Exodus 23:9, By Mark Williams
“Do not oppress a foreigner; you yourselves know how it feels to be foreigners because you were foreigners in Egypt.”
In an interesting section of Exodus that lays out the dos and don’ts regarding mercy and justice, we are told, quite clearly, to not oppress a foreigner because, based our own experience, we know what that feels like. It would be easy for me to start looking deeply at the word foreigner and chopping it up or reshaping it to include “stranger," “outsider," or even "the other," but the word just before it seems much more interesting, and packed with meaning as well. In fact, this first piece of the verse is where we should focus our attention.
When I first read Exodus 23:9, I paid very little attention to the word oppress because I can’t ever remember a time I’ve oppressed someone, or even seen someone oppressing someone else. I know I’ve never felt oppressed. But maybe that’s because I’m looking at this word from the wrong perspective.
Instead of looking at the verse from the point of view of whether or not oppression is or is not being dispensed, maybe I should be looking at oppression from the perspective of the foreigner. Not revelatory, I know, but it did make me see things a little differently. Instead of trying to judge whether or not oppression was or was not occurring in some particular instance, maybe this verse is calling us, through empathy, to reach out think what it must be like to not to recognize anything about the place you’re staying and to feel completely out of control about your situation or opportunities.
As Christians, we see no shortage of examples around the world where a ruling authority or group of authoritarians have brutally oppressed people for their faith in Jesus Christ. But the word “oppress" in this verse, I believe, is calling us to look past the legalistic value judgement and go straight to the heart of what we should be seeing in the face of a stranger—and that’s the face of Christ. Wasn’t He the ultimate stranger among us, very likely never feeling directly connected to the ground he walked on? His home, of course, was in Heaven with the Father.
Jesus’s example and, I believe, this verse is meant to remind us what it was like to feel like you don’t belong or understand the area or community in which you are staying. Maybe, in a small way, that’s what we’ll find out when we get to Heaven — that odd and annoying feeling we thought was normal, was really about not ever feeling like we belonged here on Earth.
I see this verse guiding us (maybe forcing us) to think like an outsider, constantly worried about what might happen next, or being separated from those you love, or being pushed back out on the road again to become someone else’s problem. But if we can see the face of Christ in those around us and resist the temptation to worry about who or what is doing the displacing, oppressing, or tyrannizing, we are much more likely to be guided by the light Christ wants us to follow and spread to others.