Thus says the LORD:
"You shall not molest or oppress an alien,
for you were once aliens yourselves in the land of Egypt.
You shall not wrong any widow or orphan.
If ever you wrong them and they cry out to me,
I will surely hear their cry.
My wrath will flare up, and I will kill you with the sword;
then your own wives will be widows, and your children orphans.
"If you lend money to one of your poor neighbors among my people,
you shall not act like an extortioner toward him
by demanding interest from him.
If you take your neighbor's cloak as a pledge,
you shall return it to him before sunset;
for this cloak of his is the only covering he has for his body.
What else has he to sleep in?
If he cries out to me, I will hear him; for I am compassionate."
Brothers and sisters:
You know what sort of people we were among you for your sake.
And you became imitators of us and of the Lord,
receiving the word in great affliction, with joy from the
so that you became a model for all the believers
in Macedonia and in Achaia.
For from you the word of the Lord has sounded forth
not only in Macedonia and in Achaia,
but in every place your faith in God has gone forth,
so that we have no need to say anything.
For they themselves openly declare about us
what sort of reception we had among you,
and how you turned to God from idols
to serve the living and true God
and to await his Son from heaven,
whom he raised from the dead,
Jesus, who delivers us from the coming wrath.
When the Pharisees heard that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees,
they gathered together, and one of them,
a scholar of the law tested him by asking,
commandment in the law is the greatest?"
He said to him,
"You shall love the Lord, your God,
with all your heart,
with all your soul,
and with all your mind.
This is the greatest and the first commandment.
The second is like it:
You shall love your neighbor as yourself.
The whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments."
Biblical followers of God are known not only by how they relate to God, but also by how they relate to others. They do so from a completely different perspective than those who do not share their faith.
Ken Burns’ PBS series on the Roosevelts pointed out how each of these three persons dramatically changed how the United States government related to its citizens. Coming from a concept of government which basically stayed out of the way of individuals, permitting them to rise or fall according to their own talents and industriousness, Theodore, Franklin, and Eleanor approached politics with the conviction that government should also help those who, through no fault of their own, found themselves in dire straits. Franklin especially pushed through legislation which guaranteed such now-accepted programs as social security, unemployment insurance, union recognition, maximum working hours and minimum wage. By 1940, our government was involved in areas no one could have foreseen just 50 years earlier. Not only were people being permitted to become what they wished to become, they were actually being helped to become what they wished to become.
In many ways, our American government became what our sacred authors presumed every authentic follower of God should become: a person who would daily give themselves for all around them. Even when the Jewish monarchy came into existence during the last part of the 11th century, BCE, its kings were quite unlike their pagan counterparts. The latter were normally chosen because they guaranteed security for the powerful. Jewish kings, on the contrary, were chosen to help the powerless. They were expected to defend the rights of those who couldn’t defend themselves.
The great Hans Walter Wolff frequently reminded us that there were three groups of people who could knock on the palace door 24/7, and the king was obligated to grant them an audience: widows, orphans and resident aliens. Jewish kings knew that one of the main reasons Yahweh put them on the throne was to champion their rights in a world in which many people ran roughshod over them.
These are the same three categories of people mentioned in today’s Exodus pericope. How Yahweh’s people deal with the helpless is how the ancient Israelites expected Yahweh to deal with them. “If (the poor man) cries out to me,” Yahweh declares, “I will hear him; for I am compassionate.” Those who follow God are presumed to imitate God.
The reform which the historical Jesus preached was rooted in the same idea of social justice as our Exodus passage. Not only are his followers to love Yahweh, (their) God, they’re also to love their neighbor as themselves. As we hear in today’s gospel, Matthew’s Jesus takes for granted that our love of one another concretely demonstrates our love of God. “The whole law and the prophets (the biblical way of talking about the bible) depend on these two commandments.”
Having referenced the Roosevelts above, there’s a significant line in our I Thessalonians reading. Paul reminds his readers that they initially “received the word in great affliction.” Though we don’t know exactly to what he’s referring, it’s important that from that point of suffering they committed themselves to imitate Jesus’ dying and rising. On several occasions during the 7 part series, Burns asked some well-known historians if T.R., F.D.R., and Eleanor would have accomplished what they accomplished if each hadn’t undergone great physical and/or psychological pain at some point of their lives. The consensus was, “No.” It was their suffering which most made them conscious of the suffering of others.
It’s only when we’re helpless that the helpless enter our field of vision.
Loving others always make us helpless. It’s the one action which is guaranteed to give us the same perspective on others that Jesus of Nazareth had.