AN ENEMY IN
YOUR HOUSEHOLD Gen 21:8-21; Mat 10:24-39
“and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household”
A young unmarried couple and their two little children attend a local
church and they live in our community. I have got to know them a little
He is a qualified teacher and she is a student of accountancy. So far,
so normal, you would think. But that’s where normality begins to
break down. Although he has taught in the past, the man only does casual
labour as and when possible. The woman does not have any living relatives
left and she looks sad and reflective if the fact is mentioned. They believe
they should be married, as a Christian man and woman with children already
should do, but it is not that straightforward. What makes them different?
They are asylum seekers from the Ivory Coast. Without proper papers they
cannot gain permission to marry in church nor can the man get work that
suits his skill and experience. They are intelligent, trilingual and devout,
but they have had to flee to this country to find freedom and even to
I have mentioned this couple because it is very easy to allow sheer numbers
and facts to obscure the very real, human lives that lie behind the reality
of refugees in today’s world. Friday was the UN world day of refugees
and today marks the beginning of Refugee Week as observed in the Methodist
Church. Just to put things into perspective here are some basic facts.
The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees was established
in 1950 by the United Nations General Assembly. The agency is mandated
to lead and co-ordinate international action to protect refugees and resolve
refugee problems worldwide. Its primary purpose is to safeguard the rights
and well-being of refugees. It strives to ensure that everyone can exercise
the right to seek asylum and find safe refuge in another State, with the
option to return home voluntarily, integrate locally or to resettle in
a third country. In more than five decades, the agency has helped an estimated
50 million people restart their lives. Today, a staff of around 6,300
people in more than 110 countries continues to help 32.9 million persons.
Family relationships can be very tricky. There's nothing like support
from those closest to you but their opposition can be even worse. Dennis
Cleary is an American politician who in 2002 was seeking a sixth term
in the Connecticut State Assembly. But he got no support from his family.
It seems that Dennis had a falling out with his siblings over the handling
of their father's estate, and they responded with newspaper adverts and
signs on their lawns supporting Dennis' political opponent. Their slogan
read: ''We are tired of Dennis. Are you?''
That story is reminiscent of Jesus’ words: “one’s foes
will be members of one’s own household.” They are part of
what are sometimes called Jesus’ hard sayings. They are hard in
the sense that they seem harsh and we have to work quite hard to understand
how they might fit with our normal image of Jesus. He was actually quoting
from Micah chapter 7 in which the prophet laments the breakdown of society
in his day. These days our idea of family is much more social. The family
is started by a couple who choose each other, fall in love, start a family
and get married. (And it is in that order nowadays!) It is the place where
we expect social relationships of respect, mutual help and love to be
learnt and lived. Family breakdown means the falling apart of social relationships.
But that is a modern version of the existence of families. In biblical
times the family was primarily an economic unit. Marriages were arranged
and children reared in order to provide economic stability and security.
When Jesus said that he had come to upset family relationships, he was
not referring to emotional or social break-up, but to the redrawing of
loyalties which were not always liberating and healthy. Joining the family
of Christ was going to be a new way of belonging which might upset the
old ways but brought greater freedom.
Abraham’s bad example
We normally think of Abraham as a great example of faith, a forefather
of our religion. But, like the rest of us, he was human and fallible.
Our OT reading today tells us of a less-than-happy episode in Abraham’s
life. God had promised Abraham and Sarah that they would have descendents,
even though at the time they were barren. After they waited and nothing
happened, Sarah sent her Egyptian serving maid, Hagar, to sleep with Abraham.
This was customary in those days, not to do with loving relationships,
but to make sure there was someone who could be counted as an heir to
the family property. It was an economic arrangement. Ishmael was the child
born of that union. Later Isaac was born to Abraham and Sarah. With frequent
child mortality, it was usual not to celebrate a child’s life until
it was 3 years old (about when it was weaned). So on the day when it was
clear that Isaac would survive, the rival heir, and his mother were packed
off into exile at Sarah’s insistence. They were forcibly displaced.
this is where the Bible’s story begins to be different from the
cultural context in which these things happened. God’s compassion
and faithfulness to his promises would actually be carried out in both
of Abraham’s heirs. Isaac would indeed become the way in which God’s
original promises to Abraham and Sarah were intended. But Ishmael would
also become the father of a nation and God came to Hagar and her son in
the desert and provided a way for them to survive. She overcame her despair,
they found water in the desert and God was with the boy. He grew up to
fend for himself and married a woman from his mother’s own ethnic
background. In this way we can see how God overcame the failings of Abraham
and Sarah and cared for those who were cast out or made into refugees.
John East is a worker amongst refugees with the Methodist Church in Lancashire.
In a recent report he writes: “Asylum and refugee issues bring emotive
thoughts and feelings to the minds of most people. Media coverage especially
by some national tabloids, fan the flames of fear and ignorance and some
of middle England's Christians may never have met or experienced the richness
of working with asylum seekers and refugees — victims of world injustices
and regimes of terror and of volatile governments.” (British Methodist
It may be
that one of our initial reactions to refugees is hostile or at least one
of suspicion. As a nation we can feel very ambivalent about foreigners
because of the trouble and a tiny minority has caused. It is easy both
to forget the enormous contribution that immigrants have made to our nation
and to turn a blind eye to the incredible suffering that so many have
had to escape in their own countries. We need to think more clearly about
the different reasons why foreigners come to our shores and not tar them
all with the same brush.
This year’s World Refugee Day focussed on the fundamental need for
protection. For some, this means economic security; for others, protection
is freedom from violence and persecution. There are millions of refugees
who live without material, social and legal protection. Providing protection
consists of tangible improvements in the lives of forcibly displaced people
– providing food and shelter or legal support. Protection is also
about raising awareness. We cannot protect refugees if their plight remains
invisible. Protection is a challenge that knows no borders. Neither can
it be left to a single agency to provide. There must be engagement at
the grassroots level, in local communities, workplaces and online. Only
through a global network of supporters can we meet the manifold needs
of protection. It is appropriate that we think of these things today when
we are invited to the Well to strengthen our relationship and mutual understanding.
One of the things the Well does is provide temporary shelter for refugees.
Our understanding and support is one way we can respond, in the name of
Christ, to this need.
© Rev Paul Smith