"Migration as "Grace": The Biblical Basis for Compassionate Immigration Reform



The God of Abraham is the God of radical hospitality.  He invites all to the banquet table of the Kingdom of God.  Through the teachings and example of Jesus we know that, although God’s invitation comes to all, it goes especially to the poorest and most marginalized of society.   Then, and only then, does it come to the rest of us.  In the language of Latin American liberation theology, it cannot come to us without first going to them.

The radical hospitality of God is expressed by Jesus in the Parable of the Great Banquet.  In this parable, Jesus tells of a certain man who invited many guests to a great celebration.  The first guests were those of economic means who made excuses and rejected the invitation because of materialistic reasons:  they had just bought fields and oxen (Luke 14: 18-19).  The third likewise rejected the invitation because he was a newlywed.  Jesus then tells us:

“Then the owner of the house became angry and ordered his servant, ‘Go out quickly into the streets and alleys of the town and bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame.’

22 “‘Sir,’ the servant said, ‘what you ordered has been done, but there is still room.’

23 “Then the master told his servant, ‘Go out to the roads and country lanes and compel them to come in, so that my house will be full.”  Luke 14: 21-23

As this parable teaches, God invites many to the banquet table of the Kingdom of God, but it is especially the poor and disenfranchised who respond to His invitation.  Indeed, God is such a gracious host that He desires that His “house be full.”

Expressing the hospitality of God, specifically to the “stranger,” or, “xenos,” Jesus says in Matthew 25 that when we welcome the stranger we are welcoming Jesus Himself, and we when reject the stranger, we are rejecting Jesus Himself:

34 “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. 35 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 [xenos] and you invited me in…

41 “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. 42 For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not invite me in…

To paraphrase Mother Teresa, “Jesus appears to us in the distressing disguise of the immigrant.”[1]  In the language of Latina/o Theology:  “Those whom society rejects, God welcomes and calls His very own.”[2]

A broad review of Scripture reveals a further, more specific principle with respect to immigration:  “Migration is a source of grace both to migrants and their host country.”   Here, I define “grace” not in its limited sense of forgiveness, but in its broader biblical usage as God’s unmerited favor.  So, to restate the previous principle in light of this definition:  Migration is a source of God’s unmerited favor to both immigrants and their host countries. 

Many biblical narratives bear out this spiritual principle.  The call of Abraham is one primary example.  God affected the salvation of the world through Abraham’s obedience in emigrating from Ur.  Through Abraham’s faithful act of migration and the process which this set in motion, all the peoples of earth have been, and are being, blessed by him:

“The Lord had said to Abram, ‘Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you.

2 ‘I will make you into a great nation,

and I will bless you;

I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing.

3 I will bless those who bless you,

and whoever curses you I will curse;

and all peoples on earth

will be blessed through you.’” Genesis 12: 1-3.

Abraham’s moniker, “the Hebrew,” found in Genesis 14:13, also reinforces the special nature of his migration call.  As used in this passage, “ivri,” the root of the Hebrew word for “Hebrew” means literally “to cross over.”[3]  This appears to be a clear image of migration.  Abraham is one who “crosses over.”  He is the “crosser-over,” if you will.

The patriarch Joseph offers another example of God using, in this case a forced migrant, as a source of grace for many.  Joseph was slave trafficked to Egypt by his jealous brothers and, through a series of divine interventions, rose to the rank of second in Egypt.  Through this position, Joseph saved his whole family, Egypt, and Canaan, from famine.   Joseph states as much to his brothers in Genesis 50:

“You intended to harm me [by forcing me to migrate through slave trafficking], but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.”  Genesis 50: 20.

Working in the other direction, the Scriptures also indicate that God provides for the food and other basic needs of immigrants when host countries are faithful to notions of biblical hospitality.   In Genesis 12:10, Abram (not yet called Abraham) flees to Egypt to find food and escape famine.   In Exodus 2, Moses finds refuge for forty years in the land of Midian and the household of Reuel.  In the book of Ruth, we are told that Elimelek and Naomi sought relief from famine in the country of Moab.  Subsequently, Ruth emigrates from Moab with Naomi to Bethlehem in search of food, and in the process becomes a mother of the Jewish faith.   As stated in Deuteronomy 10: 18, “He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the foreigner residing among you, giving them food and clothing.”

It is worth noting that hospitality to strangers is modeled biblically not only on an individual basis, but also on a systemic, or structural, level.   Stated another way, God’s grace was extended to immigrants on a structural level through the legal requirements of the Mosaic law.  Within an agrarian economy based upon land ownership and kinship networks, immigrants, or ger, were an extremely vulnerable population.[4]  Because of their sojourner status, the ger were excluded from owning land and meaningful participation in the agrarian sector.   As a result, they were dependent upon the larger Israelite community for food, employment, and protection from discrimination.  They worked in lowly positions as day laborers and in temple building/conscription.   In times of drought, crop failure, or disease, immigrants were especially vulnerable because they did not own land and lacked a familial socio-economic net to supply their basic needs.

Structural provision for the basic needs of immigrants is reflected in the gleaning laws and special tithes divinely instituted in the Mosaic law.  According to Old Testament law, landowners were to leave the grain along the edges of their fields, and the fallen remnants from harvesting, for the ger.

"When you harvest the crops of your land, do not harvest the grain along the edges of your fields, and do not pick up what the harvesters drop. Leave it for the poor and the foreigners living among you. I am the LORD your God."  Leviticus 23:22.

Moreover, every three years, the entire tithe of produce was to be given to the clergy, immigrants, orphans, and widows, “so they can eat in your cities until they are full” (Deuteronomy 26:12 CEB).

Because of their susceptibility to societal discrimination, the Mosaic law also guarantees what might be labeled civil rights protections for the immigrant community:

“When an alien lives with you in your land, do not mistreat him.  The alien living with you must be treated as one of your native-born.  Love him as yourself, for you were aliens in Egypt.  I am the LORD your God.”  Leviticus 19: 33-34.

In striking similarity to modern U.S. constitutional law, the Mosaic law also required equitable treatment between immigrants and native Israelites, and prohibited the application of disparate legal codes for the two groups:

“You are to have the same law for the foreigner and the native-born. I am the LORD your God.'"  Leviticus 24:22.

These legal requirements bear a striking resemblance to the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment to the United States Constitution and represent one of its earliest historical precursors.

Returning to the theme of migration as grace, it is important to highlight that migrants often come to know the love of God through the often difficult, immigration process.   This is born out in multitudinous biblical examples, including, as previously discussed, the lives of Abraham, Ruth, and Joseph.  Others examples include Hagar, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Joseph, and Mary.  In each instance, these biblical characters experienced the grace and provision of God through the migration process, and the end result was the deepening of their faith and relationship with God.   The apostle Paul hints at this spiritually transformative aspect of migration in his famous sermon to the learned Areopagus:

“From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth [an implicit reference to migration]; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands. 27God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us.”  Acts 17: 26-27.

In as much as the Bible uplifts the spiritual principle of migration as grace, it also offers counterexamples in which migration is treated as “ungrace” and condemned by the Scriptural record.   The Exodus narrative is particularly illustrative in this regard.  Xenophobia in a time of war led the king of Egypt to cruelly enslave the Israelites and relegate them to forced labor:

“9 He said to his people, ‘Look, the Israelite people are more numerous and more powerful than we. 10 Come, let us deal shrewdly with them, or they will increase and, in the event of war, join our enemies and fight against us and escape from the land.’  11 Therefore they set taskmasters over them to oppress them with forced labor. They built supply cities, Pithom and Rameses, for Pharaoh.”  Exodus 1: 9-11.

When the strategy of oppressive labor proved ineffective to subdue the imagined political threat of the Israelites, Pharaoh then turned to the even more insidious policy of male infanticide:

“12 But the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and spread, so that the Egyptians came to dread the Israelites…

15 The king of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives, one of whom was named Shiphrah and the other Puah, 16 ‘When you act as midwives to the Hebrew women, and see them on the birthstool, if it is a boy, kill him; but if it is a girl, she shall live.’”  Exodus 1: 12, 15-16.

As a consequence of its oppression of the Israelite community, Egypt experienced divine judgment in the form of the ten plagues and its miraculous military defeat in the Red Sea:

“7 [Referring to the divine plagues] Pharaoh’s officials said to him, ‘How long shall this fellow be a snare to us? Let the people go, so that they may worship the Lord their God; do you not yet understand that Egypt is ruined?’”  Exodus 10:7.

“27 So Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and at dawn the sea returned to its normal depth. As the Egyptians fled before it, the Lord tossed the Egyptians into the sea. 28 The waters returned and covered the chariots and the chariot drivers, the entire army of Pharaoh that had followed them into the sea; not one of them remained.”  Exodus 14: 27-28.

As reflected by the Exodus account, the abuse of immigrant populations is clearly condemned by the biblical record.  God takes it seriously when host countries exploit immigrant communities and treat them with “ungrace.”

Buen camino,

Robert Chao Romero



[1] Mother Teresa, In the Heart of the World: Thoughts, Stories and Prayers (Novato: New World Library, 2010).

[2] Virgilio Elizondo, Galilean Journey: The Mexican American Promise (Ossining: Orbis Books, 2005).

[3]  Rabbi and Rachel Trugman, “Abraham the Hebrew,” Ohr Chadash:  New Horizons in Jewish Experience, accessed June 21, 2016, http://thetrugmans.com/673/abraham-the-hebrew/.

[4] M. Daniel Carroll R., Christians at the Border:  Immigration, the Church, and the Bible (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic,2008), 102.

ImmigrationRobert Romero