When we think of laws, we typically things in terms of legality. But when we think of commands, the sense becomes one of obedience or disobedience. Even though we obey laws, and there can be civil disobedience, we still don’t think of commands in terms of legal or illegal, only obedience and disobedience.
This section of Exodus has changed. It changed prior to this, around verse 18, but it was subtle, and the real change becomes obvious here, in verses 21 through 24. This feels more like the Ten Commandments, especially the first four:
“You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. You shall not afflict any widow or orphan. If you afflict him at all, and if he does cry out to Me, I will surely hear his cry; and My anger will be kindled, and I will kill you with the sword, and your wives shall become widows and your children fatherless.Exodus 22:21-24 NASB
It’s a command with an explanation, and then an added penalty. The penalty isn’t from the “elders”, or a court, the penalty is a promise of God of harm to disobedient. Ordinarily, we like promises of God. We make books of them, meditate on them, and pray them, as if they give us control over God. But do we include these sorts of promises, the ones that bring a curse upon the disobedient?
Sojourners, widows, and the fatherless (orphans) are the three primary classes of powerless people in Israel. They were powerless, so God takes up their cause. They are unable to defend themselves, so God defends them. They have no resources, so God becomes their resource. Or that is how it is supposed to work. In our day, those preying on the disadvantaged are many, and take many forms. One of the worst categories is made up of drug dealers. The epidemic of drug use among homeless people is guaranteed to keep them homeless and powerless.
But there are other classes of powerless people. There are children who are among the most vulnerable. There are those who suffer with emotional and mental problems. And there are those who have so compounded the mistakes in their lives, they see no hope, the hopeless. All of these classes of powerless people have enormous vulnerabilities, and each of them are plagued by our society, our culture, and many of us. The answer to these problems aren’t obvious, easy, or quick. Therefore many simply avoid them.
But the battle isn’t just for these people, it’s against their oppressors. And their oppressors can seem very powerful, they can seem right or just. Their oppressors can be those who believe they are trying to help. The problem isn’t solved by physical changes, although those help. The problem is spiritual, and ultimately is the same problem we all have, separation from our Creator. To fix that, they need what we need, our Savior.
It may be, that the good news of a Savior can’t get through the noise of their physical or emotional need. So, those do need to be addressed, as part of the process of delivering the message of Jesus as their Savior. And then, addressing those needs has to continue as they learn about life with Jesus as their Savior. This is part of the reason Jesus created churches, to meet these needs as He did in His ministry, to see people as He saw them, and have compassion as He had, and still has.
This “law” or commandment is still valid today, as is the curse for disobedience. The phrase, so popular in the middle of the 20th Century is still true, “There, but for the grace of God, go I”. Those oppressing the disadvantaged will become them, eventually. It’s a promise of our Creator. Even it that’s not us, we still need to take steps to join with our Savior in reaching out to them.
Scripture quotations taken from the NASB. Copyright by The Lockman Foundation
I have long struggled with out attempt at honoring this command, at least here in the US. Prior to FDR we, as the people of God, worked to care for those in need through our churches (some more successful than others). Then the welfare system was created and we, for the most part, stopped. Are we fulfilling this command by paying taxes into a system that (rather poorly) does the job that we, as people, were commanded to do, or are we shirking our responsibilities?
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Great question. I don’t think disciples of Jesus can rely on the government of any nation to substitute for what our Savior designated to His church. I also believe we have, and not just for the care for the poor either.
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