Wretched Refuse

Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!
(Excerpted from The New Colossus by Emma Lazarus)

The sonnet, The New Colossus, can be found on a bronze plaque inside the Statue of Liberty’s pedestal. A vacationing family might pause to read these well-known words. After visiting Liberty Island their next stop would be Ellis Island. Between 1892 and 1954 this was the nation’s premier federal immigration station. Over 12 million of the “wretched refuse” were processed through Ellis Island during that time. Perhaps your ancestors were among them. Records show that over forty percent of the population can trace their ancestry back to that “wretched refuse.”

“Wretched refuse.” Who among us would want to wear that label? Those words are both poetic and profound as they describe the masses who were seeking a better life. Left behind was an existence marred by hardships like famine, poverty and discrimination. Ahead was the hope of a bright future.

Tragically, “wretched refuse” is a label that continues to describe many in society – people struggling to overcome their status as second-class citizens. They are second-class because of their ethnicity, economic standing, physical disability, diminished mental capacity, etc. These are people who need our help and our love.

Our sinful natures make it hard to befriend the friendless. Selfish hearts are cold to the idea of helping others, particularly when there is nothing to be gained. What will others think when we associate with the dregs of society?

Our Savior had no qualms about befriending the friendless. He came solely to rescue the “wretched refuse.” The Bible tells of Jesus having dinner at the house of Matthew the tax collector. The Pharisees were offended by this and asked why Jesus would eat with “sinners” and tax collectors.

On hearing this, Jesus said, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” (Matthew 9: 12,13)

Our Savior came to rescue sinners. In other words: Jesus came for everyone. In unbelief the Pharisees couldn’t see the promised Christ who lived the perfect life the world could not and died the death that all deserve. Jesus demonstrated an infinite love for the unlovable. We were “wretched refuse.” By grace we enjoy a new label: “Children of God.”

The Pharisees mistakenly thought that their so-called “righteous” lifestyle elevated them above the “wretched refuse.” They appeared good on the outside but, inside, they were utterly devoid of love. Jesus advised them to learn what this means: “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” We do well to learn it also. God is unimpressed with mere outward righteousness. What God wants is our faithful love, not an empty exercise devoid of feeling. A Christian responds with sincere love to God’s saving grace by showing genuine love to others. This is what Jesus means when he says he desires mercy, not sacrifice.

The following thoughts will be helpful to us as we teach our families to love God by loving others:

  • Repentance. Daily repentance is an essential part of a Christian’s life. We confess our sins and we recognize that, apart from Christ, we are “wretched refuse.” With Christ’s full and free forgiveness, we live to serve God by loving others.
  • Discussion. Family discussions focus on the life-changing love that God has shown us. We use our gifts to serve God by caring for those less fortunate. We recognize that God’s gifts must always be used in a spirit of love.
  • Acceptance. What barriers keep us from befriending others? Is it their wheelchair or their diminished mental capacity? Is it the way they speak or their lack of material wealth? Our sinful attitudes are the real barrier. Talk with your family about those who seem different. Honestly discuss the differences and also discuss the similarities. Especially emphasize the fact that we all need a Savior from sin. You may have already befriended someone who is “different.” It’s amazing how the differences disappear when genuine friendship is cultivated.
  • Sharing. Discuss sharing with those less fortunate. We can provide for someone both physically and emotionally. We also have the opportunity to share our greatest treasure: salvation through Jesus.

In The New Colossus, the “wretched refuse” are welcomed as Lady Liberty lifts her “lamp beside the golden door.” We share a golden future when we proclaim the Savior’s love. The “wretched refuse” will not just have a better life, as God’s children they will experience a perfect life.

“And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!” Then he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.” (Revelation 21:3-5)



  1. Lucy H Stembridge : April 10, 2023 at 3:38 pm

    I like this! I was humming the musical arrangement of “Give Me Your Tired, Your Poor” and began to ponder this phrase, and whether it should be changed. This helped!

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