Justice and Mercy

I really enjoy reading the works of Liberation Theologians from Latin America. Although I don’t always agree with their points of view, especially when it comes to radical violence and revolution for the sake of governmental overthrow and “justice,” I love how they remind us that God is concerned with more than just my small, narrow-minded worldview. And I use narrow minded in the best possible way… But I am limited by my own life experiences. I cannot “walk a mile in someone else’s shoes,” no matter how hard I might try. The best I can do is to start to see the other as a true person, one who is loved by God and important to him; in that way, I can learn to “love my neighbor” and, therefore, demonstrate my love more fully to God.

God has “a preferential option for the poor…” – Gustavo Gutierrez

These theologians challenge us to go back to both the Old and New Testaments and discover what God has to say about poverty. They refer to the idea of “God’s preferential option for the poor,” that God is attuned more closely to the cries of the ignored and the oppressed. And at first that strikes us solidly, because it sounds outrageous! But as we look through the OT we realize that God has a lot to say about the people on the margins: the poor, the widow, the orphan, and the foreigner living among them. God saw these individuals as important, so much so that he dedicates large portions of his Covenant and Law to ways to treat these people: gleaning from the fields; sacrifices for the poor; etc. God often tied these ideas back to their own marginalization in their history: As you do these things, remember that you were once slaves in Egypt, and I am the LORD your God who led you up out of Egypt and out of slavery.

Their compassion grew from their memory: remember who you were, and let that shape who you are today.

“[The LORD] defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the immigrant, giving him food and clothing. And you are to love those who are immigrants, for you yourselves were aliens in Egypt…” – Deut. 10:18-19

God told them to free their slaves after a time, because they were once slaves in Egypt themselves. And don’t just give them freedom, but bless them with food and necessities in abundance when they depart. (Deut. 15:12-15).

The way that they treated the poor, their children, and the marginalized was to be different because of they former status as slaves. As God states, “Do not deprive the foreigner or the fatherless of justice, or take the cloak of the widow as a pledge. Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and the Lord your God redeemed you from there. That is why I command you to do this.” (Deut. 24:10-18)

And when you are harvesting your fields, don’t worry about getting it all. If you drop a sheaf, leave it for the poor Don’t harvest to the edges, but leave those for the poor. Trust that God will take care of you, for he led you up out of Egypt: “When you are harvesting in your field and you overlook a sheaf, do not go back to get it.Leave it for the foreigner, the fatherless and the widow, so that the Lord your God may bless you in all the work of your hands. When you beat the olives from your trees, do not go over the branches a second time. Leave what remains for the foreigner, the fatherless and the widow. When you harvest the grapes in your vineyard, do not go over the vines again. Leave what remains for the foreigner, the fatherless and the widow. Remember that you were slaves in Egypt. That is why I command you to do this.” (Deut. 24:19-22)

The way they treated the marginalized was a direct reflection on their remembrance of their history. It was a reminder that, although they might not be poor or marginalized themselves, they understand that position as a people, and it makes them more empathetic. With this memory they can learn to see the poor not as lesser, but as equals.

Caring for the poor also a direct reflection on their faith. God cares about these people; will you do any less?

Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and the Lord your God redeemed you from there. That is why I command you to do this. – Deut. 24:18, 22

The New Testament makes similar claims, as we will see later this week in a separate blog. But when Jesus describes his mission, he does so in terms of taking care of the marginalized. When he talks about how God will separate believers, it is in terms of who takes care of those looked down upon by society. When James talks about pure religion, he starts with “taking care of widows and orphans in their distress.” For God, the way we care for the poor is a direct reflection of what we believe.

The Liberation Theologians wonder how we can miss it? Partly it is the fact that we have two words where they only have one (at least, in Spanish.) We translate the ideas of “justice” and “righteousness” separately, whereas there is only one term in Spanish: justicia, “right living that does right to all.” We could do with a reminder that RIGHTEOUSNESS isn’t just about our spiritual lives. It isn’t confined to our daily devotionals or Sunday worship. Instead, it is about a totality of life. Righteous living is about doing what is right towards everyone, regardless of whether it is popular or fun or beneficial.

This week we begin a new series: “More than Just Sundays.” We will look at the book of Micah and its place in our faith. What does it mean to be a people who “act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly”? That is our task over the course of the next month: to discover what Micah’s message might mean for us.

“If there is no friendship with them [the poor] and no sharing of the life of the poor, then there is no authentic commitment to liberation, because love exists only among equals.” – Gustavo Gutierrez