I invite you to this very important discussion over the next couple of weeks to look at the subject, “Justice for the Poor and Marginalised.” The Bible speaks loud and clear that involuntary poverty is an offense against the goodness of God. It is related in the Bible to powerlessness, for the poor cannot protect themselves. God’s call to rulers is to use their power to defend the poor, not to exploit them. The church must stand with God and the poor against injustice, suffer with them and call on politicians to fulfil their God-appointed role.
When we turn to the Old Testament, there is no better text than what prophet Micah says in Micah 6:8. This passage is a summary of how God wants us to live. To walk humbly with God is to know him intimately and to be attentive to what he desires and loves. And what does that consist of? The text says to “do justice and love mercy,” which seem at first glance to be two different things, but they are not. The term for “mercy” is the Hebrew word Chesedh, God’s unconditional grace and compassion. The word for “justice” is the Hebrew term mishpat. In Micah 6:8, “mishpat puts the emphasis on the action; Chesedh puts it on the attitude (or motive) behind the action.” To walk with God, then, we must do justice, out of merciful love.
The word mishpat in its various forms occurs more than two hundred times in the Hebrew Old Testament. Its most basic meaning is to treat people equitably. So Leviticus 24:22 warns Israel to “have the same mishpat (“rule of law”) for the foreigner as the native.” Mishpat means acquitting or punishing every person on the merits of the case, regardless of race or social status. Anyone who does the same wrong should be given the same penalty. But mishpat means more than just punishment of wrongdoing. It also means to give people their rights. Deuteronomy 18 directs that the priests of the tabernacle should be supported by a certain percentage of the people’s income. This support is described as “the priest’ mishpat,” which means their due or their right. So we read, “Defend the rights of the poor and needy” (Proverbs 31:9). Mishpat, then, is giving people what they are due, whether punishment or protection or care.
This is why, if you look at every place the word is used in the Old Testament, several classes of persons continually come up. Over and over again, mishpat describes taking up the care and cause of widows, orphans, immigrants, and the poor, those who have been called “the quartet of the vulnerable”, “This is what the Lord Almighty says: Administer true justice, show mercy and compassion to one another. Do not oppress the widow or the fatherless, the immigrant or the poor” (Zechariah 7:10-11).
In premodern, agrarian societies, these four groups had no social power. They lived at subsistence level and were only days from starvation if there was any famine, invasion, or even minor social unrest. Today this quartet would be expanded to include the refugee, the migrant worker, the homeless, and many single parents and elderly people.
The mishpat, or justness, of a society, according to the Bible, is evaluated by how it treats these groups. Any neglect shown to the needs of the members of this quartet is not called merely a lack of mercy or charity, but a violation of justice, of mishpat. God loves and defends those with the least economic and social power, and so should we. That is what it means to “do justice.”
Why should we be concerned about the vulnerable ones? It is because God is concerned about them. The Psalmist said, “He executes justice (mishpat) for the oppressed and gives food to the hungry. The Lord sets prisoners free, the Lord gives sight to the blind, he lifts up those who are bowed down, and the Lord loves those who live justly. The Lord watches over the immigrant and sustains the fatherless and the widow, but he frustrates the ways of the wicked (Psalm 146:7-9). A long the same thought the writer of Deuteronomy said, “The Lord your God…defends the cause (mishpat) of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the immigrant, giving him food and clothing (Deuteronomy 10:17-18).
It is striking to see how often God is introduced as the defender of these vulnerable groups. Don’t miss the significance of this. Realise, then, how significant it is that the Biblical writers introduce God as “a father to the fatherless, a defender of widows” (Psalm 68:4-5). This is one of the main things he does in the world. He identifies with the powerless, he takes up their cause.
It is hard for us to understand how revolutionary this was in the ancient world. Sri Lankan scholar Vinoth Ramachandra calls this “scandalous justice.” He writes that in virtually all the ancient cultures of the world, the power of the gods was channelled through and identified with the elites of society, the kings, priests, and military captains, not the outcasts. To oppose the leaders of society, then, was to oppose the gods. “But here, in Israel’s rival vision,” it is not high-ranking males but “the orphan, the widow, and the stranger” with whom Yahweh takes his stand. His power is exercised in history for their empowerment.” So, from ancient times, the God of the Bible stood out from the gods of all other religions as a God on the side of the powerless, and of justice for the poor.
This emphasis in the Bible has led some, like Latin American theologian Gustavo Gutierrez, to speak of God’s “preferential option for the poor.” At first glance this seems to be wrong, especially in light of passages in the Mosaic law that warn against giving any preference to rich or poor (Leviticus 19:15; Deuteronomy 1:16-17). Yet the Bible says that God is the defender of the poor; it never says he is the defender of the rich. And while some texts call for justice for members of the well-off classes as well, the calls to render justice to the poor outnumber such passages by a hundred to one.
Why? Rich people can certainly be treated unjustly, but philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff says it is a simple fact that the lower classes as “not only disproportionately vulnerable to injustice, but usually disproportionately actual victims of injustice. Injustice is not equally distributed. It stands to reason that injustice is easier to perform against people without the money or social status to defend themselves. The poor cannot afford the best legal counsel, as some in our society had experienced. The poor are more often the victim of robbery, one of the most common forms of injustice, and ordinarily law enforcement is much quicker and more thorough in its response to violence against the rich and powerful than against the poor.
Wolterstorff concludes, “One has to decide where the greatest injustice lies and where the greatest vulnerability lies. Other things being equal, one focuses one’s attention on those. In short, since most of the people who are downtrodden by abusive power are those who had little power to begin with, God gives them particular attention and has a special place in his heart for them. The writer of Proverbs said, “Speak up for those who cannot speak up for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute… (Proverbs 31:8).
If God’s character includes a zeal for justice that leads him to have the tenderest love and closest involvement with the socially weak, then what should God’s people be like? They must be people who are likewise passionately concerned for the weak and vulnerable. God injected his concern for justice into the very heart of Israel’s worship and community life with these texts, “Cursed be anyone who withholds the justice due to the immigrants, the fatherless, and the widow. Then all people shall say, “Amen!” (Deuteronomy 27:19; Jeremiah 22:3).
By Rev. Eric D. Maefonea (SWIM)