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What Jonah teaches us about loving immigrants

Aug 29, 2019

Jonah is an interesting character. He’s the guy who ran from God, sulked around during a maelstrom, told sailors to toss him overboard, was swallowed by a big fish, and was vomited up a few days later. Then, he threw a fit because God was faithful to his character by saving the Ninevites. Jonah has taught me a lot of lessons, though, and most recently he’s been showing me God’s concern for the folks who live outside of my national borders.

Jonah and the outsiders

Since becoming a Christian nearly two decades ago, Jonah has appealed to me; first in helping me work through forgiveness, and now in thinking through how God views the outsider. The Bible is pretty clear about the importance of loving the foreigner, who is often included in lists alongside orphans and widows. The reasoning, according to God, is that “you were sojourners in the land of Egypt.” I’ve understood that for a long time and nodded my head in agreement.

More recently, though, as immigrants and refugees have been in the news, I’ve been thinking about Jonah, in particular his exchange with God in chapter 4. Essentially, Jonah is angry with God because he was faithful to his own character as revealed in Exodus 34:6–7: 

The Lord, the Lord God,
is compassionate and gracious,
slow to anger,
abounding in loving devotion and faithfulness,
maintaining loving devotion to a thousand generations, 
forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin.

Jonah even quotes the passage back to God in Jonah 4:2. Jonah’s problem was not his theology per se; it was his application of that theology.

Jonah was fine with God extending grace to those within the covenant community, members of national Israel, as evidenced by his welcome reception of God’s grace toward himself. And Jonah likely had access to plenty of stories about God extending covenant mercy to those outside of Israel, such as Rahab the Canaanite, Naaman the Syrian, and Ruth the Moabite. But when it came down to Yahweh extending covenant mercy to the flesh-and-blood non-Israelites in front of Jonah? That was too much. Jonah would rather die. 

Yet, I wonder how often we have found ourselves in a similar situation. It isn’t exactly the same, of course, because the United States is not Israel, immigrants are not Ninevites, and the church is not a nation. These are clear differences. But is our response to the immigrants we hear about and whose pictures we see similar to that of Jonah toward the Ninevites? Are we reluctant to extend hospitality to them and treat them as image-bearers of God himself? Do we vilify them? Do we prize things over these precious people (Jonah 4:10–12)?

Learning to love others

If we answer yes to any of these questions, I think there are some practical steps we can take to develop God’s love for those who are different than us. If you’re on social media, I recommend following people from various ethnic, national, and socioeconomic backgrounds. I started doing this a few years ago, and it radically changed my viewpoint because I began to listen to voices outside of my own echo chamber. 

If we are truly going to be Christians who embrace the future Kingdom, we will value the image of God in those from every tribe, tongue, and nation and will love and serve them as we are able.

Another step we can take is to read books written by and about different cultures. As I have done this, my eyes have been opened to other ways of viewing the world, and I have seen the beauty in our differences more clearly.

Finally—and this is one of the most significant things—we can eat meals with others. Welcome a stranger into your home, host a dinner for people in your neighborhood, make a friend at the grocery store and invite them to lunch, or find refugee communities in your city and get involved. It is much easier to judge, mischaracterize, and even fear people who look, think, and speak differently if we’ve never spent time with them.

There aren’t easy policy answers for the complex immigration issues we have seen in the news lately. But perhaps we could stop for a moment to reflect on Jonah’s wrong-headed application of his theology and consider whether we are similarly misapplying our theology in how we view those outside our border. If we are truly going to be Christians who embrace the future Kingdom, we will value the image of God in those from every tribe, tongue, and nation and will love and serve them as we are able.

Russell L. Meek

Russell L. Meek (Ph.D., Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary) is a freelance writer, editor, and professor. When he isn’t freelancing, you can find him spending time with his (much) better half, Brittany, and their three sons.  Read More