Do not deprive the foreigner 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 foreigner, 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 foreigner, 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 foreigner, the fatherless and the widow. Remember that you were slaves in Egypt. That is why I command you to do this.
When people have a dispute, they are to take it to court and the judges will decide the case, acquitting the innocent and condemning the guilty. If the guilty person deserves to be beaten, the judge shall make them lie down and have them flogged in his presence with the number of lashes the crime deserves, but the judge must not impose more than forty lashes. If the guilty party is flogged more than that, your fellow Israelite will be degraded in your eyes.
Do not muzzle an ox while it is treading out the grain. (New International Version)
In an ideal world, we would all use our common inner sense of justice, fairness, and kindness; we would pay attention to our conscience. Yet, as you and I know all too well, we are far from living in an idyllic setting.
Instead, we live in a fundamentally broken world – complete with injustice, disagreements, disputes, petty squabbles, and blatant insensitivity to others.
It seems we shouldn’t have to be told how to concern ourselves for the common good of all persons; yet that’s exactly what needs to happen. So, the Lord made it plain what the expectations are for meeting societal needs. And it’s already inside of us; we just need to recognize it’s there, tap into it, and obey our better angels.
The Lord expects:
- No favoritism, cronyism, and isolationism. Immigrants, foreigners, and folks different from us are to be treated with equal justice and sensitivity. Cliques which are hawkish about keeping certain persons out of their group is mostly selfish and sometimes mean-spirited; and it’s always a sort of discrimination which God expects us to avoid.
- Attention to the poor among us. In the ancient world, and still is some parts of our world today, when the crops are harvested, the needy would tag behind the harvesters in order to pick up what was left behind. Basic human kindness tells us that not only do we let them do this, but we also purposely leave a bit for them to get for themselves and their families. In our modern era, practices of exorbitant interest and unfair housing need to be replaced with concern for the less fortunate. Wealth is meant to be shared, not hoarded. To not do so is to steal from the poor.
- Punishments which fit the crime. Inequitable societies are rife with kangaroo courts and unjust laws which favor a particular group of persons. It’s humiliating for a minority prisoner to serve a much longer sentence than a person who is in the majority of society… and we wonder why some folks are so angry sometimes. Good grief.
- Inclusion. Concern for the common good of society doesn’t exclude folks we don’t like or don’t understand. The reason we are not to “muzzle an ox while its treading out the grain” is that they’re doing a job and they don’t need any hindrances to their work. Placing restrictions or extra rules on one group over another just because of race, ethnicity, religion, gender, or class is sinfully exclusionary.
The bottom line is that God cares about persons trapped in poverty.
In the Old Testament, there are seven different words for the “poor.” The range of meanings includes those who are poor because of laziness, those born into poverty, those who are poor because of inhuman oppression or slavery, simple beggars, and the pious humble poor – who have no choice but to put their trust in God because of their grinding poverty.
The Law was quite clear about how to treat the poor:
Since there will never cease to be some in need on the earth, I therefore command you, “Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land.” (Deuteronomy 15:11, NRSV)
The mistreatment, exploitation, and just plain inattention to the poor and needy were a chief reason God sent the prophets to Israel:
Listen to me, you who walk on helpless people,
you who are trying to destroy the poor people of this country, saying,
“When will the New Moon festival be over
so we can sell grain?
When will the Sabbath be over
so we can bring out wheat to sell?
We can charge them more
and give them less,
and we can change the scales to cheat the people.
We will buy poor people for silver,
and needy people for the price of a pair of sandals.
We will even sell the wheat that was swept up from the floor.”
The Lord has sworn by his name, the Pride of Jacob, “I will never forget everything that these people did. (Amos 8:4-7, NCV)
The major theme of Deuteronomy is remembering. Don’t ever forget where you came from so that the memory of your past helps shape what kind of person you are in the present.
We must be reminded that it is the poor in spirit who enter the kingdom of heaven, not the proud spirit who forgets the poor.
The humble person offers grace to people who cannot offer her something in return. It’s one thing to be merciful to people who will turn around later and scratch our backs. But it’s an altogether different thing to show mercy, regardless of whether they can pay you back.
We are to speak and act with mercy to all persons, without prejudice.
Eventually, an idyllic world will come. Until that time, we are to speed its coming by showing basic human kindness and compassion to the least among us.
Lord God, you give honor to the least, those who are forgotten, overlooked and misjudged. You came to give first place to the last, those left behind, misunderstood and undervalued. You came to give a warm welcome to the lost, those who are orphaned, abandoned and destitute. Help us to be your ears to listen to their cries; your voice speaking out love and acceptance; your feet walking beside those in need; and your hands to clothe, feed and shelter them. Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayer. Amen.