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Justice and the Bible

(From Grace at the Table: Ending Hunger in God's World, by David Beckmann and Art Simon. Published by Paulist Press and InterVarsity Press. Copyright 1999 by Bread for the World Institute.)

Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free,and to break every yoke?

If you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday.

?Isaiah 58:6 & 10 (NRSV)

What the Old Testament says about hunger and poverty

Two main themes run through the Bible concerning hunger. The first is God's providence. The second is our responsibility to take care of the earth and one another. Both themes reflect the will of God that everyone be adequately fed.
These themes emerge in the very first pages of the Old Testament or Hebrew scriptures, when God places Adam and Eve in a lush garden with an abundance of food and tells them to replenish the earth and take care of it. The subsequent account of Cain murdering his brother Abel sends the clear message from God that we are our brother's and sister's keeper.

Both themes?God's providence and our responsibility for one another?emerge dramatically in the exodus from Egypt. God's liberation of the Hebrew people from slavery echoes through the entire Old Testament, informing its faith and its ethical instruction. The exodus experience shaped the laws, informed the prophets and became deeply embedded in worship by the Hebrew people.
Over and over the law instructs Israelites to remember the foreigner (i.e., the immigrant), the orphan and the widow?those most vulnerable to hunger and poverty?and ties this instruction to the exodus. Look at Deuteronomy:
When you gather your crops and fail to bring in some of the grain that you have cut, do not go back for it; it is to be left for the foreigners, orphans, and widows. . . . When you have gathered your grapes once, do not go back over the vines a second time; the grapes that are left are for the foreigners, orphans and widows. Never forget that you were slaves in Egypt; that is why I have given you this command. (24:19-22 TEV)

Other laws provided for sharing one-tenth of the harvest with immigrants, orphans and widows (Dt 14:28-29), for lending at no interest to those in need (Ex 22:25), and for the cancellation of debts every seventh year (Dt 15:1-2, 7-11). Every fiftieth year was to be a Year of Jubilee during which property was to be returned to the family of the original owner. The intent of this law, which may never have been carried out, was to prevent the concentration of wealth and make sure that each family had the means to feed itself.
What Old Testament says about justice

The prophets, too, insisted on justice for everyone. Amos, for example, denounced those who trampled on the needy and destroyed the poor in order to gain wealth. He railed against those who lived in luxury while the poor were being crushed.

The prophets' main judgments were leveled against idolatry and social injustice. The living God insists on personal morality and social justice, while idols offer fertility and prosperity without social responsibility.
The Psalms (the hymns of ancient Israel) invite us to celebrate God's justice.
[God] always keeps his promises;

he judges in favor of the oppressed
and gives food to the hungry. (146:6-7 TEV)

Happy are those who are concerned for the poor;
the Lord will help them when they are in trouble. (41:1 TEV)

The wisdom literature in the Old Testament expresses the same theme, as these texts from Proverbs indicate:

If you refuse to listen to the cry of the poor,
your own cry will not be heard. (21:13 TEV)

Speak out for those who cannot speak,
for the rights of all the destitute.
[D]efend the rights of the poor and needy. (31:8-9 TEV)

Concern for poor, hungry and vulnerable people is pervasive in the Hebrew Scriptures. It flows directly from the revelation of God through the rescue of an enslaved people.

Themes in the New Testament

The New Testament ethic builds on the Hebrew Scriptures. Its teachings emerge from a divine act of salvation?the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Because 'the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world' conquered sin and death for us, we are forgiven, reconciled to God, born anew to be imitators of God, called to sacrificial love for others. Through the gift of eternal life, Jesus sets us free to make the doing of good our purpose in life (Eph 2:8-10).

The nature of the good we are to do is not left in doubt, for we have the example of Jesus himself. He had a special sense of mission to poor and oppressed people?evidence that, in him, the messianic promises were being fulfilled. At the outset of his ministry, Jesus stood up in the synagogue at Nazareth and read from the prophet Isaiah:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor. (Lk 4:18-19)

The gospels depict Jesus repeatedly reaching out to those at the bottom of the social pyramid--poor people, women, Samaritans, lepers, children, prostitutes and tax collectors. Jesus was also eager to accept people who were well-placed, but he made clear that all, regardless of social position, needed to repent. For this reason he invited the rich young lawyer to sell all of his possessions and give the proceeds to the poor.

In his portrayal of the day of judgment, Jesus pictured people from all nations gathered before him. To the 'sheep' he says, 'Come you blessed of my Father, for I was hungry and you fed me. . . .' In their astonishment they ask, 'When did we do that?' And he answers, 'When you did it to the lowliest of my brothers (and sisters).' Conversely, to the 'goats' he says, 'Out of my sight, you who are condemned, for I was hungry and you did not feed me. . . .' (Mt 25:31-46, paraphrased)

Clearly, in both Old and New Testaments the intention of God that all people find a place at the table is combined with a responsibility on our part for those who are most vulnerable, those most often kept from the table. This intention flows from the heart of God, who reaches out in love to all of us--rich, poor and in between.

What Scripture says about advocacy

Churches are already doing a lot to take care of hungry people directly through charity work. By one estimate, religious congregations give $7 billion each year (about one-seventh of their total revenue) to people in need (New York Times, 3 February 1995). But Christians devote much less effort to influencing what governments do.

God, however, requires both charity and justice, and justice can often be achieved only through the mechanism of government. The view that nations, as well as individuals, will be judged by the way they treat the weakest and most vulnerable among them is deeply embedded in the witness of prophets such as Isaiah, who said:

How terrible it will be for those who make unfair laws,
and those who write laws that make life hard for people.
They are not fair to the poor,
and they rob my people of their rights.
They allow people to steal from widows
and to take from orphans what really belongs to them. (Is 10:1-2 NCV)

Jesus criticized and disobeyed laws when they got in the way of helping people. He healed people on the sabbath, for example, even though all work was prohibited on the sabbath. Religion and government were intermixed, so Jesus was challenging the law of the land. The threat Jesus posed to both religious and political authorities led to his crucifixion.

Government is not the only or always the best instrument to deal with hunger. But it is one of the institutions created by God?part of God's providence?for the welfare of people. Because we live in a democracy, a nation with a government 'of the people,' we have a special privilege and responsibility to use the power of our citizenship to promote public justice and reduce hunger.