by Rev. Lori Patton
What does God expect of us? What are the core requirements for being a good person (or as good as any of us can be – remember, I’m a Calvinist, here!) in God’s eyes?
More than 2700 years ago, the prophet Micah gave this concise answer: “He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” [Micah 6:8] According to Micah, no amount of extravagant sacrifice or religious ceremony, no amount of gifts from the wealthy to houses of worship, and no amount of self-satisfaction could substitute for that simple formula of justice, kindness, and humility before God.
A little more recently (less than 2000 years ago!), Jesus of Nazareth quoted from Leviticus 19:18 when he said that, after wholehearted love of God, the most important commandment was to love your neighbor as yourself, and added that anyone in need should be considered your neighbor. [See Mark 12:28-34, Matthew 22:35-40, and Luke 10:25-37, for a start, and then Galatians 5:14, Romans 13:9, and James 2:8-13.]
I think of these core teachings of the Bible often these days, whenever the question of raising the minimum wage, or taking in refugees, or caring for the elderly and disabled comes up in political speeches or in votes taken by our representatives in city, state, and national government. While so much of our culture seems prejudiced in favor of the rich and the powerful, and when the so-called ‘prosperity gospel’ (basically, the idea that God wants you to be rich, if your faith is strong enough) and a perverted form of the Old Testament ‘retribution theology’ (originally, the idea that you will reap what you sow, but too often taken to mean that good health, good fortune, and material wealth are rewards for virtue, and that therefore the financially advantaged are also the most worthy, while the poor and suffering have clearly done something to deserve their misery) are preached loudly and often, it’s important to know that God still stands with and for the needy and powerless of this world. And God’s people are still called to show through their actions toward the poorest and most vulnerable that their faith is more than lip-service.
Nine years ago, during one of the semesters when I was teaching an introductory course on the Old Testament at Belmont University in Nashville, one of the students challenged my assertion that God shows a particular concern for the poorest and most vulnerable in society throughout the scriptures – that it didn’t just start with Jesus in the New Testament (or with a suspiciously liberal professor imposing her own political agenda on the Bible). This young college student, who’d been going to Church School for as long as she could remember, said that she had never come across any Old Testament passages talking about obligations to the poor. So, I sat down with my New Revised Standard Version bible and the Keyword search tool on BibleGateway.com, and quickly compiled a list of 19 bible passages from Exodus to Malachi, all relaying some instruction from God about helping out the widows, the orphans, and the sojourners (resident foreigners, or sometimes refugees) living among the people of Israel.
Of course, those 19 passages are just the tip of the iceberg, when it comes to biblical passages advocating help and protection for the poor, but the verses specifically talking about widows, orphans, and sojourners are an easy place to start, since there are so many stories about them in the Old and New Testaments and the parallels to our world today are not hard to find. In the ancient world, widows, orphans, and sojourners were the most vulnerable because they had no male head of household to own property that could provide for them or to seek justice for them when they were wronged. If you think about the situation of low-income single mothers today, of children who grow up in the foster care system and can look forward to losing even that support network when they turn 18, or of undocumented immigrant workers and their families or Syrian refugees, you’ll see what I mean. And then think about the extreme lengths that widowed women in the Bible had to go to in order to keep from starving to death, whether in the more familiar stories like that of Ruth and Naomi or in the less familiar stories like that of Tamar and Judah in the book of Genesis. Or think of how often God’s chosen ones found themselves in danger because they were guests in someone else’s country or had no country of their own.
So, anyway, I passed out copies of that list at the very next class meeting, and continued to make copies for distribution and post it on the course website for every Bible class I taught afterwards. But I still recall my surprise that someone who’d grown up in the church and felt that she had a pretty good grasp on bible content had apparently never been introduced to these important verses before.
Of course, the Judeo-Christian tradition is not alone among world religions in making the treatment of the poor and vulnerable a measure of how seriously one takes their faith. For instance, giving alms to the poor is one of the Five Pillars of Islam (the five things you need to believe and do in order to be a Muslim) and Buddhism arose out of young Prince Gautama Siddhartha’s shock over the suffering of the ill, the aged, and the poor, and his desire to find an end to suffering for all humans.
But Christianity is my faith, and the teachings of the Old and New Testament are my sacred scripture, so it is on that basis that I ask, “Are we really a people of faith? Do we really believe in Jesus Christ? Do we really care that God calls us to be more kind, more just, more loving, more charitable toward the dispossessed and disheartened and distressed of this world?
Maybe many (or even most) of our politicians and business leaders have never heard these passages of scripture, or don’t think God could have been serious about our own continued good fortune being dependent on taking care of those who cannot care for themselves. Maybe they’ve never heard of and would be appalled by the very idea of the Year of Jubilee. [See Exodus 23:10-12 and Leviticus 25:1-46] But I do know, and I believe. And so, I am obligated to speak and to act in favor of those who are most needy, those who are too often forgotten or dismissed or excluded from consideration.
And, in case anyone’s curious, here’s the handout I put together in response to that one student’s challenge:
God’s Concern for the Poor and Vulnerable (especially the Widowed, the Orphaned, and the Sojourners) in the Hebrew Bible.
Some of many examples:
(Compare with specific stories of resident aliens, widows, and orphans in the OT, including Elijah and the Widow of Zarephath in 1 Kings 17 and Ruth and Naomi in the book of Ruth.)
Exodus 22:21-24 – “You shall not wrong or oppress a resident alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt. You shall not abuse any widow or orphan. If you do abuse them, when they cry out to me, I will surely heed their cry; my wrath will burn, and I will kill you with the sword, and your wives shall become widows and your children orphans.”
Deuteronomy 10:18-19 – God “who executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and who loves the strangers, providing them food and clothing. You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”
Deuteronomy 14:28-29 – “Every third year you shall bring out the full tithe of your produce for that year, and store it within your towns; the Levites, because they have no allotment or inheritance with you, as well as the resident aliens, the orphans, and the widows in your towns, may come and eat their fill so that the Lord your God may bless you in all the work that you undertake.” (continued in Deut. 26:12-13)
*Deuteronomy 24:17-21 – “You shall not deprive a resident alien or an orphan of justice; you shall not take a widow’s garment in pledge. Remember that you were a slave in Egypt and the Lord your God redeemed you from there; therefore I command you to do this.
“When you reap your harvest in your field and forget a sheaf in the field, you shall not go back to get it; it shall be left for the alien, the orphan, and the widow, so that the Lord your God may bless you in all your undertakings. When you beat your olive trees, do not strip what is left; it shall be for the alien, the orphan, and the widow.
“When you gather the grapes of your vineyard, do not glean what is left; it shall be for the alien, the orphan, and the widow.”
Deuteronomy 27:19 – “’Cursed be anyone who deprives the alien, the orphan, and the widow of justice.’ All the people shall say, ‘Amen!’”
Job 31:13-23 – [Job invites God’s judgment and punishment, if he has ever wronged or even failed to do any good that lay within his power for the slaves, the poor, the widow and the orphan – but he has not committed such sins.]
Psalm 68:5 – “Father of orphans and protector of widows is God in his holy habitation.”
Psalm72:4 – [prayer for guidance and support for the king] “May he defend the cause of the poor of the people, give deliverance to the needy, and crush the oppressor.”
Psalm 94:3-7 – “O Lord, how long shall the wicked, how long shall the wicked exult?
They pour out their arrogant words; all the evildoers boast.
They crush your people, O Lord, and afflict your heritage.
They kill the widow and the stranger, they murder the orphan,
and they say, ‘The Lord does not see; the God of Jacob does not perceive.’”
Psalm 146:9 – “The Lord watches over the strangers; he upholds the orphan and the widow, but the way of the wicked he brings to ruin.”
Isaiah 1:16-17 – “Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean;
remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes;
cease to do evil, learn to do good;
seek justice, rescue the oppressed,
defend the orphan, plead for the widow.”
Isaiah 10:1-2 – “Ah, you who make iniquitous decrees, who write oppressive statutes to turn aside the needy from justice and to rob the poor of my people of their right, that widows may be your spoil, and that you may make the orphans your prey!”
Jeremiah 7:5-7 – “For if you truly amend your ways and your doings, if you truly act justly one with another, if you do not oppress the alien, the orphan, and the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not go after other gods to your own hurt, then I will dwell with you in this place, in the land that I gave of old to your ancestors forever and ever.”
Jeremiah 22:3 – “Thus said the Lord: Act with justice and righteousness, and deliver from the hand of the oppressor anyone who has been robbed. And do no wrong or violence to the alien, the orphan, and the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place.”
Ezekiel 22:6-7 – “The princes of Israel in you, everyone according to his power, have been bent on shedding blood. Father and mother are treated with contempt in you; the alien residing within you suffers extortion; the orphan and the widow are wronged in you.”
Micah 2:8-10 – “But you rise up against my people as an enemy;
you strip the robe from the peaceful, from those who pass by trustingly with no thought of war.
The women of my people you drive out from their pleasant houses;
from their young children you take away my glory forever.
Arise and go; for this is no place to rest, because of uncleanness that destroys
with a grievous destruction.”
Zechariah 7:9-10 – “Thus says the Lord of hosts: Render true judgments, show kindness and mercy to one another; do not oppress the widow, the orphan, the alien, or the poor; and do not devise evil in your hearts against one another.”
Malachi 3:5 – “Then I will draw near to you for judgment; I will be swift to bear witness against the sorcerers, against the adulterers, against those who swear falsely, against those who oppress the hired workers in their wages, the widow and the orphan, against those who thrust aside the alien, and do not fear me, says the Lord of hosts.”