The Guardian newspaper reported on June 19 that according to a U.N. report, “the number of people forced to flee their homes across the world has exceeded 50 million for the first time since the second world war, an exponential rise that is stretching host countries and aid organisations to breaking point.... Half the world’s refugees are children, many travelling alone or in groups in a desperate quest for sanctuary, and often falling into the clutches of people traffickers.”
I have never faced a day without food, but my father’s family, displaced by World War II, crossed three countries to spend years in a refugee camp. My father’s cousin was separated from his family at 16 and survived the aftermath of the war by begging food from American servicemen. The story came to light 30 years after the fact, when this lost cousin was reunited with his mother and relatives then living in Canada.
The Bible is replete with stories of refugees and the hungry, like today’s, because much of the population of antiquity lived on the razor’s edge of food insecurity, lack of shelter and the threat of exile or extinction. Some people, like women and children, were often considered as an afterthought. Matthew’s account of Jesus feeding the multitude begins with Jesus’ compassion for a great crowd in need of spiritual and physical healing, a crowd that had followed him to “a deserted place.” Jesus’ disciples were not without compassion themselves, for when they perceived the physical hunger of the crowds, they encouraged Jesus to “send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves.”
Yet Jesus’ teachings and healings, which met the spiritual hunger of the crowds, did not satisfy his mission. In response to the disciples’ request to send the crowd away, “five thousand men, besides women and children,” Jesus said, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.” It is a practical concern, met with miraculous action on the part of Jesus, but the miraculous ought not to dissuade us from our responsibility. Jesus’ miracles are only comprehensible in the context of his saving mission. They are not intended to impress or astonish the crowd, but to demonstrate God’s love for humanity in tangible ways. Whether or not our feeding multitudes or housing displaced persons is miraculous, it is a palpable way to show God’s love, and it is now our task as the church.
Tangible love meeting concrete needs is why, when the prophet Isaiah envisions God’s kingdom—he is not the only prophet to do so—the images are of water for the thirsty and buying “wine and milk without money and without price.” The text is actually addressed to the exiles of Israel, yearning for home and for new life, which God promises them not just as a physical homeland but a spiritual kingdom still to be established. There is no greater longing for exiles, struggling with hunger and homelessness, than the promise of a peaceful home and abundant food. By meeting the physical needs of those in distress God’s love and promises are made manifest.
God’s love is a spiritual reality. Indeed, Paul claims that hardship, distress, persecution, famine, nakedness, peril or sword will not “separate us from the love of Christ.” This is a profound spiritual promise, encased in one of the most beautiful passages in all the Bible. Paul boldly proclaims “that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” This is a promise of God’s eternal love for humanity and demonstrates the core reality that love is the heart of God’s being and the promise of our future regardless of our current situation. But it is also a call for the disciples of Jesus, the church gathered in his name, to continue the work of Jesus and his disciples to feed all who are hungry, to clothe the naked, to shelter the homeless, to find lands for the displaced. When this is done, the reality of God’s light might crack into the darkness of a refugee camp and the love of God into the hearts of people who thought they were forgotten. But God forgets no one.