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Robert Linthicum writes, Simply put, Jubilee was a legislated reversal of fortune! It was Israel’s most radical vehicle to redistribute its wealth so that society could be rebalanced and neither wealth nor power could accumulate in the hands of a self-selected few. That was what Jesus was proclaiming when he read Isaiah 61 in the synagogue in Nazareth that Sabbath day.”2 In the three farewell speeches of Moses, as recorded in the book of Deuteronomy, “the second telling of the law,” Moses reiterates God’s heart for those in distress and how he wants his people to care for those in distress. Linthicum says that “[t]he book of Deuteronomy is the clearest statement in the Bible of the world as God intended it to be.”3 The commands were not random but given to guide the Israelite’s actions toward those on the margins to reflect the very heart of their God. “For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who shows no partiality and accepts no bribes. He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the alien, giving him food and clothing. And you are to love those who are aliens, for you yourselves were aliens in Egypt” (Deut. 10:17-19). As Moses was nearing his death he wanted to be certain that God’s provision of community, justice, and necessities became earmarks of the Israelite community (cf. Deut. 14:28-29, Deut. 15:4, Deut. 15:7, Deut.
15:11, Deut. 16:14, Deut. 24:10-15, Deut. 24:17-21, Deut. 26:12-13, Deut. 27:19, etc.).
Linthicum, Transforming Power, 60.
Ibid., 26 Linthicum points out that it was the rediscovery of the book of Deuteronomy that led to the reforms brought about by Josiah and was foundational for rebuilding the wall and repopulating Jerusalem under the ministry of Nehemiah.
One passage of Scripture comprehensively reveals multiple facets of God’s heart for those in distress.4.
Do not deprive the alien or the fatherless of justice, or take the cloak of the widow as a pledge. Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and the Lord your God redeemed you from there. That is why I command you to do this. When you are harvesting in your field and you overlook a sheaf, do not go back to get it. Leave it for the alien, the fatherless and the widow, so that the Lord your God may bless you in all the work of your hands. When you beat the olives from your trees, do not go over the branches a second time. Leave what remains for the alien, the fatherless and the widow. When you harvest the grapes in your vineyard, do not go over the vines again. Leave what remains for the alien, the fatherless and the widow (Deut. 24:17-21).
This passage is rich in understanding the heart of God towards those on the margins of society. The first has to do with justice. The alien, the fatherless, the widow and the poor all deserve justice and have inalienable rights as human beings that supersede geopolitical borders (cf. Prov. 31,8,9, Isa.10:1,2 etc.). Second, God is concerned with basic kindness.
Although one could demand the surety of a widow’s cloak, God is concerned with her comfort and survival. The historical memory of their own oppression while slaves in Egypt was to be a catalyst to kindness, not a catalyst for the formerly oppressed to become the Although Old Testament passages often link aliens, widows and fatherless together as a group and the poor and needy together there are enough passages that freely place them under the same protection or beneficiaries of the same provision (cf. Exodus 19:10, Leviticus 19:10, Leviticus 23:22, Deuteronomy 10:17-19, etc.), that unless there is a compelling exegetical reason not to do so, I will approach these passages collectively as how God wants those on the margins protected and provided for. Throughout this paper I will refer to these collectively and interchangeably as “those on the margins,” “the distressed,” “the marginalized,” “those without voice or power,” “those in need,” etc. One could easily argue that the poor are poor and the needy are needy because they are widowed, orphaned or aliens since those groups were most often excluded from the means of wealth—the ownership of land.
oppressors. God also tells those with the means of production (wheat fields, olive trees and vineyards) not to extract every farthing of profit from the land but rather to leave a second harvest for those on the margins. In a subtle way, God was telling his people to provide for the poor but also preserve their inherent dignity by allowing the poor to harvest for themselves what they need. Work is part of God’s redemptive plan, expressed before the fall (Gen. 2:15), and lived out in the new Jerusalem (Isa. 65:22).
Wisdom Literature The “wisdom literature” (Job-Song of Songs) is “the accumulated wisdom of the people who lived under and within the Old Testament part of the biblical story. This literature summarizes the learnings of the community of faith concerning rights and just relationships and testifies to people’s experience that God’s rule is the only rule at the end of the day.”5 The wisdom literature continues to magnify the centrality of care and love towards those in need. When Job was pondering the reason for his suffering he reviewed his kindness towards those in need.
If I have denied the desires of the poor or let the eyes of the widow grow weary, if I have kept my bread to myself, not sharing it with the fatherless—but from my youth I reared him as would a father, and from my birth I guided the widow—if I have seen anyone perishing for lack of clothing, or a needy man without a garment, and his heart did not bless me for warming him with the fleece from my sheep, if I have raised my hand against the fatherless, knowing that I had influence in court, then let my arm fall from the shoulder, let it be broken off at the joint. For I dreaded destruction from God, and for fear of his splendor I could not do such things” (Job 31:16-23).
It was clear that Job viewed care for the distressed as an integral part and extension of his relationship with God (cf. Job 20:10, Job 29:11-13, Job 30:25, Job 31:31-32, Job 34:19).
Proverbs, the “short statements learned from long lessons” contain numerous couplets pertaining to care, mercy and justice toward those in distress (cf. Prov. 10:15, Prov. 13:23, Prov. 14:20-21, Prov. 14:31, Prov. 19:7, Prov. 21:13, Prov. 22:2, Prov. 22:9, Prov. 22:16, Prov. 22:22-23, Prov. 28:8, Prov. 28:27, Prov. 29:7, Prov. 29:14, Prov. 31:8-9, Prov. 31:20 etc.). It is quite clear that the Proverbs were the experiential validation of the mandates and desires of God toward the poor. Generosity and justice were rewarded and smiled upon whereas stinginess and injustice led to ruin.
The Prophets Whereas the law contained dozens of admonitions and guidelines regarding the treatment of those on the margins, and the poetic books serve as practical and personal reminders of the consequences of adhering to these guidelines, the prophetic books were written as a rebuke and reminder of how God’s people were to live as; an outline of where they had erred and rebukes regarding their shabby treatment of the poor. Catholic scholar
Ronald Rolheiser writes:
Moreover, the call to do justice as an integral part of relating to God is already strong within the Jewish scriptures. Beginning about 800 B.C., the Jewish prophets made one truth central to their teaching. They taught that the quality of faith in the people depends upon the character of justice in the land—and the character of justice in the land is to be judged by how we treat the most vulnerable groups in the society, namely, widows, orphans and strangers. Thus according to the Jewish prophets, where we stand with God depends not just upon prayer and sincerity of heart but also on where we stand with the poor.6 The prophets call God’s people back to himself and to the historic commitment to those in distress (cf. Jer. 5:28b, Jer. 7:5-7, Jer. 22:3, Ezek. 16:49, Ezek. 22:19, Ezek. 47:22, Amos 5:11-12, Zech. 7:9-10, Mal. 3:5). Speaking of King Josiah, God even equates one’s treatment of the poor and needy with one’s relationship with God himself. “‘He [King Rolheiser, 64-65.
Josiah] did what was right and just, so all went well with him. He defended the cause of the poor and needy, and so all went well. Is that not what it means to know me?’ declares the Lord” (Jer. 22:15-16).
In the years preceding the Babylonian captivity, Isaiah had a prophetic message from God concerning Israel’s “internal” focus along with an exhortation to move beyond
formal worship to true righteousness:
Stop bringing meaningless offerings! Your incense is detestable to me…I cannot bear your evil assemblies…They have become a burden to me; I am weary of bearing them.
When you spread out your hands in prayer, I will hide my eyes from you; even if you offer many prayers, I will not listen…Stop doing wrong, learn to do right! Seek justice, encourage the oppressed. Defend the cause of the fatherless, plead the case of the widow” (Isa. 1:13-17).
Throughout this prophetic book, Isaiah exposes the inadequacy of the faith of people who focus on loving God but forget about loving man (cf. Isa. 10:1-2, Isa. 11:4, Isa. 25:4, Isa.
32:7, Isa. 61:6). Addressing the futility of their prayers and fasting apart from concern for others, God says, “Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter— when you see the naked, to clothe him?” (Isa. 58:6-7a) One particular passage from the prophets is particularly instructive regarding what God requires of his people…a requirement that transcends time and geography. That passage is Mic. 6:8. “He has showed you, O man, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” Into this setting of lapsed obedience, Micah addresses the people of God. What is good and what is required by the Lord? There are three things God requires. In reverse order, the first good thing that God requires is a humble walk with him. A humble walk with God is foundational for everything Christ-followers do since one must be internally strong to be externally focused. Most churches in the United States are relatively good at developing systems and programs that help parishioners walk with God, but there is more that God requires.
The second thing God lauds and requires is a love of mercy. Mercy is God’s attitude and action towards those in distress. Mercy is the motivation for feeding the hungry, giving a cup of cold water in Jesus name, or a blanket to someone who is cold.
Many churches have mercy ministries expressed in “food pantries” or “clothing closets.” Jesus demonstrated mercy when he fed the five thousand. He didn’t permanently end world hunger, but he did make the lives of a large group of people just a little better on that day. Jesus demonstrated mercy when he healed Peter’s mother-in-law (Matt. 8:14-15).
Most certainly this unnamed woman had other fevers in her lifetime, but for that evening Jesus made her life a little bit better. Mercy is a good thing and to “be merciful” is one of those unique areas where believers are called to be like God the Father himself (Luke 6:36).
“To act justly” is the third requirement of God-followers. How does justice differ from mercy? Mercy most always deals with symptoms of deeper societal ills. Justice traffics in the systems that cause the symptoms. The late Harvie Conn defines the distinction between mercy (charity) and justice and in so doing asks, What will be the instrument of the church in affecting… change? Not simply charity but also justice. Charity is episodic, justice is ongoing. One brings consolation, the other correction. One aims at symptoms, the other at causes. One changes individuals, the other societies.7 Harvie Conn, A Clarified Vision for Urban Mission: Dispelling Urban Stereotypes, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1987), 147.
It is relatively easy for churches to be involved in ministries of mercy. It is exponentially more difficult to get involved in issues of justice. Normally mercy is applauded while justice is critiqued and criticized. The late Brazilian Archbishop, Dom Hélder Câmara, wryly commented, “When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a Communist.”8 The exhortation in Micah. 6:8 is foundational for every leader seeking biblical foundations for externally focused ministry. When a church is walking humbly with God, demonstrating mercy, and working towards justice for all, it is on the path to becoming the church Jesus died to build.
The Response to John the Baptist The first recorded words from John the Baptist in Matthew’s gospel are “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near” (Matt. 3:2). It’s a short sermon—just eight words in the Bible, but it got a powerful response. “People went out to him from Jerusalem and Judea and the whole region of the Jordan. Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River” (Matt. 3:5-6). Short messages solicit a big response only when the hearer understands the context, the meaning of the words, and the urgency of the message. Even when Jesus said to his disciples, “Come and have breakfast” (John 21:12), the disciples understood and acted upon every word of this short invitation. Sometimes the short message does not even have to be verbal. The apostle Paul, writing a few years later wrote, “…if the trumpet does not sound a clear call, who will get ready for battle” (1 Cor. 14:8)?
Hélder Câmara; [Wikipedia: the Free Encyclopedia]. Available from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/H%C3%A9lder_C%C3%A2mara; Internet; accessed 17 April, 2007.
Clarity of the message and understanding context is everything. Hearing “Get down!” on a battlefield elicits a different response from “Get down!” on a dance floor.
Why did John’s audience respond in droves to his short message? One would have to believe that his audience already understood the historical context of John’s words.
What did they know that people today have missed? What were they anticipating that others had forgotten about? What did they understand about history and the Scriptures that others had missed? What would they have been thinking about?