This post is the first of four written for students on an alternative spring break with the Farm Workers Support Committee here in South Jersey and in eastern Pennsylvania.
We may be quite familiar with the command Jesus takes from chapter 19 of Leviticus, calling it the second of the two greatest commandments: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” The first he takes from chapter 6 of Deuteronomy: “You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might.” Binding the two commands together as inseparable, Jesus confirms that love for God cannot and must not be cordoned off as a religious or spiritual matter set apart from justice, respect, and compassion within the community.
But what are the limits? Where may God’s people draw the lines of exclusion? When an authority on biblical law asks Jesus to clarify, “Who is my neighbor?” what the man is really asking is who is not his neighbor. Whom may he righteously exclude from the command to love?
Who is not our neighbor? Leviticus answers in a surprising way by including a person quite likely to be excluded: the ger (pronounced as gair), the non-citizen.
When an alien (ger) resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God.
Leviticus puts this command to treat the resident foreigner as a citizen and neighbor into the context of Israel’s relation to God. Fair treatment of the foreigner is not about charity; it’s about self-understanding and integrity as God’s people. For Israelites, mistreating the foreigner among them amounts to a denial of their own history with God. They were aliens (migrant workers who settled for a time) in the land of Egypt and were pressed into slavery. God’s compassion for them in their distress and God’s determination to liberate them and restore them to dignity are denied if they then turn around and mistreat people in the same position from which they were rescued. You know how it feels. So, don’t mistreat somebody else just because you now have the power to do so.
The Hebrew scriptures go on to add some specifics regarding the treatment of resident foreigners. Do not withhold their wages. Do not make them work on the Sabbath to keep the money coming in while you piously rest. Include the foreigner in your feasts of thanksgiving to God so everyone who resides in the land shares its abundance and celebrates together.
In our society, we keep our eye on the mathematical mean, the fictitious person in the middle of our range of prosperity. If this mean person is doing better than last year (right now that’s not the case), then the society is doing better.
According to the Bible, God keeps an eye on the most vulnerable, the ones most likely to be cheated, left out, or left behind. Their condition in life determines the health of the nation in God’s assessment.