Click here for a print-friendly version
Justice and the Marginalized
Winter Quarter: Justice, Law, History
Unit 2: God: The Source of Justice
Sunday school lesson for the week of January 30, 2022
By Dr. D. Craig Rikard
Background Scripture: Deuteronomy 24:10-21
Key Scripture (NIV): “
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.” Deuteronomy 24:18
- To recognize the remarkable contribution of the Mosaic Law to today’s call for social and economic justice.
- To recognize the dignity of all who labor.
- To recognize the need to personally ensure the dignity and well-being of all in our human family.
The Mosaic Law consists of three major sections. First, there is the decalogue, or what we call the Ten Commandments. Then there are the social ordinances that govern the way we live in community. Lastly, there are the worship ordinances. Our text today falls in the area of the social ordinances.
The Mosaic Law was truly a gift from God, far superior to the governing documents and requirements of the surrounding nations. Remember, these laws were of great necessity to a new nation living in a hostile polytheistic world. One of the overall purposes of the Law was to set Israel apart from their neighbors. The Mosaic Law distinguished them not only for the just way they were to be governed, but also to draw the world’s attention to Israel’s loving, just God. Israel is to know God’s holy expectation and God’s holy heart through obedience to the Law. Consequently, Israel’s obedience to the Law is to enlighten the world in justice and to draw attention to Israel’s one, true God. Obedience to the Law was therefore a means of living orderly and witnessing.
The world was to see justice and truth in the Mosaic Law. Thus, when we study the various ordinances we are to understand not only their content, but their message and witness as well. Our lesson today offers a two-pronged message. First, when we obey an ordinance we should try diligently to avoid dehumanizing the parties involved. Secondly, we do all in our power to avoid diminishing our loving spirit.
Do Not Diminish the Humanity of Another
The opening section of our text involves our behavior toward those who have borrowed from us. As it is today, ancient Israel lending involved collateral. The one borrowing had to put up something of value to secure the loan. This section of the Mosaic Law is undergirded by personal morality and ethics. The person making the loan should NOT enter the home of the borrower to secure the collateral or pledge.
Why is this stated in the Law? This requirement protects the humanity of the borrower. When a person borrows, it means they are in need. Usually, it is a family in need. It is always difficult to ask another for help. It can make us feel weak or “less than.” Gail, my spouse, and I married during the mid 1970s in the midst of a severe recession. Work was difficult to find, the price of gasoline skyrocketed, and credit was almost impossible to acquire. When we purchased any item on credit, it felt as though we had to plead or beg. It did feel dehumanizing.
Boundaries are important in many facets of life. They are definitely related to our humanity. There is a space that defines us. It distinguishes you and me. There is a space around our family, our home, and other personal places. When someone invades that space without invitation, our sense and protection of self, family, and home is violated. Imagine someone entering your home, uninvited, and taking what they feel is theirs!
Israelites often needed to borrow. Those without had to ask of those who did have. Thus, the two parties did not stand on equal ground. The lender could make the borrower feel “less than” by engaging in actions that reminded them of their lack. In our text, the lender is not to enter their home to secure the collateral. Such a brazen act said to the needy, “I now have the right to enter your home because you are in a position of need.” Imagine putting up a rare sentimental family heirloom because you needed funds just to get you through the month. Imagine that we promise to bring the heirloom to them only to hear, “No, we’ll come to your house, go in, and get it.” Imagine the inhumanity of such an act. How would we feel? Thus, the Law required the lender allow the person to bring the pledge to the lender.
This ordinance related to borrowing continues. We are required, if the person is truly poor, not to keep their pledge as collateral if it creates suffering for the needy family. In our text, the example is used of a poor neighbor who has placed their cloak in the care of the lender. The lender has the option of keeping the cloak until the loan is paid. The lender can use the cold of night to prompt the cold borrower to repay the loan. Again, such action is very dehumanizing. We are asked to let them keep their much-needed security if it helps alleviate the suffering of the poor family. It is one thing to use a cloak as collateral; to use their suffering also as collateral is quite another.
The Mosaic Law, especially here, states the importance of keeping one’s word and promises. If you needed some money to get through a month and I could help, I could lend it. Imagine me asking for some collateral. I just informed you, “I don’t trust your word.” Naturally, in the business world collateral is necessary. However, it still states all people cannot be trusted.
We are never to treat those who struggle as “less than,” or as less than human. The borrower is our brother and sister. We live together as God’s people. It is necessary to borrow money and important to pay back the loan. It is even more necessary to preserve the humanity of our brothers and sisters.
We can lend in ways that do not involve money. I can lend you a hand. Now, do I expect something in return? If so, I created a debt. Lending always means one person is in need and the other has the possession to fill that need. This position in life itself places one in a dominant position. All transactions should be conducted with moral and ethical care. Great lengths should be taken to help preserve the dignity of those hurting.
Can you recall a moment when you needed to borrow from another? How did you feel about borrowing from another? Were you treated with dignity? If you help another, how can you do so in a manner that does not make them feel dehumanized? Jesus helped people in a manner that made them feel important and special; can you give examples?
The request to help people in a humane and loving manner continues in our text as it addresses paying those who work for us. In verse 14 we are pointedly told to “not take advantage of hired worker” who is poor and needy. People who struggle in the depths of financial struggle are often desperate. The employer can take advantage of that desperation, requiring the worker to toil longer and harder. While in college I worked in a mobile home factory. While waiting for a tool to be repaired I overheard two foremen conversing. They needed a worker to perform a task many would consider too demeaning. Adding misery to danger, the worker would need to work past quitting time. One of the foremen asked, “What don’t you ask Larry?” The other foreman answered, “What makes you think he will take it?” The response bothered me. He said, “Because his family is going through a hard time, and he’s desperate.” He intentionally wanted to secure the most desperate person for the task. He wasn’t asking because the person had the desire to work. He asked because he had the worker over the proverbial barrel.
The Law also required that the employee pay the needy worker immediately. Employers could often wait days and weeks before paying a worker. They could dangle the carrot before them, knowing they would keep working. The employer could pay them immediately and their life would change little. However, for a needy worker, having the daily wage in their possession gave them security and hope. If the employer elongated the payments they would gain and the worker suffer. If pay was withheld it could eventually lead to the worker having to ask, perhaps even beg for their wage, further dehumanizing them in their struggle. The Law also makes it a point to treat an Israelite and a foreigner the same. The requirement to treat individuals humanely was not a national law, it was a human law. God indeed is a respecter of persons. Read Acts 10:34-43.
This text may not appear to relate to many of us who do not employ others. However, many people serve us in life. It might be in a department store or at the fire station. As followers of Jesus we must always treat those who work for us, with us, or serve us as ones who are deserving of dignity and respect. It is most remarkable that what is so needed today was addressed in the ancient Mosaic Law.
Have you witnessed desperation in a worker? Have you been a desperate employee? How do you believe a person feels when that desperation is used for the benefit of another? What are the destructive dehumanizing effects of the worker having to take the employee to court for their pay on both parties? What did Jesus life and ministry teach about helping those especially needy, and at times desperate? Most of the miracles in Mark involved desperation on the part of the needful. Read the narrative regarding Bartimaeus in Mark 9. How did the crowd treat Bartimaeus and why? How did Jesus treat him? What do you think are the implications of Jesus question to Bartimaeus “What do you want me to do for you?”
Do Not Diminish Our Loving Spirit
Prior to Christ, God created us with the beautiful capacity to love and care. In Christ our compassion is intensified and our loving reach greatly extended. We are new creatures! Our new life in Christ must be nurtured. As a matter of fact, if it is not nurtured it can become diminished. This ability to diminish one’s loving spirit was also a dynamic in Old Testament faith.
Remember, in ancient Israel, the community was valued over the individual. This desire to preserve the community led to the punishment and even destruction of anyone who threatened their corporate life. Sadly, those related to the threatening individual were also judged and punished. Often this punishment was death.
As in a former lesson, we return to the story of Achan in Joshua 7. He had violated the Mosaic Law by taking items dedicated to idols from a defeated tribe in Canaan. In the end, Achan, his wife, his children, and his livestock were all put to death. In our text the Israelites are called to engage in a more loving response. While it is true that many of the harsh penalties are given in the Law, we must not forget Israel is a new nation living in an old, hostile world. Survival mattered. However, the nation’s survival as a people should never come at the expense of caring about another. There was always a call to protect and preserve the life of others. A people who executed people so easily can quickly grow hard-hearted. All humanity is interconnected. The loss of one affects us, even if that individual is guilty. There were occasions in which the loss of a tribal member was necessary for Israel’s survival and for their understanding that violating God’s Law is a serious matter. However, the continual taking of life, especially the life of the innocent, diminishes the heart of the nation. The surrounding nations often acted in cruelty and devalued life. However, Israel was to live differently. They were to be God’s light in the world, and through their actions they were to reveal God’s heart. They may have started in the same moral and ethical place as the surrounding nations, but their journey with God was moving away from taking life toward giving life.
What do you believe occurs when people engage in destructive behavior repeatedly? What do you believe happens to a community that becomes accustomed to violence? When life is devalued? What do you believe happens to the individual? Do you believe a community can become so judgmental they lose their heart? Can this happen to the individual?
The closing section of our text addresses the contrast between selfishness and sharing. If a man owns an olive orchard, he can go over and over those trees until almost every limb is bare. Naturally, his profit and gain would rise. However, many workers depended upon the “left-overs.” The poor worked, and yet found little joy and serenity. The promise of a tomorrow was not always present. I built a church for a community in a very poor area of a poor country. Many of those helping us had a single week’s wage in their possession, none in a bank. I could only imagine the stress of living on such a tight budget. One injury could leave the worker without bread. Leaving fruit on the trees and grain in the fields was customary for Israel. It added to the bare existence of many.
We live in an age of great debate over wealth. Many in the world asks, “How much does a person need to live when others are hurting?” This is a meaningful and important ethical question. The Bible rarely criticizes those who do well from their labors. However, it does address repeatedly those who gain at the expense of others. We are witnessing the debate in our nation’s political and economic life. However, as Christians we must ensure that we are “sharers.” We are also those who call for economic and social justice for the poor and hurting.
How do you understand this section of the text as it relates to the current cultural and political climate? Can you recognize and hear the debate in your life? Again, it is remarkable that the call to be just, respectful, and caring for all is old, very old. What does this text say to you about your personal sharing? Where do you believe the church can be far more instrumental in helping those who seem to be gleaning from what’s left?
Almighty God, thank you for the relationships that give our life meaning. Thank you for the potential relationships that await us in life. Teach us to “walk in each other’s shoes.” Give us compassionate hearts with open eyes. Grant us the courage needed to establish a just world “as it is in heaven.” In Jesus’ name, Amen.
Dr. D. Craig Rikard is a South Georgia pastor. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org