Were Jesus, Mary and Joseph refugees? Yes.

A mother and daughter are seen at a refugee camp near Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh Oct. 22. (CNS photo/Hannah McKay, Reuters)  A mother and daughter are seen at a refugee camp near Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh Oct. 22. (CNS photo/Hannah McKay, Reuters) 

With refugees and migrants in the news, some commentators have sought to draw parallels between their plight and that of the Holy Family—Jesus, Mary and Joseph. How accurate are these comparisons? Were Jesus, Mary and Joseph what we would consider today “refugees”?

Yes.

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In the second chapter of the Gospel of Matthew, we read the story of the “Flight into Egypt” in which, after the birth of Jesus and the visit from the Magi, an “angel of the Lord” comes to Joseph in a dream and warns him to leave Bethlehem for Egypt (Mt 2:12-15). Why? Because King Herod was planning to “seek out the child to destroy him.” Mary and Joseph do leave, along with Jesus, and, according to Matthew, make their way into Egypt. Afterward, King Herod slaughters all the male children in Bethlehem under two years of age. This dramatic episode is part of the Gospel reading for the “Feast of the Holy Innocents,” celebrated on Dec. 28.

A family is forced to flee their homeland for fear of persecution. This is the classic modern-day definition of a refugee.

So, according to the Gospel of Matthew, what is going on? A family is forced to flee their homeland for fear of persecution. This is the classic modern-day definition of a refugee. In fact, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees defines that group of people as follows:

A refugee is someone who has been forced to flee his or her country because of persecution, war, or violence. A refugee has a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group.

The Holy Family, as Matthew recounts the story, was fleeing because of a “well-founded fear of persecution” because of their “membership in a particular social group,” in this case people with young children living in Bethlehem. I am not sure how you could get any clearer than that.

The Holy Family, as Matthew recounts the story, was fleeing because of a “well-founded fear of persecution.”

Did Joseph and Mary apply for official refugee status? Of course not. Those kinds of regulations were most likely not in effect. There may not have even been any borders at the time. But, as Daniel J. Harrington, S.J., a New Testament scholar, reminds us in his commentary on Matthew in the Sacra Pagina series:

Egypt, which came under Roman control in 30 B.C., was outside the jurisdiction of Herod. Egypt had been the traditional place of refuge for Jews both in biblical times (see 1 Kgs 11:40; Jer 26:21) and in the Maccabean era when the high priest Onias IV fled there [emphasis mine].

Thus, we see a family fleeing to a foreign country out of fear of persecution.

Even the language used in Matthew illuminates their situation. As in all things with the New Testament, it’s helpful to turn to the original Greek. Matthew, writing for a Jewish-Christian audience around AD 85, presents the angel’s command as follows:

Ἐγερθεὶς παράλαβε τὸ παιδίον καὶ τὴν μητέρα αὐτοῦ καὶ φεῦγε εἰς Αἴγυπτoν....

Transliterated, that is Egertheis paralabe to paidion kai tēn mētera autou kai pheuge eis Aigypton....

Or, “Arise, and take the child and his mother, and flee into Egypt....” (Mt 2:13).

Even Matthew’s angel identifies the Holy Family as refugees.

The word to focus on is pheuge, “flee,” from which derives the word “refugee,” the one who flees. Even Matthew’s angel identifies the Holy Family as refugees.

But even if the Holy Family does not fit the contemporary definition of refugees (and they do) and even if the Gospel of Matthew did not use the Greek word pheuge (and it does), we should still have compassion and be ready to care for modern-day refugees and migrants.

Why? Because Jesus asks us to. Later in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus reminds us that any time we “welcome the stranger” we welcome Jesus himself (Mt 25). Refugees and migrants are our brothers and sisters desperately in need of our help. Jesus’ command to care for the stranger is also, for the Christian, a law superseding any laws that would hinder, prevent or outlaw such care and compassion. I am always amazed that some Christians who appeal to higher laws in other life issues set them aside when it comes to refugees and migrants.

From 1992 to 1994, I worked with the Jesuit Refugee Service in Nairobi, Kenya, where I came to know hundreds of refugees who had fled from Sudan, Uganda, Somalia, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Rwanda, Burundi, Côte d’Ivoire and many other countries out of a “well-founded fear of persecution.” Some, as the Holy Family had feared, had seen their children murdered in front of them. Others had watched as their parents were slaughtered before them. Despite their intense and almost unimaginable suffering, they were among the most faithful people I have ever met—holy families in their own ways.

Surely these families deserve our protection as much as the Holy Family did.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
James MacGregor
3 weeks 3 days ago

Wow! I would not have thought of that. How did the Egyptians deal with lawbreakers? What controls, if any, did they have to accept refugees and integrate them into Egyptian society?

3 weeks 3 days ago

Matthew seems to use a 'Midrash' literary form, which uses the Old Testament events rather than actual historical events.
Luke's Gospel is likely the more historically accurate. – A week after the Birth of Jesus, Mary and Joseph had him circumcised, and then went home to Nazareth, with that stop in the Jerusalem Temple for the Purification and the meeting with Simon and Anna.

The 'flight into Egypt' of Matthew is just his way of fulfilling the passage 'Out of Egypt I have called my son'. Factually, it never happened.

Steve Barry
3 weeks 3 days ago

Yes, Matthew wrote to the Jewish people of his day, so he would refer to Old Testament events to show that Jesus was the Messiah foretold by the Prophets. This does not mean that the events that Matthew mentions are not actual historical events.

Ken Chang
3 weeks 3 days ago

Are we talking about staying forever in the place of refuge, or a temporary stay? This needs to be taken into account. Did Jesus stay in Egypt and not leave back to his homeland? The refugees today come and stay a lifetime. If they are good for our country, would they not be good for the country that they came from. Their country does not need good people too? How does any country develop if all their good people leave their country to go to a developed country already? Is there a logical answer?

Steve Barry
3 weeks 3 days ago

Some 82 percent of Syrian refugees in neighboring countries would like to return to their homes if security and service are provided, according to Amin Awad, the Middle East and North Africa Director of UNHCR, the U.N. Refugee Agency.

How many people in the United States have ancestors that were once refugees from persecution in Europe and then stayed?

Dionys Murphy
3 weeks 2 days ago

So naturally you're in China?

Tim Donovan
3 weeks 3 days ago

I'm not sure if these people qualify as refugees, but certainly they deserved to be welcomed into our nation. Years ago, I worked at a group home with disabled men. Several of my co-workers had fled from Liberia to escape a brutal civil war, to seek a better life in our nation. Like the Holy Family, they fled to protect their lives from those who were persecuting their political and religious opponents.

Dan Acosta
3 weeks 3 days ago

As usual, Fr. Martin sets up a false dichotomy. He presents a compelling case for the welcome of refugees, then he throws in "migrants" as if the two terms were synonymous. I don't know many people who would refuse refugees refuge. Illegal immigration is a whole nother matter.

Sandi Sinor
3 weeks 3 days ago

Many immigrants from Latin America who enter the US illegally are also fleeing violence. Even those who are fleeing poverty have much in common with most of those who fled Europe at different times, from whom most Americans are descended. The Irish, Polish, Italians and others fleeing war and poverty and religious persecution were also not welcome by the native born Americans, but there were no quotas when most came here. Instead of spending billions to build a wall, why not dramatically expand our consular services so that more people can come here legally. If they wait to obtain asylum legally, it is too late for many of them. It can take years to obtain legal permission to move here, to escape extreme poverty and violence. Our ancestors were fleeing the same things, looking for a chance to build a new, better, and safer life for themselves and their children. Can we do less?

BTW, millions of people voted for a man whose platform specifically included turning back refugees seeking safe haven in the US.

James Haraldson
3 weeks 3 days ago

Your last comment is a bald-faced falsehood. And your main argument insists on rates of immigration that the nation can not handle. Additionally, I would be curious for someone to explain why there is little condemnation of the socialist states that create the poverty that cause so many to want to come to America illegally.

Dionys Murphy
3 weeks 2 days ago

"why there is little condemnation of the socialist states that create the poverty that cause so many to want to come to America illegally." Primarily because they're dictatorships or right-wing fascists masquerading as socialist states. Democratic Socialist states consistently rank at the top of the world in terms of quality of life both short and long term.

Dionys Murphy
3 weeks 2 days ago

"I don't know many people who would refuse refugees refuge." You don't know any Republicans? They built their platform on this.

Robin Vestal
3 weeks 3 days ago

It shouldn't be controversial.

3 weeks 3 days ago

"A family is forced to flee their homeland for fear of persecution"

Um, not really. The Holy Family was forced to flee their homeland, Nazareth in the Galilee, to go to Judea to participate in the Roman census.

So, actually the story here begins with an inefficient and unchecked central government bureaucracy that has grossly overreached in people's personal lives.

Since the author has a tendency to read the Gospels through the lens of modern partisan politics (even integrating contemporary terms), it's not that difficult to flip it around.

Steve Barry
3 weeks 2 days ago

Uh, you need to read the second paragraph of this article, not just the headline.

3 weeks 3 days ago

"A family is forced to flee their homeland for fear of persecution"

Um, not really. The Holy Family was forced to flee their homeland, Nazareth in the Galilee, to go to Judea to participate in the Roman census.

So, actually the story here begins with an inefficient and unchecked central government bureaucracy that has grossly overreached in people's personal lives.

Since the author has a tendency to read the Gospels through the lens of modern partisan politics (even integrating contemporary terms), it's not that difficult to flip it around.

Sandi Sinor
2 weeks 4 days ago

The family was forced to go to Egypt to protect their child from mortal danger, Herod. Their flight had nothing to do with going to Bethlehem for the census. They became refugees to protect their child, just as today's refugees flee to protect their children and families. Fortunately there were no border police in Egypt to turn them back.

Vincent Gaglione
3 weeks 2 days ago

The Gospels, however you read them, point to several behaviors that Christ Himself proclaimed: e.g.. feeding the hungry, visiting the sick and prisoners, welcoming strangers, etc. None of the Gospels talk about exceptions and conditions approved and delineated by Christ to these behaviors. Ironically Christ never spoke to some of the political hot-button issues of our past USA election, except perhaps the welcoming of strangers.

So exactly on which behaviors do we think we will be ultimately judged in the final reckoning?

E.Patrick Mosman
3 weeks 2 days ago

Only in Pope Francis's imaginative comparative can one equate the Holy Family's travel to and relatively short stay in Egypt in the same category as the hundreds of thousands refugees today. The Pope failed to note that the Holy Family returned to Nazareth while Herod was still King without any problem.
Pope Francis is totally misinformed either through a failure to study and understand the situations in the Middle East, Africa and the Americas or to rely on the leftist advisers when he offers advice to the world on the refugee problem.The Pope should be emphasizing that these refugees from the Middle East and Africa are fleeing from the internicine religious Sunni vs Shia warfare and homicidal Muslim hordes labeled,ISIS, Boko Haram, et al, targeting non-muslims, in particular Christians, that are devastating their homelands. The refugees from Mexico, Cuba and Central/South America are fleeing corrupt politicians/government officials and vicious drug lords. And where do these homeless want to go? They are heading to those countries whose socio-economic systems the Pope condemns as "bad, unjust" and even worse. The Pope should be lecturing the leaders of those countries to improve conditions so that their citizens do not have to leave instead of calling out those countries that he insists must absorb them.

Barry Sullivan
3 weeks 2 days ago

Excellent message to convey this time of year, but at all times as well. Great work, as usual!
Thanks again for your clear explanation of how we should apply Gospel messages in our day.

alan macdonald
3 weeks 2 days ago

Father Martin has no qualms or reservations to twist ancient scripture to fit contemporary terms. No, Mary and Joseph were not refugees but temporary nomads avoiding a manaical King.

Andrew Wolfe
3 weeks 1 day ago

Let's cut to the chase: James Martin believes that immigration law is illegitimate. Anyone can claim refugee status, so that's that.

don ttouchme
2 weeks 4 days ago

Yeah that was the most interesting part to me, how "welcome the stranger" supposedly supercedes any and all sovereign immigration law or regulation. Why does Martin hate America? He's like a lunatic who wants to overload a lifeboat until it sinks and everyone drowns.

Shayne LaBudda
2 weeks 4 days ago

Jim Martin hates America?
Who's the lunatic?

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