norms.
Matthew Soerens is the co-author of Welcoming the Stranger: Justice, Compassion & Truth in the Immigration Debate (InterVarsity Press, 2009) and the US Church Training Specialist at World Relief. His blogs appear here on Mondays.
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