Around this time of the year, liberal churches like to focus on certain aspects of the story of Christ’s nativity in order to make political commentary. One of the favorite approaches of such liberal commentators, whether the pope of Rome, the archbishop of Canterbury, or liberal churches in the USA and Europe, is to present the baby Jesus as a migrant or a refugee. For example, a church in Massachusetts recently erected a “nativity scene” in which “the baby Jesus” was locked up in a cage, separating him from Mary and Joseph, while the “three wise men” were blocked from reaching Jesus by a wall or a fence. Such a scene was designed to provoke a conversation about immigration, constituted a protest against the separation of children from their parents by U.S. border control, and was designed to raise awareness about the plight of caravans of migrants attempting to cross the same U.S. border.
It is not my intention to make a political statement about U.S. immigration policy (or even EU immigration policy for that matter), but to explain the biblical text, which has been hijacked and twisted in an attempt to push a particular political and moral agenda. Many of the same liberals, of course, will champion abortion, but will cry foul if the same biblical passages are used to argue against the evil of murdering the unborn. For example, had Mary (the mother of Jesus) and Elizabeth (the mother of John the Baptist) been alive today, they could have—if they had been so wickedly inclined—walked into an abortion clinic and terminated their pregnancies. Mary, who in Luke 1:42 was perhaps only a few weeks pregnant at most, could have taken an abortion pill, which is now readily available in many Western countries; while Elizabeth, who in Luke 1:36 was six months pregnant, could have opted for a surgical procedure in a state-funded abortion facility such as Planned Parenthood. While any right-minded Christian shudders at the idea, many of the same liberals who promote the “Jesus was a refugee; therefore, we should have open borders” narrative are champions for the freedom of choice of women like Mary and Elizabeth, and would even demand that the taxpayer fund the right of abortion. Liberals, therefore, are selective in their “biblically-based political outrage.”
But I digress.
Two parts of the history provide fodder for such liberal theologians. First, the earthly parents of Jesus, Mary and Joseph, had to make a trek from Nazareth in Galilee to Bethlehem in Judea in order to comply with a government-mandated census. Therefore, Jesus was a migrant. Second, Joseph and Mary were forced to flee with their young son, Jesus, to Egypt in order to escape from King Herod. Therefore, Jesus was a refugee. Add to that the words of Jesus in Matthew 25:40, “Inasmuch as ye have done it unto the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me,” and the liberal makes his case: Christ demands open borders and compassion for refugees and migrants.
In the first place, Joseph and Mary complied with the law in order to travel from Nazareth to Bethlehem, which was within the same nation. Their journey, although long (about 100 miles, perhaps on foot/on donkey) and inconvenient, especially for Mary who was “great with child” (Luke 2:5), was more akin to traveling from one state to another state (such as from California to Nevada or from Massachusetts to New Hampshire) within the same nation than to traveling from Guatemala to the USA or from Africa to Europe. In addition, Joseph and Mary did not travel to Bethlehem in order to settle there permanently. Most people who travelled to their own cities for the census returned to their homes afterwards; this was not economic migration, but temporary disruption of people occasioned by governmental policies of taxation. For whatever reason Joseph chose not to return to Nazareth in the short term because he and his family were still residing in Bethlehem when the magi from the East arrived some time later.
In the second place, the magi from the East were not in a caravan of migrants demanding economic benefits in the land of Israel. Nor were they refugees fleeing from a repressive regime and seeking asylum from King Herod. They were rich, prominent, foreign dignitaries, undoubtedly with an impressive retinue of servants, who presented themselves before King Herod and asked his advice concerning the whereabouts of the newborn King of the Jews. When they had seen Jesus, worshipped him, and presented their gifts to him, they returned to their own land in peace (Matt. 2:11–12).
In the third place, Jesus was indeed a refugee from King Herod, if by refugee we mean one who flees for refuge to another place. Matthew records how God warned Joseph to bring Jesus to safety in Egypt: “Arise, and take the young child and his mother, and flee into Egypt, and be thou there until I bring thee word: for Herod will seek the young child to destroy him” (Matt. 2:13). The destination to which Joseph fled with Jesus and Mary was Egypt, which was outside of Herod’s jurisdiction, but still within the Roman Empire. Technically, it was not foreign territory, and Joseph and Mary broke no laws to enter that country, nor did they demand a change in the law to permit them to live there. And they certainly did not give their little boy to human traffickers to bring him across the border. At this time in history the Roman Empire consisted of a number of provinces, which did not have strict border crossings between them. Egypt was not a sovereign nation, but was under Roman law. Assuming he took the most direct route, Joseph would have reached the border of Egypt in about 100 miles and the Nile River in about 200 miles. Egypt was also a suitable destination because it was home to many Jews: estimates put the number of Jews in that country at that time at some one million.
Scripture does not tell us the details that in our curiosity we would like to know. We do not know the city in which they stayed, the age of Jesus when they fled, or the length of time that they stayed in Egypt. When they arrived in Egypt, Joseph had to find lodging and work. We imagine that he worked as a carpenter, for that was his occupation and trade. Undoubtedly, the gift of gold from the magi was put to good use, for God had provided funds for their journey. We know that they stayed until Herod died, which took place in 4 BC. They probably did not spend more than a few months to a year in Egypt, and when they returned Jesus was probably no older than three years. After their brief stay in Egypt, Joseph, Mary, and Jesus returned not to Bethlehem, but to Nazareth (Matt. 2:19–23).
Finally, while it might be tempting from Matthew 25:40 to equate one’s treatment of strangers with one’s treatment of Jesus, the text does not mean that. In scripture we are expected to help people or to perform works of charity with our own resources. Electing a politician who votes to allocate money to programs to help the poor is not the same as reaching into your own pocket to give your own money to a particular person who crosses your path. Political advocacy for open borders is not the same as offering a bed to a stranger to sleep in your home or inviting a homeless family to eat at your own table. Each reader must judge for himself or herself the wisdom and appropriateness of such actions, while governments have different responsibilities and goals. Besides that, when Jesus speaks of “the least of these my brethren,” he is not referencing the poor as such, but poor saints in particular. The poor and socially disadvantaged are not necessarily Christ’s brethren; only believers are Christ’s brethren (Heb. 2:11–13), which is why most references in the New Testament to helping the poor concern charity within the body of Christ.
What do we learn from Jesus’ refugee status in Egypt? Matthew explains that God was fulfilling prophecy: “that it might be fulfilled which was spoken of the Lord by the prophet, saying, Out of Egypt have I called my son” (Matt. 2:15). God turned the lives of Joseph, Mary, and Jesus upside down in order to fulfill Hosea 11:1. He did that in order that the early life of Jesus might be one of suffering, for the lowly birth of Jesus with his difficult childhood is the first step that Jesus takes on his way to the cross. He did that in order that Jesus might follow in the steps of the Old Testament Israel—God’s people Israel were in Egyptian bondage and called out of that land to cross the wilderness to Canaan; Jesus, the true Son of God, fled to Egypt in order that he would be called out again, and so that he could then call us out of the bondage of sin and death.
Whatever your political opinion about immigration law might be (and remember that it is very difficult to make accurate comparisons between the political situation in the Roman Empire of the first century and the issues facing governments in our day), do not miss the importance of Christ’s nativity: he was born not to make a political statement, but he was born in order to die. He was born so that he, having grown up to maturity, might suffer and die for the sins of his people on Calvary’s cross, and thus purchase eternal life for all those who belong to him.
“But when the fulness of the time was come, God sent forth his Son, made of a woman, made under the law, to redeem them that were under the law, that we might receive the adoption of sons” (Gal. 4:4–5).
This post was written by Rev. Martyn McGeown, missionary-pastor of the Covenant Protestant Reformed Church in Northern Ireland stationed in Limerick, Republic of Ireland. If you have any questions or comments, please post them in the comment section on the blog.