Social Justice and the Poor (2)

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Today we continue our series on social justice and the poor (for part 1 go here). I have a lot of haphazard thoughts about the subject I could share (and I did some of that last week), but I figure the best approach for your understanding and my learning is to simply look at some of the key texts that frequently come up when talking about social justice and the poor. Texts like Micah 6:8, Isaiah 58, Luke 4, Matthew 25, and others. We’ll start things off with a less ballyhooed, but equally important passage, Leviticus 19:9-18.

Here’s what the text says:

When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap your field right up to its edge, neither shall you gather the gleanings after your harvest. 10 And you shall not strip your vineyard bare, neither shall you gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard. You shall leave them for the poor and for the sojourner: I am the LORD your God. 11 “You shall not steal; you shall not deal falsely; you shall not lie to one another. 12 You shall not swear by my name falsely, and so profane the name of your God: I am the LORD. 13 “You shall not oppress your neighbor or rob him. The wages of a hired servant shall not remain with you all night until the morning. 14 You shall not curse the deaf or put a stumbling block before the blind, but you shall fear your God: I am the LORD. 15 “You shall do no injustice in court. You shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great, but in righteousness shall you judge your neighbor. 16 You shall not go around as a slanderer among your people, and you shall not stand up against the life of your neighbor: I am the LORD. 17 “You shall not hate your brother in your heart, but you shall reason frankly with your neighbor, lest you incur sin because of him. 18 You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the LORD.

The climax to this passage and its overarching theme is found in the last half of verse 18: “you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” As most Christians know, Jesus refers to this as the second great commandment (Matt 22:39; Mark 12:31, 33). Paul and James also saw the command as paradigmatic for the rest of the law (Rom. 13:9; Gal. 5:14; James 2:8). Love, according to the New Resrament, is what we should show to the poor and to everyone else.

I love Leviticus 19 because love here is so concrete. This passage is not flowery. It doesn’t soar to the heavens. People aren’t writing songs about it and playing it at weddings. It is plain and practical. We’ve all heard that you ought to love your neighbor as yourself. Probably 95% of the people in this country agree that loving our neighbor is a good idea. But what does it look like? How do we do it? Verses 9-18 show us.

This passage applies love to five different areas of life, marked off into five sections (9-10, 11-12, 13-14, 15-16, 17-18) by the concluding phrase “I am the Lord.” You might think of these verses as giving five love languages that every Christian must speak. We must love with our possessions, by our words, in our actions, by our judgments, and with our attitudes.

1. Loving others with our possessions (9-10).
These verses quickly summarize the concept of gleaning, leaving some of your harvest remaining in the fields (or on the vines) so that the poor and the sojourner can gather what is left over. As many people have pointed out, the genius of gleaning is that it not only required generosity on the part of the landowner but also industry on the part of the poor. This wasn’t a handout (though there is a place for that too), but an opportunity to work to eat.

Still, we would be wrong to make the gleaning laws nothing but a moral lesson on personal responsibility. The main lesson to be learned is that God’s people were to be generous. The principle for us is this: we must deliberately plan our financial lives so that we have extra left over to give to those in need. Don’t reap to the edge of your fields. And don’t spend all your money on yourself. Think of those who have less than you and let some of your wealth slip through your fingers. In other words, don’t be stingy. Don’t get every last grape off the vine for yourself. Let others benefit from your harvests.

2. Loving others with our words (11-12)
To love is to tell the truth. We see here two contexts where honesty is paramount and sometimes in short supply: in business and in the courts. The first command here is do not steal. But the context suggests that the stealing is taking place by lying, people dealing falsely with each other, as in a business setting. By contrast God’s people love others by telling the truth in their transactions. No cheating scales, weights, or measurements (35-36).

The second scene is in the courtroom. Especially in a day without surveillance cameras or DNA testing or tape recording, everything depended on witnesses. That’s why bearing false witness was such a serious crime in Bible. Someone’s life could literally be ruined by a simple lie. Love–whether for our neighbors or our enemies–demands that we are careful with our words.

3. Loving others by our actions (13-14)
Verse 13 gives the classic and most common example of oppression in the Bible: not giving the agreed upon wage at the agreed upon time. Oppression was not the same as inequality. Oppression occurred when day laborers were hired to work in the fields for the day, and at the end of the day the landowner stiffed them of their wages. This was a serious offense to your neighbor and before God, not least of all because the day’s payment was often literally you daily bread. People depended on this payment to survive.

It was all to easy to cheat workers out of their wages. You could say you didn’t have anything to give. Or you could argue that the work done was shabbily. Or you could simply refuse to pay today, or ever. If the matter was simply one man’s word against another’s, there was little a worker could do to get justice, especially on that day when what the worker needed was to eat, not a legal process.

This is exactly the oppression James refers to in James 5:1-6. The rich, James says, were living in self-indulgent luxury. These were not the sort of riches that they plowed back into the company in order to hire more workers. These riches were the ill-gotten kind. They had kept back by fraud the wages of the laborers. The injustice James rails against is not due to paying a minimum wage or because their was a disparity between rich and poor. The injustice is that the rich had hired help for the harvest, but refused to pay them (v. 4). In a future post I will talk about the New Testament’s earnest warnings to the rich. Please don’t think I am trying to make an apology for self-indulgence. My point is that while injustice is always wrong, the things we label injustice are not always what the Bible has in mind.

The broader principle in these two verses from Leviticus is that God’s people must not take advantage of the weak. Don’t curse the deaf, even if they can’t hear you. Don’t put a stumbling block before the blind, even if they won’t know who did it. God knows. If someone doesn’t know the language in your country, or doesn’t understand the system, or doesn’t have the connections, they should elicit our compassion and generosity, not our desire to make a buck at all costs.

4. Loving others in our judgments (15-16)
Verse 15 is an important verse for establishing the fact that justice in the Bible, at least as far as the courtroom is concerned (but beyond the courtroom too I think), is a fair process, not an equal outcome. “You shall do not injustice in court. You shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great, but in righteousness shall you judge your neighbor.” Again, this does not mean we don’t care when people have less than we do. This doesn’t mean we should be indifferent to the disadvantages many people have in life through no fault of their own. But it means that justice has to do with equal treatment under the law.

Imagine two men from your church have a dispute. A poor man from the church was doing some work at a rich man’s house. The poor man says he was told he would get $10,000 for the job. The rich man claims that he said he would give $10,000 only if the work was done by a certain date, otherwise it would be $5,000. Now the elders have to decide the case. What do you do? Should the worker get $5000 or $10,000? What is justice here? Simple. Justice, according to Leviticus 19:15 means rendering the just verdict. You cannot defer to the great because he will give more to the church if you side with him or because he is more influential in the community. And you can’t in this instance show partiality to the poor man because he could really use the money and the rich man has more than his fair share anyway. Justice is always on the side of the truth and one of the two men is not telling the truth. Charity and generosity and good stewardship are certainly called for in life. But here justice means doing what is fair, not making things the way we think they should be.

My contention, and I am willing to prove myself wrong as I work through several other texts, is that social justice in the Bible is not an achieved result but equal treatment and a fair process. No bribes. No backroom deals. No slanderous judgments. No breaking your promises. No taking advantage of the weak. That’s what the Bible means by social justice. Ideally, justice is blind. That’s why Lady Justice on our courthouses has her eyes covered. That’s why the U.S. Supreme Court building has inscribed on it the words “Equal Justice Under Law.” Justice means there is one law for everyone, not different rules for different kinds of people.

5. Loving others in our attitude (17-18)
Love is concrete, but it is also affective. “You shall not hate your brother in your heart.” It’s not enough to be polite on the outside and full of rage on the inside. If we are angry with our brother we should “reason frankly” with him and try to work things out. The bottom line is love as you would want to be loved. We are responsible not just to treat our neighbors rightly, but to take the necessary steps so that our hearts can feel rightly toward them as well.

So in the end this great commandment to love your neighbor as yourself–this commandment quoted in the New Testament more than any other–boils down to five very elementary, everyday, ordinary commands: share, tell the truth, don’t take advantage of the weak, be fair, talk it out. Simpler than some of us thought. But still easier said than done.

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