Justice and God's Shared Identity with the Poor

"'Among my people are wicked men who lie in wait like men who snare birds and like those who set traps to catch men. Like cages full of birds, their houses are full of deceit; they have become rich and powerful and have grown fat and sleek. Their evil deeds have no limit; they do not judge with justice the case of the fatherless to win it, they do not defend the rights of the poor. Should I not punish them for this?' declares the LORD. 'Should I not avenge myself on such a nation as this?'" Jeremiah 5:26-29
There are at least a couple interesting points in this passage. First of all is its' definition of justice. By our ideals, justice is impartial, oblivious to the need of one or another, completely objective, and not on anyone's side. Lady justice wears her blindfold so that whether you are rich or poor doesn't matter, what matters is only if you've done something wrong and are thus worthy of punishment. The presupposition we carry is that it is possible to be objective. But Jeremiah doesn't seem to carry such a presupposition. For Jeremiah, justice does indeed take sides, it is not blind, but stands with the cause of the fatherless and in defense of the poor. Justice is proactive in seeking out the poor and the fatherless. Justice does not stand blindly in wait for someone to bring the case before her, for injustice to be brought to her doorstep. In Isaiah 1:17 it says, "learn to do right! Seek justice, encourage the oppressed. Defend the cause of the fatherless, plead the case of the widow." Here too, seeking justice is directly connected to defending the oppressed. We lose this essential and direct connection when we start defining justice as God's obligation to punish sin rather than his compassionate covenant to bring restoration and true reconciliation between oppressor and oppressed.

Another interesting point is something we don't usually talk about when discussing the Old Testament--God's solidarity with the poor and the oppressed. Matthew 25 being the key chapter on the subject, we more often notice God's companionship and shared identity with the "least of these" through Jesus in the New Testament. But that shared identity was not new in Jesus (though one could say it was renewed). Here in the Old Testament God says, "Should I not avenge myself on such a nation as this?" Avenge himself, does he say? Has he been wronged? What is God avenging himself for? "They do not judge with justice the case of the fatherless to win it, they do not defend the rights of the poor." For their mistreatment of the poor, God says he must avenge himself. Here we see that God's solidarity and shared identity with the poor has been part of the plan since long before Jesus stepped on the scene and said "whatever you do for the least of these, you've done it for me."

Another example from an even earlier date is in Isaiah 1:21-24:
"See how the faithful city has become a harlot! She once was full of justice; righteousness used to dwell in her—-but now murderers! Your silver has become dross, your choice wine is diluted with water. Your rulers are rebels, companions of thieves; they all love bribes and chase after gifts. They do not defend the cause of the fatherless; the widow's case does not come before them. Therefore the Lord, the LORD Almighty, the Mighty One of Israel, declares: 'Ah, I will get relief from my foes and avenge myself on my enemies...'"
God says he'll seek "relief from [his] foes and avenge [himself] on [his] enemies." But again, for what? "They do not defend the cause of the fatherless; the widow's case does not come before them." God takes oppression very seriously. God doesn't see himself as an outsider, a wealthy bystander ready to stick up for poor others. God sees himself as one with those others... his own identity is caught up with the identity of poor and oppressed people. Therefore God's liberating love, as well as his identity, is always on its' way to the poor. When Israel confuses this reality and starts thinking that God only cares about them, God rebukes them and reminds them that they're not God's people so that he can give them more wealth than all the other folks in the world and so that they can only look inwardly but they are his people so that they can be a "kingdom of priests and a holy nation" (exodus 19:6) so that "and all peoples on earth will be blessed through [Israel]" (genesis 12:3). Being the People of God means being the means through which God's desires for the world become reality. It means reflecting God's image and living in the world as God rules over the world--with grace, justice, and a passionate solidarity with the oppressed. For whatever you are doing for the least of these, for the poor and the oppressed, whether it be liberating them or mistreating them, you're doing it for the God of the universe.


Green4Earth said…
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