Orphans, Widows, the Poor ... and Justice

God wants His people to live a certain way. To act a certain way. To have certain honest motivations. He wants His people to love one another, and to prove it by their actions.

The fruit of real salvation is moral and spiritual reformation, because you love God. You don’t “clean yourself up” to gain favor with God; that’s not possible. Instead, because God has already changed your heart and mind and given you spiritual life, you reform your life with His help. Part of that means you love your fellow believers.

Well-meaning Christians often cite biblical commands to care for the poor, the widows and orphans, and try to apply these to mercy ministries. Douglas Moo, a conservative commentator, is representative of this trend when he applies one of these passages (James 1:27) in a generic way to society at large. He implies James is issuing a call to mercy ministries in the context of evangelism:1

Christians whose religion is pure will imitate their Father by intervening to help the helpless. Those who suffer from want in the third world, in the inner city; those who are unemployed and penniless; those who are inadequately represented in government or in law—these are the people who should see abundant evidence of Christians’ ‘pure religion’.

This is all true, but it isn’t what James meant. That passage, and others like it, don’t teach this. Instead, they teach Christians to care for one another, to love one another, to watch out for one another. To be sure, it’s a wonderful evangelistic strategy to couple mercy ministries with Gospel proclamation. You can win a hearing for the Gospel by helping people. But, that’s not what these passages are about.

Who’s the audience?

When Jesus summarized the entire thrust of the Old Covenant law (Mk 12:28-34), He said it had two foundations:

  1. to love God with everything you had (Deut 6:4-5), and
  2. to love your neighbor as much as you love yourself (Lev 19:18).

If you look at both these citations, who was the audience? They were both addressed to Old Covenant members. They weren’t for unbelievers. They were for believers.

Regarding the first citation (Deut 6:4-5), Moses preached the Book of Deuteronomy to explain the Old Covenant to the people as they prepared to invade the Promised Land (“Moses undertook to explain this law …” Deut 1:5). As for the second, the context in Leviticus shows it was written for believers, too. But, beyond that, take a look at the context around the citation to “love your neighbor.” It tells us quite a bit:

  • Israelites had to leave some of their harvest from vineyards and crops for the poor and needy in their covenant community; their believing community (Lev 19:9-10)
  • They couldn’t steal or lie to one another. They also couldn’t bear false witness against one another (Lev 19:11-12)
  • They couldn’t oppress or rob one another; that is, they had to compensate one another fairly. They had to pay wages on time. They couldn’t take advantage of the blind or deaf. Why? Because Yahweh is Lord, and they should fear His wrath for disobedience (Lev 19:13)
  • They had to uphold justice and righteousness in legal matters (Lev 19:15)
  • They couldn’t slander one another (Lev 19:16)
  • They had to settle disputes among themselves, rather than let hate simmer in their hearts. There was no room for grudges or plots of vengeance; rather, they had to love one another (Lev 19:17-18).

What’s behind all this? What’s the concept undergirding all these commands? Simple: God’s people ought to love each other. They ought to care about each other. They should want to prove it by their actions. God expects His people to live His way, and part of that is to love fellow believers.

If you can understand this, then you can understand the references in the Bible to the widow, the orphan and the poor. You can understand who those commands are directed to.

Proving the point

The rest is pretty easy. Here are some representative examples from Scripture:

When Moses said this:

You shall not oppress a hired worker who is poor and needy, whether he is one of your brothers or one of the sojourners who are in your land within your towns (Deut 24:14).

he was referring to fellow covenant members; either native born Israelites or proselytes who had joined the community. He was referring to how God’s people should interact with each other. This echoes the commands from Leviticus 19.

Moses meant the same thing when he continued, and wrote this:

You shall not pervert the justice due to the sojourner or to the fatherless, or take a widow’s garment in pledge, but you shall remember that you were a slave in Egypt and the LORD your God redeemed you from there; therefore I command you to do this (Deut 24:17-18).

This speaks for itself, and so does the audience.

One of the condemnations the prophet Ezekiel brought against nation of Judah was their moral wickedness; specifically, the way they mistreated one another. Ezekiel wrote:

Father and mother are treated with contempt in you; the sojourner suffers extortion in your midst; the fatherless and the widow are wronged in you (Ezek 22:7).

You should read the entire paragraph for context, but Ezekiel’s point here is very clear. Part of their sin is their mistreatment of one another, especially those who deserve special respect – parents, proselytes who have joined the community, and the most vulnerable in the covenant society.

This was the same sentiment the Apostle John had when he wrote, “Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth,” (1 Jn 3:18). His observation was borne out of the same worldview that Ezekiel had, that Moses had, that Jesus had. God’s people should love one another, and show it.

In Zechariah’s day, as he and Haggai struggled to encourage the returned exiles to rebuild the temple, he reminded them of their father’s mistakes:

Thus says the LORD of hosts, “Render true judgments, show kindness and mercy to one another, do not oppress the widow, the fatherless, the sojourner, or the poor, and let none of you devise evil against another in your heart.” But they refused to pay attention hand turned a stubborn shoulder and stopped their ears that they might not hear (Zech 7:8-11).

Before the Northern Kingdom fell to the Assyrians, before the Babylonians crushed Judah, God was angry with His people for how they mistreated one another.

Even Amos, who wrote during the secular glory days of the Northern Kingdom, had the same message:

Thus says the Lord:

“For three transgressions of Israel,
    and for four, I will not revoke the punishment,
because they sell the righteous for silver,
    and the needy for a pair of sandals— (Amos 2:6).

What does this mean? It’s difficult to nail down precisely, but it’s clear the rich and powerful in Israelite society were oppressing the vulnerable. You get the picture of them accepting bribes to sell out the righteous for silver, or for material possessions. He continued:

those who trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth
    and turn aside the way of the afflicted (Amos 2:7).

You get the image of those in power smashing the faces of the poor into the dirt, and turning away those who are afflicted and helpless. This is a perversion of the society God commanded the Israelites to model.

And, finally, we come to James:

Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world (Jas 1:27).

James is talking to Christians about what their faith should look like. The fruit it ought to bear. What is the mark of a true Christian, of true religion? Well, simple! This command is really an inversion of Jesus’ summary. James says we must (1) love fellow believers, and (2) keep ourselves free from this evil world, which really means an all-consuming love for God.

What about the parable of the good Samaritan?

This is a good question. Why did Jesus give the parable? What prompted Him to employ it? He had a reason, didn’t He? Here’s the context:

And behold, a lawyer stood up to put him to the test, saying, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” (Lk 10:25).

The 72 disciples have just returned, and given an ecstatic report of their ministry success (“I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven …” Lk 10:18). Jesus rejoiced with them; “Blessed are the eyes that see what you see!” (Lk 10:23). He is glad God has revealed His plan to these simple men.

And, on the heels of this great event, the lawyer stands up and asks Jesus the question. He isn’t sincere; he wants to “put him to the test.” Jesus asks the man about the Old Covenant law, and he correctly responds by summarizing it the same way Jesus has done (Lk 10:26-28).

But, the man wants more. He’s “desiring to justify himself,” (Lk 10:29). He wants to limit his responsibilities as much as possible. He responds just like a stereotypical lawyer. Define “love.” Define “neighbor.” If he can narrow his target as much as possible, it’ll make his obligations so much easier to meet!

Think about it; would your spouse accept this kind of logic? What would you think if, at the altar on your wedding day, your husband halted the ceremony and said, “Now, I agree with all the lovey stuff, in theory. But, let’s clarify a few things. Define ‘until death.’ Define ‘love.’ Define ‘cherish.’ Let’s get this down on paper before we go any further!”

Are these the actions of a loving, would-be husband? I don’t think so! This is a guy who’s not serious. A guy who’s looking to do as little as possible. It’s the same with the lawyer. Jesus knows this; it’s why he tells the parable.

The Samaritan was a “good neighbor” because he didn’t care about legalistic qualifications, or legal definitions, or his strict scope of responsibilities. He saw a need, and he met it. That man is the good neighbor. That man fulfills the intent of the Old Covenant law, because he showed mercy.

What’s the point? The point is that a good neighbor is someone who shows mercy, not someone who seeks to do as little as possible in order to justify himself in his own mind. That’s why Jesus told the parable.

Wrapping up

The Old and New Covenant commands to care for widows, orphans and the poor are to believers, and their primary application is to widows, orphans and the poor within the believing community. True faith and Christian religion won’t seek to minimize this responsibility or shirk it; it will prove itself by genuine mercy and kindness to fellow believers in need.  

Mercy ministries to the general public are outstanding vehicles for evangelism. They just aren’t what these “justice” passages are talking about.

Notes

1 Douglas J. Moo, James, vol. 16, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1985), 90.

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There are 13 Comments

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

I agree! 

I do think love of neighbor extends beyond the believing community, though. Part of the point of the good Samaritan story is that whoever you encounter is your neighbor. 

... This is also implied when the apostle says "especially those of the household of faith," implying "not limited to those of the household of faith."

So some of the these passages speak only to Christian love among Christians, but some emphasize that but extend beyond it. 

It's significant that the church as a body is not instructed to fix the ills of society. 

Mike Harding's picture

Tyler,

 

Very good work.  Thank you.

Pastor Mike Harding

Joel Shaffer's picture

My push back with this article is how you handle the sojourner/foreigner.   Sojourners were neither citizens or part of the covenant community yet they were included in some (not all) of the commands to show justice and mercy towards them.  In Deuteronomy 10:19 God tells Israel, "Love the sojourner, therefore, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt." In Egypt, they were foreigners, with no rights. They were not "covenant members" / citizens of Egypt. They are commanded to love the non-citizens / non-covenant members among them in the land.

Later in Leviticus 19, God says, "When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and you shall love him as
yourself,
for you were strangers in the land of Egypt; I am the LORD your God."

Israel was to treat the non-covenant member as if he were a covenant member when it came to all the laws regarding justice, including poverty alleviation. Therefore, when James—a Hebrew of Hebrews—references care for widows and orphans, it is clear he is citing the Jewish understanding of loving one's neighbor, which included the sojourners among them.

But I would generally agree with you that there are many passages in the New Testament that are directed towards helping the needy within the church that often is quoted as proof texts for social justice and mercy ministry directed towards the outside world (Matthew 25-Sheep and the Goats, I Jn. 3:16-18, II Cor. 8 & 9).  But as Aaron rightly points out, "especially those of the household of faith," implying "not limited to those of the household of faith."  

 

TylerR's picture

Editor

I was waiting for you to comment! I'll reply tomorrow, when I have time.

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and an Investigations Manager with a Washington State agency. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

Darrell Post's picture

John MacArthur's sermon on the widow's mite follows the same general thrust. The episode was not a teaching moment for Christ's disciples for them to learn sacrificial giving. It was rather Christ pointing out a visual of how the religious leaders were robbing widows instead of caring for them. The widow was to be pitied because she was victim of a corrupt system that leaves her destitute.

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

Darrell, thanks for that. Interesting take on the passage and it rings true. Have a link to that sermon, by any chance? 

Darrell Post's picture

Aaron, what did you think of MacArthur's argument? 

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

His main argument from the immediate context, plus the context of the parallel passages is pretty compelling. 

The way he frames it is pretty off-putting though... Intro basically says that because Jesus didn't interpret His observations, any interpretation people make on the topic of giving is "imposing on the text." The truth is that since Jesus doesn't explain Himself in the passage, all interpretations are a matter of degrees of probability.

So he could have cut 15 minutes from the message by boiling his intro down to "the usual interpretations of this passage on the topic of sacrificial giving seem improbable. Here's why."

... this would have been kinder to the listeners, more charitable to all the folks who have used the passage in sermons on giving, and also more winsome to any listener who is skeptical.

TylerR's picture

Editor

Bro. Harding - I appreciate it. 

Regarding JMac's interpretation of the widow, I heard it several years ago and found it interesting but unpersuasive. He's importing a whole lot of baggage into the account; reading a whole lot into the white space between the words. 

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and an Investigations Manager with a Washington State agency. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

Darrell Post's picture

Tyler, I will have to disagree with you there about MacArthur. He is right to point out that Christ never spoke about her motives for giving, her heart attitude or whether or not it should be a model for giving. It is actually MacArthur's position that keeps the account in its context. The prior section ended with the warning against the religious leaders who devour widow's houses. Then in the very next narrative, Jesus looks up and sees a poor widow putting in her last two coins--an example of a widow being devoured to keep the religious system running. Then in the following context, Christ goes on to talk about how the great buildings, the same ones around the widow woman giving her coins, are going to be destroyed. 

Jay's picture

I really appreciated Joel's earlier post about handling the sojourner.  I think the last time I read through Deuteronomy, I was really taken aback by how often and how much detail God spent on how the Israelites were to deal with the strangers and aliens, and how often the rules they lived by were intended to point them back to their escape from Egypt as well.  I simply hadn't noticed that before either.

I also want to throw out, in addition to the passages that he did, a few others - Matthew 5:43-48, Romans 12:9-21, James 2:14-21.  There's a wealth of Scripture that we preach about that would indicate that special love and generosity ought to be given to all men.  It's also worth noting that the early section of Foxes' book deals a lot with how the early Christians witnessed to the Roman society - not by preaching as much as by doing.  I think we may need to head back to that model by necessity in the near future. 

Just wanted to put that out there for some reflection.

"Our task today is to tell people — who no longer know what sin is...no longer see themselves as sinners, and no longer have room for these categories — that Christ died for sins of which they do not think they’re guilty." - David Wells

MF's picture

I think you answered your own question.

You wrote, "What’s the point? The point is that a good neighbor is someone who shows mercy, not someone who seeks to do as little as possible in order to justify himself in his own mind. That’s why Jesus told the parable."

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