he people of Alexandria were all stirred up and you could understand why. After all, didn’t the city have enough of its own problems? The economy had been dismal for years. Ever since the death of Anthony and Cleopatra, Roman taxes had only gone up and up. (It seemed as if nine out of every ten bushels of wheat produced in the Nile valley was shipped overseas to feed the ever-hungry people of Rome) and the lack of a descent flood of the Nile in, like, three years, meant that there just didn’t seem to be enough to feed Egypt’s population.
And then there was the labour market. It had been, what, like a thousand years since anybody was hiring in the pyramid building industry. And really, what other work was there for good hardworking Egyptians? Mummy wrapping? Hieroglyphic drawing? Slavery? The guys who whip the slaves? Listen, the point is that there were only so many good jobs to go around and the last thing they needed was outsiders – non-Egyptians – coming along and taking away good jobs from hardworking Egyptians.
But it wasn’t just about the economy. You had to think about the question of security. The rumour was that these people who were coming in had been part of an incident that had frightened the whole city of Jerusalem. That’s right, they had employed fear (also known as terror) and we all know what you call people who use terror to achieve their goals – or at least what we call people who don’t look like us and use terror to achieve their goals. That’s right, we call them terrorists.
And what was the “incident” that they were involved in? Well it seems to be nothing less than a plot to replace the existing, duly appointed government with some new and previously unknown figure. That’s right, it was nothing less than an insurrection.
Did the existing regime overreact by sending in the troops and exterminating all of the children in an
entire region? Well, yes, there is absolutely no doubt that they did and Egypt certainly should send a sternly worded letter to Rome to protest such absolute atrocities. But, even so, Judea needs to solve Judea’s own problems. By all means, construct refugee camps on the borders of Judea – maybe in Galilee. I mean, yes, Herod is in charge of Galilee too, but what I’m saying is that surely there has to be some kind of local solution without having these people show up in Egypt.
And, dare I risk saying it, these people from Judea were followers of a strange and foreign religion. They didn’t worship real gods – not the ones that you could actually see in a statue or an inscription – and they wouldn’t even acknowledge the greatness of gods like Horus, Isis and Osiris. They just had this idea of some invisible God who ruled over the whole world – a radical and dangerous idea if ever there was one.
That is exactly what the people of Alexandria were saying as they peeked through their blinds and spoke behind their hands about the newcomers – the few families from some town called Bethlehem – who were settling down in their city. What good could come from these refugees anyways? They were only a drain on Egypt – a drain on the world. Nothing good could come from allowing them to come into the country.
It is what people have always said about refugees. Did you think that it only came up in the most recent talk about bringing in huge numbers of people from Syria and some of the surrounding counties? No. Canada may well be a country built by immigrants and refugees but that hardly means that each wave of people coming in was welcomed with open arms.
The Gospel of Matthew doesn’t offer any account of what sort of welcome Jesus, Mary and Joseph received in Egypt. All he writes is that “Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt.” People have often taken that to mean that they left alone and without telling anyone, leaving other children of Bethlehem to their fates. The flight into Egypt has long been a standard piece in traditional Christian art and always it had been portrayed with only three characters making that flight. But I have a hard time believing it would have happened like that. What is being described is a major persecution for political beliefs – for the belief that there was someone else out there who had a better claim to rule over Judea than Herod.
Unfortunately, there is a long history of how people react in such times and there is little reason to think that Joseph’s little family would have reacted any differently. Matthew portrays them as having a home and family and friends in Bethlehem. How could they possibly have even considered leaving if they did not at least attempt to take some of those people with them? So I imagine at least a small group of Judeans from the area around Bethlehem escaped, making their way through the desert towards Egypt.
And how would this small tribe have been welcomed in Egypt? Undoubtedly in the same way that such people have always been welcomed: with suspicion, judgement and fear. Did you know that, in the first century, Egypt (and especially Alexandria) had a very large expatriate Jewish community? But even that likely would not have made much difference on how they were welcomed. What we often see is that people who have already arrived as immigrants or refugees in a country can be very grateful for the opportunities that they have received and yet still oppose those opportunities being given to others still on the outside.
So, yes, there is every reason to think that the family fleeing from Bethlehem would have met with all kinds of rejection and scorn. And how wrong that was! Jesus, we believe, came into this world to reveal God to us, to bring us back into relationship with God and to say and do things that would change all history. He came to bring salvation upon all nations including the Egyptians who, within a couple of centuries, would embrace Christianity with unparalleled enthusiasm. But, when he arrived, the people of Egypt only saw him as a dirty, dangerous and a best gotten rid of as soon as possible refugee child.
Which is a way of saying that the things that people assume about refugees is generally not true. Many of you have probably seen an email that has circulated whenever, in recent years, Canada has talked about taking in more refugee families. This email that you’ve probably had sent to you by some aunt or cousin declares that refugees receive a monthly allowance of $1,890.00 and each can get an additional $580.00 in social assistance for a total of $2,470.00. Which it compares to what is received by Canadian pensioners, an amount of only $1,012.00 a month.
The email was obviously written by someone who wanted people to be very appalled at all that refugees take away from our Canadian resources. And the email, which has been shared literally millions of times in countries all over the world, has obviously connected with all kinds of people for that very reason.
Does it matter that the so-called facts in the email are not actually true? I mean the amount that it says that refugees receive is actually a maximum amount that a family might possibly receive as a one-time payment – not a monthly payment at all so it doesn’t even make sense to compare it to a monthly pension payment. No it probably doesn’t matter because a lot of people don’t care about the facts. They are far more interested in what they see as the reality that refugees are a drain.
But it’s not just about the facts anyways; it is about truth. The truth of the matter is that it has been consistently shown throughout history that refugees bring far more to a country than they take out of it. Yes, at first when they arrive with almost nothing and are unable to work they do receive to a certain extent (though probably less than you might think). But in the long run they certainly give back far more than they ever receive. Indeed, some of it is literally paid back. Any travel expenses that are paid to get them here are literally a loan that they have to repay within a certain amount of time.
But, more than that, it has been found through wave after wave of refugees from various parts of the world, that there has been a continuous story of contribution to Canada in all kinds of ways. Far from taking jobs away from Canadians, in the long run they actually create jobs by helping the economy to grow and through their own enterprise. They pay more into systems like the pension plan or the health care system through taxes than they ever receive. Are there a few exceptions – people who ultimately don’t contribute much? Of course there are, just as there are in other sectors of the population. But overall the contribution of refugees to their host countries is extraordinary.
And the Bible is certainly in tune with these truths. You may not be aware of this, but Jesus is hardly the only refugee that the Bible celebrates. In fact, the list of Biblical refugees is almost a who’s who of scripture. We have Moses, who fled political persecution in Egypt when the king of Egypt wanted to kill him for fomenting a slave revolt. Jacob fled domestic persecution (a brother who was going to kill him) and sought refuge in Haran. The prophet Jeremiah fled an invading army and went to hide, like Jesus, in Egypt. Two other prophets, Ezra and Nehemiah were refugees in Babylon who returned to rebuild their war torn city of Jerusalem. John, the one who wrote the Book of Revelations, was a refugee from imperial power on the island of Patmos.
All of these people would definitely fit the modern United Nation High Commission on Refugees’ definition of a refugee and we regularly celebrate all of the great and wonderful things that God did through them. They were and are no drains on any nation. They are miracle workers, leaders, great thinkers and more whose contributions echo down through the ages.
And that isn’t even counting all of the people in the Bible who don’t fit the strict definition of refugee but who migrated out of a deep need – because of famine, financial disaster and devastation. On this list we could include people like Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, all the children of Jacob, Ruth and Elijah. Can you imagine what the world would be like without the contribution of people like that?
It is true that the world is presently in the throes of the largest refugee crisis in history with 60 million people displaced, the biggest cause of this displacement being the ongoing war in Syria. Of course such a large crisis is going to create waves of trouble all over the world. Of course it will not be solved or even made much better easily. This is a huge global problem the size of which we have never seen before and we will have to put some policies in place and perhaps set some limits that we do not feel all that comfortable with.
But in the midst of all that, let us not forget that a refugee crisis is not just about numbers and statistics. It is about families – real families just like one that included a woman named Mary, her husband named Joseph and their young child. It is also about families that may cause some disruption or even trouble when they arrive but who also have so much to offer to the world. This calls for a certain attitude towards strangers and refugees that is also an essential part of the Christmas message.