Earthkeepers Stranger Climate Refugee“Let all guests who arrive be received like Christ, for he is going to say: I was a stranger and you welcomed me (Matt. 25:35). And to all let due honour be shown, especially to those who share our faith (Gal. 6:10) and to pilgrims. In the reception of the poor and pilgrims the greatest care and solicitude should be shown, because it is especially in them that Christ is received.” – The Rule of Benedict

What child is this in a manger that has served as inspiration for millions throughout the ages – and whose steps the organization I represent is seeking to follow and imitate?

Before digging into such queston, we may consider that between 600 and 800 million people are estimated to continue to displaced by the earth-disrupting effects of climate change. By the end of this century, this new category of refugees (called “climate refugees”) will likely become the staple diet of newspapers and political agendas. (The current Syrian crisis gives us a glimpse of what this may look like.)

We may consider also the following unsophisticated genealogy: descendant of Ruth, a Moabite who did not have the blue blood of an Israelite; of Tamar, a woman not of the best of reputations; of Rahab, a prostitute; of David, an adulterer and an assassin; of Solomon, a lover of wealth, power and certainly of many women.

The Politicos Conspire

With such interesting list of characters did Mathew decide to start his gospel – an alarming move then as it is now. This new king, Jesus, had no royal blood in his veins – at least not by our standards. From the outset in the gospel we are shown that this new king was not quite what some people expected. And from the get-go Mathew makes it clear that this new king was certainly not what Herod the Great expected. Actually, when he first heard about the child Mathew tells us that Herod was “frightened” – so frightened that he gathered his allied intelligentsias and put together a secret service to find out about the newly born ruler.

How so? What has Herod afraid of? And wasn’t it true that ‘the one who does no evil, fears no evil’?

Of course it was; and that’s why he trembled. Back in the day, if you were a good Bible-reading-Jew you knew that Herodian dynasties were not authentic dynasties. There was the common hope among the people of Judea and its surroundings that a true descendant of the line of David would come and replace them. Herod, they all knew, was an impostor; a puppet king who hailed the Romans; the sort of self-aggrandizing egomaniac who did not care for God’s people as Ezekiel and other Old Testament prophets had predicted that God’s true shepherd would.

But there he was: confronted by a bizarre visit of wise men from the east asking for the king of the Jews. The issue, from the start, was one of kingship: of who’s in charge. Herod; or Jesus? And it meant confrontation: a different king meant trouble – at least for some, and certainly for Herod. Herod knew all along that his days were counted. And he trembled in fear. A star had shone its light, so strongly that it attracted wise pagan men from afar who were led to visit this newly born king. This was no silent night. This was no sweet-child-of-mine-in the-manger kind-of-night. Not so. In the words of N.T. Wright, this was about the coming of ‘the most dangerous baby’: the God-with-us who was finally to defeat God’s enemies and claim the throne of David. C.S. Lewis got it right: he was dangerous – indeed – but he was good. The anointed one was born, and his kingdom of peace would come to earth and his redeeming reign of justice would have no end. The good news of Jesus was an in-your-face to Herod, and to Caesar. “If Jesus was king, Herod and Caesar were not.”

Secret Outworkings

And so Herod worked in secret. And wanting, allegedly, to meet the child to worship him, deep inside he wanted him dead. “Show me where he is that I may pay homage too,” he said to the wise men. Winsome and crafty as a serpent.

But the angel of the Lord introduced a virus to the vigilance system and advised the pagan kings to do otherwise. They were filled with joy and brought gold, frankincense, and myrrh to the newborn child; but they left Herod empty-handed. And like every other tyrant, the impostor was aroused by rage and filled with jealousy. Herod couldn’t bear the trick that was played on him. (God, after all, spoke in dreams to those who fear him – even if such dreams ended up being a nightmare to others.)

It certainly was for Herod. And he couldn’t take it. Infuriated like an spoiled child, he wanted the baby dead. And he was going to take no chance. No Jew, no Bethlehemite, no single human on the face of Judea was to take his throne. Herod would do his best to delay the promises of old that Yahweh would send a pastor to shepherd his people Israel. As a self-imposed king, he would have none of that. Blinded by power and lured by might, he issued a decree. “Cut their throats.” “All of them!” “I want them dead.”

God’s Kingdom and Pharaoh’s Empire

Is this Herod, great king of Judea, nothing but a remix of Pharaoh, great king of Egypt? Didn’t Pharaoh issue a similar decree hundreds of years back when he sent out to kill children when the Hebrew slaves were becoming a threat to his empire? And with Herod looking like Pharaoh, was not Jerusalem mimicking Egypt – that old city that in Hebrew history stood for godlessness and seven-day work weeks?

Indeed. When the angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream, God deemed it more secure for the divine family to flee down south. The tides had turned: apparently Egypt was now godlier and safer than Jerusalem. And thus Mary, Joseph and Jesus were sent down their own little exile to ancient day Disneyland. God feared for their life. They did too. After all they were poor peasants from Galilee. (If the fear of losing his throne had led Herod to imprison and kill many of his own sons, Mary and Joseph could only imagine what he could do to them. Tyrants usually know no pity.)

But beyond their well-being, perhaps the God of the Exodus had something else in store. Perhaps the God who is longsuffering and compassionate – the with-us-God, Emmanuel – perhaps this very peculiar God wanted his son Jesus to experience the lived life as a political refugee, the life as an alien in a foreign land…

Re-Appropriating the Foundational Tradition

The Book of Deuteronomy pressed hard on the crux of this matter, revealing one of the many ways in which Israel was to display God’s care for the surrounding nations:

For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who shows no partiality and accepts no bribes. He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the foreigner residing among you, giving them food and clothing. And you are to love those who are foreigners, for you yourselves were foreigners in Egypt (10:17-19).

If God wanted Jesus to exemplify this calling by walking the walk of the true servant king, what better way to understand the fate of a foreigner than becoming one himself? The New Testament – and the gospels in particular – reveal a God who takes human existence seriously, and who does so to the point of breaking all boundaries of possibility by becoming human in Jesus. And this active compassion of God’s is disclosed to us in today’s gospel story: the Son of God was a truly dependent infant. He became a helpless foreigner. And in being so he took upon himself the fate of the persecuted. While it is true that later in his life Jesus actively embodied God’s care for the destitute, one of the remarkable things about this narrative is the helplessness of Jesus in the arms of his parents. He surely cried that night as he inbreathed Mary’s fear and desolation as the three of them fled Bethlehem. He surely felt the rush of blood of his mum’s as she and Joseph trod down the way of the foreigners. And little did they know that in doing so they were carrying the plight of the refugees and strangers upon themselves. In the God-with-us, Jesus, the Most High himself entered into the dark night of persecution and political exile.

This is even more remarkable nowadays that contemporary psychology has shown us how the earliest experiences in a child’s life are profoundly formative in his or her personality. One of the many oblique sides of this story is that the God-with-us does indeed take seriously the human condition of the abandoned and the persecuted: Mathew reveals to us how from the very beginning of Jesus’ life the God of the Exodus embraced – first-hand – (not only the plight) but also the destiny of the destitute. Since his birth and throughout his life and all the way to his death, the Nazarene was not welcomed. In the words of biblical scholar, John P. Meier, Jesus was a ‘marginal Jew’. From the cradle to the grave, he truly was an outcast.

The Last Shall be First

But God chose the foolish things of this world to shame the wise; the weak things of the world to shame the strong. That is why it is this very odd king, Jesus, meant bad news for King Herod and his corporate allies. And that is why it is this very Jesus who is also celebrated by the evangelists as the bringer of good news. Jesus is the good news: The one who was born an outcast became the very arms of the God who welcomes the outcasts. As German theologian Jürgen Moltmann once put it, God the Father forsake his son Jesus to his fate in order that he may become the Father of all the forsaken. (If they have had T-shirts back then, perhaps the most popular one would have read “Jesus, poor and friend of the poor”; or, “Jesus, the destitute king.”)

Unlike Herod who comfortably ruled it over ‘the people’ with royal crudity and apathetic indifference, my sense is that it should have been quite easy for Jesus to embrace and extend God’s welcome to the no-bodies: being an outcast himself since his birth, it must have come natural for him to enter in friendship with ‘the wrong people’. He did, after all, have fame for breaking bread with tax-collectors and hanging out with lepers and prostitutes. No wonder they liked him.

And for the no-bodies among us, no wonder we like him too.

As we affirm the odd particularities of the nativity of the Messiah, and as we are welcomed by Jesus into the coming year, may we take heart to follow his steps. As the climate crisis continues with its course, may we become strangers to our world by embracing those who are – and will be – strangers among us, because in doing so we are welcoming Jesus – the most dangerous baby, the ultimate stranger, the very odd king.

– by E.Sasso, co-founding member of Earthkeepers