Speak out for those who cannot speak, for the rights of all the destitute. Defend the rights of the poor and needy. —Proverbs 31:8-9
How terrible it will be for those who make unfair laws, and those who write laws that make life hard for people. They are not fair to the poor, and they rob my people of their rights. They allow people to steal from widows and to take from orphans what really belongs to them. —Isaiah 10:1-2
Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? If you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday. —Isaiah 58:6-10
Two central themes run through the Bible concerning justice. The first is God's all-encompassing love, concern, and mercy for all human beings. The second is our responsibility to love God's earth and to care for God's people.
God placed Adam and Eve in the garden and instructed them to care for it. In the story of Cain and Abel, God sent the clear message that we are, indeed, our brother's and sister's keeper. In the tradition of the exodus from Egypt, we learn of God's compassionate response to misery, oppression, and slavery. God's law not only calls for individual piety but also communal responsibility for the well-being of all.
God never asks us to love only those with whom we are intimately acquainted, but instead a more difficult love is required. Over and over, the law instructs Israelites to remember the stranger, the foreigner, the orphan and the widow those most vulnerable to hunger and poverty and ties this instruction to the exodus.
Look at Deuteronomy:
When you gather your crops and fail to bring in some of the grain that you have cut, do not go back for it; it is to be left for the foreigners, orphans, and widows. . . . When you have gathered your grapes once, do not go back over the vines a second time; the grapes that are left are for the foreigners, orphans and widows. Never forget that you were slaves in Egypt; that is why I have given you this command. (24:19-22)
Other laws provided for sharing one-tenth of the harvest with immigrants, orphans and widows (Deuteronomy 14:28-29), for lending at no interest to those in need (Exodus 22:25), and for the cancellation of debts every seventh year (Deuteronomy 15:1-2, 7-11). Every fiftieth year was to be a Year of Jubilee during which property was to be returned to the family of the original owner. The intent of this law, which may never have been carried out, was to prevent the concentration of wealth and make sure that each family had the means to feed itself.
The prophets, too, insisted on justice for everyone. Amos, for example, denounced those who trampled on the needy and destroyed the poor in order to gain wealth. He railed against those who lived in luxury while the poor were being crushed. The prophets' main judgments were leveled against idolatry and social injustice. The living God insists on personal morality and social justice, while idols offer prosperity without social responsibility.
The Psalms invite us to celebrate God's justice.
God always keeps promises; God judges in favor of the oppressed and gives food to the hungry. (146:6-7) Happy are those who are concerned for the poor; the Lord will help them when they are in trouble. (41:1 TEV)
The wisdom literature in the Old Testament expresses the same theme, as these texts from Proverbs indicate:
If you refuse to listen to the cry of the poor, your own cry will not be heard. (21:13) Speak out for those who cannot speak, for the rights of all the destitute. Defend the rights of the poor and needy. (31:8-9)
Concern for poor, hungry and vulnerable people is pervasive in the Hebrew Scriptures. It flows directly from the revelation of God through the rescue of an enslaved people.
Jesus: Our model of love, peace, and justice
The justice ethic of Jesus is built upon the foundation of Hebrew Scriptures. Yet, as Christians, our understanding of liberation emerges from the divine act of salvation the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Because "the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world" conquered sin and death for us, we are forgiven, reconciled to God, born anew to be imitators of God, called to sacrificial love for others. Through the gift of eternal life, Jesus sets us free to make the doing of good our purpose in life (Ephesians 2:8-10).
The example of Jesus is our guide and inspiration. He had a special sense of mission to poor and oppressed people evidence that, in him, the messianic promises were being fulfilled. At the outset of his ministry, Jesus stood up in the synagogue at Nazareth and read from the prophet Isaiah:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor. (Luke 4:18-19)
The gospels depict Jesus repeatedly reaching out to those at the bottom of the social pyramid--poor people, women, Samaritans, lepers, children, prostitutes and tax collectors. Jesus was also eager to accept people who were well-placed, but he made clear that all, regardless of social position, needed to repent. For this reason, he invited the rich young lawyer to sell all of his possessions and give the proceeds to the poor.
Jesus expanded the traditional meaning of the word "neighbor"—defining our neighbor as anyone who is in need including social outcasts. (Luke 10:25-37) Moreover, Jesus calls us to love not only our neighbors but also our enemies. (Matthew 5:44)
In his portrayal of the day of judgment, Jesus pictured people from all nations gathered before him. To the "sheep" he says, "Come you blessed of my Father, for I was hungry and you fed me. . . ." In their astonishment they ask, "When did we do that?" And he answers, "When you did it to the lowliest of my brothers (and sisters)." Conversely, to the "goats" he says, "Out of my sight, you who are condemned, for I was hungry and you did not feed me. . . ." (Matthew 25:31-46, paraphrased)
Clearly, in both Old and New Testaments the intention of God that all people find a place at the table is combined with a responsibility on our part for those who are most vulnerable, those most often kept from the table. This intention flows from the heart of God, who reaches out in love to all of us--rich, poor and in between.
Advocating for justice
Churches are already doing a lot to take care of needy people directly through charity work. By one estimate, religious congregations give $7 billion each year (about one-seventh of their total revenue) to people in need (New York Times, 1995). But Christians devote much less effort to influencing what governments do.
God, however, requires both charity and justice, and justice can often be achieved only through the mechanism of government. The view that nations, as well as individuals, will be judged by the way they treat the weakest and most vulnerable among them is deeply embedded in the witness of prophets such as Isaiah, who said:
How terrible it will be for those who make unfair laws,and those who write laws that make life hard for people. They are not fair to the poor, and they rob my people of their rights. They allow people to steal from widows and to take from orphans what really belongs to them. (Isaiah 10:1-2)
Jesus criticized and disobeyed laws when they got in the way of helping people. He healed people on the sabbath, for example, even though all work was prohibited on the sabbath. Religion and government were intermixed, so Jesus was challenging the law of the land. The threat Jesus posed to both religious and political authorities led to his crucifixion. Government is not the only or always the best instrument to deal with injustice. But it is one of the institutions created by God part of God's providence for the welfare of people. Because we live in a democracy, a nation with a government "of the people," we have a special privilege and responsibility to use the power of our citizenship to promote public justice and reduce hunger.
Compiled and edited by the Rev. J. Bennett Guess, UCC Justice and Witness Ministries, with adapted selections from Grace At the Table: Ending Hunger in God's World, written by David Beckmann and Art Simon for Bread for the World (1999: Paulist Press and Intervarsity Press) Used with permission.