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 in a vague, amorphous way 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 vague, generic way to society at large. He implies James is issuing a call to mercy ministries in the context of evangelism:

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’.

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

This is all true, but it isn’t what James meant. That passage, and others like it, don’t teach this, at all. 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, many Christians haven’t read Leviticus. Clearly, it was written for believers! 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.

Deuteronomy 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.

Deuteronomy 24:17-18

This speaks for itself, and so does the audience.

One of the condemnations the prophet Ezekiel brought against 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.

Ezekiel 22:7

Read the entire paragraph for context, but his 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 is 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.

Zechariah 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.

James 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?”

Luke 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.

Against a “Social Justice” Interpretation of the Gospels

stopIt’s common in conservative Christian congregations to hear a lot of talk about how we ought to help the poor, the downtrodden, the homeless and the disadvantaged. These are all worthy goals, as long as we always keep one thing in mind:

Christian social activism is a means to Jesus’ Good News, not the Good News itself.

This is not a subtle distinction; it’s vital. Consider this:

  • If a Christian congregation (or para-church organization) provides money and food to the poor, or shelter, food and aid to the homeless (etc., etc.) without also preaching, teaching, explaining and applying the Gospel in a persuasive, winsome and loving way … then all you’re doing is ensuring these people go to hell with a bit more money, food and shelter than they’d otherwise have.

Social programs are vehicles for the Gospel. They aren’t the Gospel. They’re the practical outworking of a desire to bring the Good News of perfect forgiveness, redemption, reconciliation and adoption into God’s family and coming kingdom to this present evil age.

I’m not sure all Christians really understand this distinction. Many times, they appeal to the Scriptures to support their social programs. Unfortunately, I believe they interpret some of these passages incorrectly. I believe most of this is due to a wrong-headed understanding of Christ’s Kingdom, and (in some quarters) a startling ignorance of the context of the various prophetic passages which speak of the peace, justice, righteousness and “social justice” which will characterize Christ’s reign here on earth.

But, all that is a story for another time – to the passage!

Wrongly dividing the word

Many Christians appeal to Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount to support this social ethic. I want to gently push back on this. However, because I don’t have the time or energy to tackle the Sermon on the Mount, I’m going to use John the Baptist’s sermon beside the Jordan River as my text.[1]

John fulfills prophesy

John the Baptist came on the scene to prepare the Israelite people to receive their Messiah. The Gospel of Luke tells us “he went into all the region about the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. As it is written in the book of the words of Isaiah the prophet …” (Lk 3:3-4).

Luke went on to quote a passage from Isaiah 40:3-5, which explains that a special messenger will prepare the way for Yahweh to return. Once He does return, Yahweh will lead His people from captivity back to the Promised Land (Isa 40:6-11). That messenger was John the Baptist, who the prophet Malachi told us Yahweh would send before the terrible day of judgment (Mal 4).

So far, so good. John is the fulfillment. He’s the guy Isaiah and Malachi promised would come. And, this is exactly how the Gospel of Mark starts out, too.

John was preaching to old covenant members, not strangers

Here is what you have to keep in mind, and it’s something many Christians seem to forget all about – John came to preach to Old Covenant Israelites.

Why should you care about this? Well, the Old Covenant wasn’t only composed of believers – it was a mixed covenant:

covenant

If an Israelite boy was born to proud parents in Capernaum, then he’d be circumcised as an external sign that he’s a member of, and heir to, the Old Covenant promises. Then, he’ll (hopefully) be brought up to know, trust, love and believe in Yahweh for salvation. His parents will teach him about Yahweh’s grace, love, mercy and kindness (cf. Deut 6:20-25). Hopefully, this boy will grow into a young man who loves Yahweh with all his heart, soul and might (Deut 6:5).

Here’s the problem – not every little boy and girl grew up to know, love, trust and believe in Yahweh for salvation. Some did; some didn’t. Those who didn’t either left the Israelite community entirely, or perhaps “played along” by following the rituals, ceremonies and observing the prescribed festivals in a rote, mindless and empty fashion.

The Old Covenant was a mixed multitude. The New Covenant is not.

You have to understand that John the Baptist was preaching to Old Covenant members, and he was calling them to be faithful to the Old Covenant law, to prepare their hearts, minds and souls to receive the Messiah – whose ministry was just about to begin.

Why should you care?

Because John wasn’t preaching to homeless strangers on freeway off-ramps, or to inner-city families who didn’t have enough money to make ends meet. He was preaching to fellow covenant members. This means, if you want to import this text (and John’s commands for right behavior) into today’s New Covenant context, then the only direct parallel is to believers. This doesn’t mean Christians shouldn’t care about the poor or the homeless; it just means they shouldn’t use these texts to justify social programs. The context won’t allow it.

John preaches to the people

Here is his opening salvo:

He said therefore to the multitudes that came out to be baptized by him,

“You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits that befit repentance, and do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire,” (Lk 3:7-9).

This is fairly simple, but profound. The Gospel of Mark tells us that “there went out to him all the country of Judea, and all the people of Jerusalem,” (Mk 1:5). This was some crowd!

John began by insulting them, striking right at the heart of the legalistic approach to the law so many of them had. He called them a group of snakes. He told them they had to prove their repentance; an outward, pious “show” wouldn’t do it. They couldn’t count on their Israelite blood, because that had never guaranteed anything. Remember the chart, above – at best being born an Israelite (i.e. Tier #1) meant you’d hear about Yahweh and His mercy and grace, so hopefully you’d become a believer (i.e. Tier #2).

So, the natural question is – what should these folks do, then? What kind of fruit is John looking for?

And the multitudes asked him, “What then shall we do?” (Lk 3:10).

Good question. Let’s see …

And he answered them, “He who has two coats, let him share with him who has none; and he who has food, let him do likewise,” (Lk 3:11).

The most basic expression of real love for God (Deut 6:5) is to love your fellow covenant member just as much as you love yourself (compare Mk 12:28-34). What does this look like, then, at a practical level? Well, it could look like a lot of things, but one good example is to provide clothing and food to folks who don’t have any.

On to the next group:

Tax collectors also came to be baptized, and said to him, “Teacher, what shall we do?” And he said to them, “Collect no more than is appointed you,” (Lk 3:12-13).

Israelite tax collectors shouldn’t defraud other Israelites. Sounds simple, right?

Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what shall we do?” And he said to them, “Rob no one by violence or by false accusation, and be content with your wages,” (Lk 3:14).

Jewish soldiers shouldn’t abuse their power and positional authority, and shouldn’t steal.

The answer is pretty simple – he’s looking for them to actually obey and follow the Old Covenant law out of a pure heart. He’s telling them to put the law into practice in their own contexts, in everyday life, starting right now. 

Basically, that means loving your neighbor as yourself (see Mk 12:31; Lev 19:18, 34). And, remember, the context of this Old Covenant command was for Israelites and foreign Gentiles who had, in some form or fashion, joined the Old Covenant community. These commands have always been for Covenant people, and also for those on the way to likely becoming part of this community.

John’s preaching is right in line with the Old Testament prophets who pleaded with Israel to return to the Lord and live faithfully:

Her officials within her
are roaring lions;
her judges are evening wolves
that leave nothing till the morning (Zeph 3:3)

The prophet Zephaniah wrote an entire book, where he recorded his own sermons against this kind of externalism. He paints a picture of moral corruption at the highest levels of society in the Southern Kingdom.

Her prophets are wanton,
faithless men;
her priests profane what is sacred,
they do violence to the law (Zeph 3:4)

Yahweh, however, is a stark contrast to their treachery:

The LORD within her is righteous,
he does no wrong;
every morning he shows forth his justice,
each dawn he does not fail;
but the unjust knows no shame (Zeph 3:5)

This message, and John the Baptist’s preaching, is an indictment against this kind of fake “faith.” John’s sermon (and Jesus’ own commands from the Sermon on the Mount) aren’t a manifesto for Christians to sally forth and provide food and shelter or the homeless. It’s a call for God’s true people to return to covenant faithfulness, which means doing what His word says, because we love Him.

“I have cut off nations;
their battlements are in ruins;
I have laid waste their streets
so that none walks in them;
their cities have been made desolate,
without a man, without an inhabitant.
I said, ‘Surely she will fear me,
she will accept correction;
she will not lose sight
of all that I have enjoined upon her.’
But all the more they were eager
to make all their deeds corrupt,” (Zech 3:6-7).

This is the true context of John’s message; a call for God’s people to “prepare the way of the Lord” and “make his paths straight” (Lk 3:4; cf. Isa 40:3) so they’ll be ready for Yahweh to lead them back from exile.

Rightly dividing the word

So, what should Christians do with John the Baptist’s message, today? How do we translate this to a modern context? Well, you have to remember the original context, and accurately translate it to a New Covenant context:

  • John was preaching to Old Covenant Israelites, and calling them to repent and actually live according to the law out of a pure heart.
  • John’s commands for ethical behavior must be understood in that context; he’s telling Jews how to live according to the law out of a pure heart, and he agrees with Jesus that the most basic fruit of love for God is to love your fellow covenant members.
  • So, John is teaching them to show love for one another, according to their own particular context, while they wait for the Messiah to show Himself.

So far, so good – but what about right now?

  • In a New Covenant context for today, we’d direct this message to Christians in a local church. We’d call them to repent and actually live according to God’s Word out of a pure heart.
  • The most basic fruit of love for God is to love your fellow covenant members. The New Covenant only has one tier (see the chart, above), and this means you show your love for God by loving the brethren in your congregation most of all (see 1 Pet 1:22 – 2:3)
  • So, we should use John the Baptist’s message to teach Christians to show love for one another according to our own particular contexts, while we wait for the Messiah to return.

Does this mean we shouldn’t feed the homeless, or help the poor? Heavens, no! It just means these passages don’t teach that. These social programs are good and fine, but they’re nothing more than vehicles for the Gospel. The Good News is all that matters, and we can deliver it in many, many ways. Social programs are one way, but they aren’t the only way.

Notes

[1] Make no mistake, the Sermon on the Mount issue is “complicated,” and it would take a great deal of time to address the topic well. I don’t have that time. My only goal here is to sound a note of caution about a default “social justice” interpretation of the ethical commands in John the Baptist’s preaching, and (by extension) Jesus’ own preaching.