Living as a Foreigner in a Foreign Land

(Or Sting’s Englishman in New York: “I’m an alien… I’m a legal alien… I’m an Englishman in New York”)

Today I was reading in Genesis 23 and was struck by the hospitality offered to the foreigner as well as the responsibility and integrity lifted up by the foreigner himself. It’s when Abraham loses his wife, Sarah. First he says, “I’m a foreigner and stranger among you. Sell me some property so I can bury my dead.”

The response from the Hittites is beautiful: (the Hittites were an Indo-European people group from Anatolia, modern-day Turkey): “Listen to us. You are a mighty prince among us. Take your choice… pick the best tomb for your dead.”

Genesis 23:3 Then Abraham rose from beside his dead wife and spoke to the Hittites.[a] He said, 4 “I am a foreigner and stranger among you. Sell me some property for a burial site here so I can bury my dead.”

5 The Hittites replied to Abraham, 6 “Sir, listen to us. You are a mighty prince among us. Bury your dead in the choicest of our tombs. None of us will refuse you his tomb for burying your dead.”

Then, he chooses a plot and asks the people to go to the owner and tell him Abraham will pay full price for the burial site.

Genesis 23:7 Then Abraham rose and bowed down before the people of the land, the Hittites. 8 He said to them, “If you are willing to let me bury my dead, then listen to me and intercede with Ephron son of Zohar on my behalf 9 so he will sell me the cave of Machpelah,which belongs to him and is at the end of his field. Ask him to sell it to me for the full price as a burial site among you.”

Ephron responds, “No! I’ll give it to you.”

10 Ephron the Hittite was sitting among his people and he replied to Abraham in the hearing of all the Hittites who had come to the gate of his city. 11 “No, my lord,” he said. “Listen to me; I give[b]you the field, and I give[c] you the cave that is in it. I give[d] it to you in the presence of my people. Bury your dead.”

Abraham says, “Listen to me, if you will. I will pay the price of the field.”

12 Again Abraham bowed down before the people of the land13 and he said to Ephron in their hearing, “Listen to me, if you will. I will pay the price of the field. Accept it from me so I can bury my dead there.”

Ephron agrees. The deal is made.

Genesis 23:14 Ephron answered Abraham, 15 “Listen to me, my lord; the land is worth four hundred shekels[e] of silver, but what is that between you and me? Bury your dead.”

I’m struck by the beautiful exchange here and how it is a good example for our work in France, but also for anyone when looking for positive examples for how to deal with people who are different than us and might be considered outsiders. It also reminds us how to behave as foreigners. Abraham came in with humility saying he’s a foreigner, but was immediately accepted and even honored. Then, in his integrity and seeming to sense his responsibility as a foreigner in a foreign land, he offers full price for the land.

What if those who have been around a while welcomed foreigners the way the Hittites welcomed Abraham? What if we could be like Abraham here – go in humbly and offer full price with integrity? Of course, not all foreigners can offer full price, but we can have an understanding that we are to contribute to the society in which we live, not creating a burdensome situation, but offering who we are and what we have to make a positive difference?

And those of us who hold power and privilege and status as “insiders”. How can we do a better job of seeing the foreigner as a prince and someone to be welcomed?

We see ourselves as bridge people. In many circles here in France, we are called to welcome to foreigner, treating them with honor, offering a place for them at the table. At the same time, we feel an incredible responsibility to live with integrity and do not want to “expect” to be treated this way by French people or others who have lived here much longer than us.

The ways this chapter is challenging me today:

1) When I see foreigners who act in ways that I would consider rude or uneducated, unclean, disrespectful… how can I see them as people with dignity and honor and treat them likewise?

2) When shopping or ordering food, I don’t want to act as if I’m “entitled to” great customer service because this leads to constant disappointment in a country that is not known for excellent customer service.

3) In our work with internationals and refugees, how can I find this balance as I find myself moving between the two roles… someone who “belongs” who is called to welcome the immigrant, the foreigner, the new person who just moved to Lyon… and someone who is “foreign”, who is here not to take advantage of all the positive parts of this society, but to work with integrity and responsibility, giving back to France in ways that are unique to my personality and gifting?

In addition to welcoming the stranger and living as a responsible foreigner, Sting reminds us of a general truth that is helpful to remember when living as an outsider:
“Be yourself, no matter what they say”.

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