Holiness and Homicide

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 99; 147:1-11, Deuteronomy 19:1-7, James 5:13-18, Luke 12:22-31


In Deuteronomy, God instructs Israel to position three cities in regions so no one will be too far from one. These Cities of Refuge are for people who commit unintentional homicide. Who should seek such sanctuary? Deuteronomy elaborates:

Suppose someone goes into the forest with another to cut wood, and when one of them swings the ax to cut down a tree, the head slips from the handle and strikes the other person who then dies; the killer may flee to one of these cities and live. But if the distance is too great, the avenger of blood in hot anger might pursue and overtake and put the killer to death, although a death sentence was not deserved, since the two had not been at enmity before.

That’s … oddly specific.

Three other Cities of Refuge are established earlier in Deuteronomy, but their asylum-seekers had to be willing to undergo a trial. The roads to these cities were well-maintained and unusually wide for easy access.

If holiness is a condition of being set apart from the world to serve God, these places were holy. Throughout Western history, churches have also been recognized (if not always legally) as holy places of asylum. One famous (though fictional) example is Esmerelda seeking sanctuary in Paris’s Notre Dame Cathedral in Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame.

Of late, the idea of sanctuary – of intentionally safe places in general – has been highly politicized. Sanctuary seems indulgent or dangerous … until we need it ourselves. Deuteronomy reminds us what is legal does not define what is just, and kindness is not weakness. Circumstances matter. Sometimes pausing to consider them – even if in the end they do not favor the asylum-seeker – is an act of faith. If possible, shouldn’t the church and its members offer mercy when law and circumstance have denied a higher justice?

Residents of the Cities of Refuge undoubtedly had mixed feelings about harboring fugitives, and some fugitives undoubtedly took advantage, but the need for a holy place transcended doubt and abuse. Living in the Kingdom requires us to accept its grace even for the fugitive.

Comfort: Offering safety makes it easier to seek it.

Challenge: Watch the short video below to learn more about the differences between refugees, asylees, and immigrants.

Prayer: God of peace, open my arms and heart to the stranger. Amen.

Discussion: Sanctuary isn’t just for fugitives or refugees. Where do you see a need for sanctuary in the world?

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