“What Would Jesus Do” with Illegal Immigrants?

By Paul Louis Metzger
Multnomah University Professor
Consuming Jesus Ministry

You may have heard of people wearing bracelets that signify their opposition to Arizona’s laws on illegal immigration. I don’t know how many of the people wearing those bracelets are Christians. But I do know many Christians wear bracelets that ask, “What would Jesus do?” Some people may oppose asking this question in the context of discussing illegal immigrants, but what context or border crossing is off-limits to Jesus? In the course of this article’s development, I will address various points raised in response to my piece “The Illegal Samaritan” about obedience to the governing authorities, including giving a cup of water to an illegal immigrant.

In discussing matters pertaining to obedience to governing authorities, it is worth noting that Jesus sometimes broke the law of the land.

For instance, Jesus broke the law of the land by healing people on the Sabbath (Jn. 5:16-18). We can try and justify his actions by saying that these laws were misinterpretations of the Mosaic Law. Regardless, the religious leaders’ stance (no healing on the Sabbath) was the religious law of the land of his day. Jesus broke their law in view of a higher law (his rightful interpretation of the Mosaic Law).

I am reminded here of Martin Luther King, Jr., who wrote from his jail cell in Birmingham that we have a duty to disobey unjust laws, albeit peaceably. I believe Dr. King got this idea from the King of kings. King claimed that St. Augustine argued that an unjust law is no law at all. King refused to obey the unjust segregation laws of the land. Our country now righty hails Dr. King as a national hero for opposing the laws of segregation in his day. In his day, as in the Birmingham jail ordeal, he was often called a rebel and a criminal.

Further to what was said above, Jesus broke the law of the land in view of his interpretation of the Mosaic Law—a better interpretation of it.

For Jesus, the love of God with all one’s heart and the love of neighbor as oneself summed up the essence of the Law. All other laws were to be viewed in terms of this core, essential teaching in the Law (See Jesus’ discussion with the religious leader on the greatest teaching in the Law in Mark 12:28-34; see also Luke 10:25-37). That does not mean that Jesus would not be judged. The leaders’ interpretation of the Sabbath law and how to apply it was definitive in their day. They were the authorities, and their interpretation had finality in their day in their courts, not Jesus’ interpretation. Jesus broke their law not to work/heal on the Sabbath because he believed it oppressed the person in need whom he encountered. Jesus wasn’t about to wait until the beginning of the work week. If Jesus had opportunity to heal a person whose path he crossed, he healed that person regardless of the day of the week. Jesus wouldn’t likely be crossing that individual’s path again (and the lame, blind, sick or diseased person wasn’t able to follow Jesus), as Jesus was an itinerant preacher; so he acted in the moment.

Jesus was willing to suffer the consequences for his actions.

Jesus knew what the authorities would do to him. He acted anyway (Mk. 3:1-6). He did not wait to see the laws changed (and we can gather from the Gospel accounts, the authorities had no intention of changing the law). Jesus acted in accordance with his interpretation of the Law, even though his interpretation was not viewed as authoritative by those in authority, and he was willing to suffer the consequences for his action based on his rightful interpretation.

What would we do?

Would we wait before the laws change according to democratic process to care for someone in need, such as an illegal immigrant? While we should seek to change laws that keep us from giving a cup of water to an illegal immigrant (wherever such laws might exist), we should give the cup of water in the meantime, for the person is in need. The Bible does not tell us to help only those people who are law-abiding citizens. Jesus helped people breaking laws; in fact, he urged the lame man to break the authorities’ law. By telling this Jewish man to take up his mat and walk, Jesus was making the man a collaborator in his crime (Jn. 5:8-12).

Christians are called to help everyone in need. Now an illegal immigrant is not abiding by America’s laws. Whether you give the cup of water to him or her while calling the authorities (as a friend suggested) or not, you are to give the cup of water to him or her in need.

Now to the criminality of illegal immigrants. If you and I lived in poverty and our families were starving, what would we do? Would we be willing to risk separation from our families, our health, and possibly our lives to travel illegally to another country and work illegally? Would we risk being called “criminal”? It is very difficult for me to know what I would do, given that I am writing this piece in a comfortable armchair, having just finished a full breakfast. What do you expect from an armchair theologian? Better yet, what does God expect from this theologian and from all of us? I am not seeking to justify these illegal immigrants’ actions, but rather seeking to nuance our decision-making process and our views of these individuals regarding their actions, including the labels we put on them. The hungier we are and the hungrier our families are, the hungrier we are to take matters into our own hands, regardless of the consequences.

What will we do?

Will we make sure that our authorities care for the needs of illegal immigrants and treat them as humans, even while deporting them?

Will we view illegal immigrants as criminals? Will we view a father of five who is trying to feed his family by crossing illegally into America to work illegally a criminal? Even if we view this father of five as committing crimes, we must still view him (and others like him) as human and who is in need of our love and care. Give him the cup of water, when he is suffering from dire thirst.

Will we advocate for the children of illegal immigrants, as proposed in Dream Act legislation, to make a new life here in the States? Some of them have grown up here and know no other country. Will we deport them for their parents’ crimes, or allow them to become law-abiding citizens who can pursue further education and find gainful employment?

Will we seek to get at the source of why so many people risk life and limb to come to America to work for low wages to care for their loved ones who have come with them, or to whom they will send money back home? As the cliché goes, we live in a global village. We need to make sure that we are caring not only for people in our household, or in our neighborhood, but also for people across the tracks in other parts of the village (across US borders in various directions).

Will we ponder Jesus’ words uttered at the ultimate border crossing—from earth to heaven or hell?

“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.

“Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’

“Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’

“The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’

“Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fireprepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’

“They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’

“He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’

“Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life. ” (Matthew 25:31-46)

Jesus does not talk here in Matthew 25:31-46 about earthly laws, but heavenly laws that supersede earthly laws and to which the earthly laws are accountable. Certainly, Jesus’ apostles tell us to obey earthly rulers (Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-17; still, please note the intriguing development in Romans 13: from obedience to one’s earthly, political rulers; to obedience to the law of love as paramount; to consideration of the day of the Lord and how we are to behave in view of that impending day). But Jesus’ apostles also broke human laws, such as refusing to stop speaking about Jesus publicly. So, adherence to human laws depends on whether or not these laws are viewed as just according to God’s higher law centered in Jesus. The same Peter who spoke in 1st Peter 2 about obeying political leaders disobeys the theocratic rulers of his people in his allegiance to Jesus in Acts 4:18-20, and rejoices with the Christian community for suffering under these authorities for being publicly identified with Jesus (Acts 5:27-42). Refer back to Jesus’ accounts of law-breaking noted earlier. In addition to Jesus breaking the authorities’ recognized Sabbath law, Jesus also touched a leper, thereby breaking the Mosaic Law, though by healing him, he fulfilled the heart of the Law (Mark. 1:40-42). Of course, Jesus is all about fulfilling the Mosaic Law’s concern for the Sabbath (after all, in him we find our ultimate Sabbath rest), and also its concern for the cleansing of the leper, as is illustrated here in what follows in Mark 1: Jesus commands the cleansed man to go and do what is required of him in the Law (Mark. 1:44). In short, Jesus resists the recognized Jewish legal authorities at times for their wrongful interpretation of the Mosaic Law as it bears on caring for one’s neighbor—the person in need; Jesus is all about fulfilling the Mosaic Law, and so cares for the person in need.

What will we do in view of this higher law as it concerns the illegal immigrant? He or she is our neighbor, if he or she is on our path. Closer to home, what will we do, if the illegal immigrant is our brother or friend, our brother in Christ, or if he is Jesus in disguise? Who’s to say Jesus wouldn’t appear to us as an illegal immigrant (after all, he died a rebel’s death, so why would he not come to us as an illegal immigrant close to death, dying of thirst)? And whether or not Jesus does appear to us in this way, we who claim to follow Jesus are to appear to the illegal immigrant as Jesus would.

Of course, we need to be concerned for upholding good laws in our land that pertain to immigration. Of course, we need to be concerned for how these laws bear upon our own citizens in terms of their safety and economic well-being. These are complicated issues. In fact, these issues are more complicated that we often realize. As suggested in this piece, there can be no easy or pat answers. I am not trying to simplify matters. As I said above, I am seeking to nuance our decision-making process. As citizens of this land, we have responsibilities. These responsibilities are complicated by the fact that as Americans we are also citizens of this globe, and as Christian Americans, we are citizens of the kingdom of heaven.

You may not agree with me about everything in this article. But hopefully, if you are a Christian, you will agree that our ultimate allegiance must be to Jesus. So, what Jesus would do should matter to you and me more than anything, regardless of the consequences. Next time you come to a border crossing, think about your various allegiances (including the allegiance to yourself) and forms of citizenship, and which has priority. In the end, Jesus will let us know which authority mattered most to us. His judgment concerning our eternal citizenship will matter most in the end.

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