Frances writes on this Sunday’s readings :- In this week when dreadful people who support UKIP are banging on about the need to exclude foreigners, and how much they cost our State, I was very interested to look at the biblical view of their significance.
Second Isaiah, (Isa 45:1-4-6) Prophet of the Babylonian exile in the 6th century BC, was one of those who could see the huge significance of foreigners. Far from writing to castigate them, he saw things very differently. When the Persians conquered Babylonia they acted differently from the Babylonians whose policy it was to take peoples away from their own territory to exile in different places where they worked for their oppressors. Persian policy was to resettle the previously conquered back on their own lands with the expectation that they would be loyal vassals of Persia. Isaiah saw this enlightened policy as God-given, and acclaimed Cyrus, the Persian king as ‘Messiah’, God’s chosen agent for his work. He saw that under this strategy the Israelites would no longer be doomed to die in a far off land but that their offspring would return to their homeland. Cyrus was their ‘saviour’, their ‘redeemer’, and he was a foreigner. It appears that the thing most longed for could come not from within faithless Israel, but that the far off worshipper of a pagan deity could be Yahweh’s agent for salvation.
It was much the same with Paul and his missionary work, as we see in the Letter to the Thessalonians (1 Thess 1:1-5). I wonder how we in the UK might feel if a small group of foreigners turned up and to, and indeed, our eternal life, if we were to change our religion and social practices. Yet this is precisely what Paul, Silvanus and Timothy did in Thessalonica, right at the heart of the Roman Imperial system. The city became the capital of Macedonia in 146 BC under Rome, and it had good communications with Rome on the Via Egnatia; it had its port at Neapolis and large shipyards. Thessalonica was full of foreigners and foreign languages and gods. Paul and his colleagues found a great welcome and fervent support from the converts of this city, and his letters to them are undoubtedly the warmest and the least grief filled of all his surviving letters. This was clearly a city which welcomed foreigners and accepted their contribution to its society, even where it involved radical change. The leadership of different people and their strange values was to be at the very heart of the city’s success.
Jesus too, as we see in our gospel, (Matthew 22:15-21) is welcoming of foreigners, even conquerors. When the Pharisees, masters of the law and devotees of religious orthodoxy, tried to trick Jesus into an attitude of nationalism and potential rebellion against the Romans, Jesus would have none of it. On the contrary, he revealed that, unlike them, he did not hate the Romans. The Chief priests and Pharisees, so concerned for their law and apparently so compliant to Rome, would ultimately support revolt. Jesus would have nothing to do with it. Jesus lived in the real world, and knew that his gospel of God’s redemption must be open to all, Jew and Gentile, and that it could not involve violence. His attackers were the one’s who were two-faced, plotting rebellion but, as we see in John’s passion, duplicitously prepared to swear devotion to Caesar rather than accept the true King of the Jews. They were the ones prepared to abandon their true birthright, rooted in the Davidic kingly line to secure Jesus’ death. They were the ones who hated foreigners and who would play their part in the Civil war and revolt against Rome, with its savage slaughter of foreigners dwelling in the cities of Israel.
This part of Matthew’s gospel, which continues directly from last week’s reading shows us a picture of Jesus in which he is sadly facing the inevitability of the failure of his life’s mission to the Jews and will turn to the Gentiles, the pagans instead. Indeed, when the Pharisees allied with the Herodians to destroy him, Jesus must surely have lost all hope of ever making any progress. Herodians were the coterie who supported the Herod’s, the line of pagan kings thrust upon the Jews since the time of Mark Antony. Their allegiance to Judaism was always dubious, for we know that the first Herod had constructed the huge temple of Zeus at Baalbek and called the new city he built Caesarea. His heirs were equally dubious and certainly played fast and loose with the Jewish law, as we know from the killing of John the Baptist. For the Pharisees to ally themselves with this group surely suggests the lengths to which they would sink; the way in which they would betray their own deepest principles to destroy Jesus.
Quite clearly, our readings show the great sympathy the bible has for foreigners, and the way in which in New Testament time’s pagans would convert to Christianity and become the bastions of the faith in place of the Jews. Throughout his ministry Jesus seems to have been favourably disposed to foreigners, and it is clear that St Paul spent his whole life as a Christian devoted to them, and received their love and support. We need to welcome foreigners among us; they may well be our route to eternal salvation.