Why the Quartet of the Vulnerable?: insights on justice by Nicholas Wolterstorff

Reginald Marsh - downtrodden masses

As I prepared my message on the prophet Amos this past weekend at Eastbrook, I read widely and returned to some material I had read years before. Here is an insightful piece form Nicholas Wolterstorff‘s fantastic book, Justice: Rights and Wrongs.

A striking feature of how the Old Testament writers talk about justice is the frequency with which they connect justice, both primary and rectifying, with the treatment of widows, orphans, resident aliens, and the poor. Alike in the presentation of the original legal code, in the accusations by the prophets of violations of the code, and in the complaints of the psalmist about violations, some or all of the members of this quartet regularly get special attention when justice, mishpat, is under discussion.

In Deuteronomy 24:17 Moses enjoins the people, “You shall not deprive the resident alien or an orphan of justice; you shall not take a widow’s garment in pledge” (cf. Exodus 22:21-22). In Deuteronomy 27:19 the priests call out, in a ritualized cursing cermony, “Cursed by anyone who deprives the alien, the orphan, and the widow of justice,” to which the people say, “Amen.” In Isaiah 1:17, Isaiah of Jerusalem says:

Seek justice,
rescue the oppressed,
defend the orphan,
plead for the widow.

And in 10:1-2 (a passage already quoted) he excoriates those

who make iniquitous decrees,
who write oppressive statues,
to turn aside the needy from justice,
and to robe the poor of my people of their right,
that widows may be your spoil,
and that you may make the orphans your prey!

The theme is too pervasive in these writings, and too familiar by now to most readers, to need further elaboration.

The widows, the orphans, the resident aliens, and the impoverished were the bottom ones, the low ones, the lowly. That is how Israel’s writers spoke of them. Given their position at the bottom of the social hierarchy, they were especially vulnerable to being treated with injustice. They were downtrodden, as our older English translations nicely put it. The rich and the powerful put them down, tread on them, trampled them. Rendering justice to them is often described as “lifting them up.”

The prophets and the psalmist do not argue the case that alleviating the plight of the lowly is required by justice. They assume it. When they speak of God’s justice, when they enjoin their hearers to practice justice, when they complain to God about the absence of justice, they take for granted that justice requires alleviating the plight of the lowly. They save their breath for urging their readers to actually practice justice to the quartet of the vulnerable low ones.

[Nicholas Wolterstorff, Justice: Rights and Wrongs (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008), 75-76.]

Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

I originally wrote the following blog post in 2011 as a series of reflections on Leviticus while reading through the Bible in a year. I’m re-posting it today because it fits the themes I’ve been writing about in terms of Leviticus and displaced people.


 

neighborWhen I grew up, I spent a lot of time watching Mr. Rogers. I’m not sure why, but there was something about the songs, sweaters, and shoes that just kept me coming back for more. Mr. Rogers loved to ask that simple question day after day for his riveted little television audience: “Won’t you be my neighbor?”

In the Bible, we find the theme of being a neighbor all over the place, even if it is a bit more serious than Mr. Rogers. When Jesus is asked what the most important commandment in all of the Hebrew Bible is, He answers by saying that we are to love God with all of who we are and that we are to love our neighbor as ourselves (Mark 12:28-34). Jesus’ summary statement ties together two commands: love of God and love of neighbor. Like with a coin, they are two sides to the same law of love.

The commandment to love God is fairly easy to grasp. Jesus draws from the celebrated Hebrew shema found in Deuteronomy 6. The shema is an identity marker for the Jewish people, in which they are called to worship and adhere to God alone.

The second half of Jesus’ words, however, comes from the often neglected book of Leviticus. In the midst of instructions about rituals, guidelines about annual ceremonies and festivals, and list upon list of what to eat and not to eat, we find these powerful words: “love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord” (Leviticus 19:18). Leading up to this statement, all sorts of relational situations are mentioned: stealing, lying, partiality in justice for the poor or the wealthy, slandering others, seeking revenge because of a grudge, making life difficult for the blind or deaf, and more.  Into the midst of many real life situations, God is saying that the ideal of loving our neighbor must be worked out in every social arena. It is our response to who God is. How we love others matters to God.

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God of the Displaced Ones. part 2

This past weekend, I concluded both Eastbrook’s Missions Fest as well as our series “God in Blank Spaces.” Building off of Jenny Yang‘s message on the global situation of displaced people the previous weekend, I continued the theme of God’s mission amongst the displaced people of the world.

My approach to this topic, however, was to engage more deeply with the theme verses chosen for the week from Leviticus 19:33-34:

When a foreigner resides among you in your land, do not mistreat them. The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the Lord your God.

I sought to provide an overview of the book of Leviticus and its vital role in our own faith today as the New Testament people of God. In particular I focused on Leviticus’s theme of holiness, giving attention to four aspects of holiness that we must grasp clearly:

  1. God makes His people holy.
  2. God is making His people holy.
  3. Holiness is personal in nature.
  4. Holiness is relational in nature.

Here is the video and sermon outline of my message, “God of the Displaced Ones, part two.”

You can follow the entire series at our web-site, through the Eastbrook app, or through our audio podcast.

 

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We’ll Leave the Light On (discussion questions)

Here are the discussion questions that accompany my message at Eastbrook Church this past weekend, “We’ll Leave the Light On: Becoming a Radically Welcoming Church.”

Discussion Questions:

1. This week at Eastbrook Church, we conclude our “Pave the Way” series with a look at hospitality. When have you experienced such deep hospitality that the welcome touched your soul?

2. Explore the following Scripture passages and discuss the role that hospitality plays in Jesus’ ministry and teaching: