Blessed are the Undocumented? A Reflection on Matthew 5:1-12

[1] When preaching on the Beatitudes it’s easy to default to two common interpretations. The first is to individualize the statements, making them into a scheme for securing God’s blessing. Such an approach assumes that if we adhere to the qualities outlined by Jesus, God will be more apt to bless and love us.

[2] The second approach is a social reading of the Beatitudes that elevates the righteousness of the marginalized above all others. The implication is that God loves those who have been oppressed more than God loves the rest of us. The often unspoken assumption behind this reading of the Beatitudes is that those who identify with the marginalized are in some way more righteous than those who don’t.

[3] In different ways both of these options present the Beatitudes as law. Either God is telling us what we must do in order to earn God’s favor, or God is warning us that in order to be among the elect we had better get close to the folks whom God really loves. But what if we were to look at the Beatitudes as gospel rather than law? In his book The Divine Conspiracy, Dallas Willard proposes just such an approach (although because he isn’t Lutheran I had to put the words “law and gospel” in his mouth).1

[4] Willard argues that the Beatitudes are a radically inclusive statement of invitation to participation in the Kingdom of the Heavens.2 In a culture where the prosperous and socially respectable were considered the sole recipients of God’s favor, Jesus makes a point of saying that those who don’t fit into those categories (the meek, sad, downtrodden, etc.) are included. Citizenship in the Kingdom of the Heavens isn’t based on merit or outward signs of privilege; it is a function of God’s undeserved grace. It’s easy to hear these radically inclusive words from Jesus and immediately begin thinking about who was omitted, namely, the prosperous and powerful. But to do so would be to once again fall into the trap of basing inclusion in the Kingdom of the Heavens on one’s identity or social standing.

[5] We must let Jesus’ words speak for themselves. Whether we would like to exclude those who are privileged or unprivileged from the list of those invited to participate in the Kingdom, to do so is to stand outside of the radical inclusiveness of the Beatitudes. For those who live in a highly polarized culture like our own these are difficult words to hear. Could Jesus really be saying that everyone is invited into God’s kingdom? And if so, does that mean that we will have to abandon our default positions when it comes to judging who is right and who is wrong?

[6] There may not be a more polarizing issue in our country than that of immigration reform and concerns about undocumented immigrants. Having pastored in Arizona for three years I am painfully aware of how hard it is for people on both sides of the issue to even talk to one another.

[7] Although the immigration debate has certainly intensified since the ELCA’s 1998 social message on the topic, even then this church expressed its concern about how its people treat the undocumented.

Newcomers without legal documents … are among the most vulnerable. Congregations are called to welcome all people, regardless of their legal status. Persons who once were or now are without documents are members of our congregations, and we want them to feel and know that in the Church they are part of a safe and caring community. We encourage bishops and synods to show their support for congregations composed of or working with immigrants who may or may not have documents.3

[8] Undocumented immigrants are one of the most vilified groups of people in our society today. But based on the proposed reading of the Beatitudes it’s no stretch of the imagination to suggest that, if he were speaking today, Jesus would include “the undocumented” in his list of outsiders explicitly invited to be part of the Kingdom of the Heavens. The ELCA’s expressed hope that its congregations will be places of welcome and hospitality is also consistent with this hermeneutical choice.

[9] But the preacher must be careful to avoid the temptation to make the Beatitudes into law by somehow implying that those who are politically opposed to the interests of undocumented immigrants are somehow excluded from Jesus’ invitation to be part of God’s kingdom.

[10] Perhaps the way to go about doing this is to return once again to the Sermon on the Mount and Jesus’ invitation to all people to participate in the Kingdom of the Heavens. We tend to think of the Kingdom as an eschatological event with little bearing on our present lives. But Willard and others argue that the Kingdom of Heaven is closer than we think.4 Although the Kingdom hasn’t arrived in its fullness, even now it is breaking into our world and offering us an alternative way of life. We’re invited, right here and now, to begin living into a new reality that doesn’t fit neatly into categories like conservative and liberal, Republican and Democrat, or undocumented immigrant and fifth-generation American. Reflecting on the Sermon on the Mount Willard writes,

The aim of the sermon … is to help people come to hopeful and realistic terms with their lives here on earth by clarifying, in concrete terms, the nature of the kingdom into which they are now invited by Jesus’ call: “Repent, for life in the Kingdom of the Heavens is now one of your options.”5

[11] Bearing in mind the immediacy of God’s call to participate in the Kingdom of Heaven, perhaps we might offer the hearer a new way of thinking about their lives. This would be an invitation to an alternative way of life that isn’t defined simply by lawful and unlawful citizens of this country, but rather by our common identity as citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven.

[12] We might express this to the majority culture by saying, “The undocumented may not be citizens of our nation, but according to the Beatitudes they are citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven. How then ought we to treat these fellow citizens of the Kingdom of the Heavens?”

[13] And to the undocumented and those of us who sympathize with their plight: “Those who oppose our calls for reform are not the enemy. They are our fellow citizens in the Kingdom of Heaven. How then ought we to engage our fellow citizens in debate?”

[14] Regardless of our approach to the text, preaching on immigration is a difficult proposition. Nonetheless such preaching has the potential to open up an alternative way of life for the Church that will serve as a powerful witness to the broader culture. Can you imagine a congregation of both liberals and conservatives standing together and advocating for compassionate treatment of undocumented immigrants? That would indeed be a glimpse of what the Kingdom of Heaven looks like!


1. Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering our hidden life in God (San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1998).

2. Willard makes a distinction between Matthew’s use of the “Kingdom of the Heavens” and the more common term “Kingdom of God.” See pp. 73-74.

3. See also the ELCA’s most recent social policy resolution Toward Compassionate, Just, and Wise Immigration Reform (Chicago: Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, 2010).

4. See especially N.T. Wright, Surprised by Hope (New York: Harper Collins, 2008).

5. Willard, 133.

Brian A.F. Beckstrom

Rev. Brian A.F. Beckstrom is Campus Pastor at Wartburg College in Waverly, Iowa.