October 26, 2014
First Reading: Exodus 22:20-26
Actions speak louder than words. We can say all sorts of things about how much we love God or how faithful we are to him, but unless our hands and feet follow what our mouths are saying, it’s just hot air. Nobody likes a hypocrite, which is why people always challenge those who speak boldly moral words to back them up with the right actions. Here in this Sunday’s first reading from Exodus 22, the Lord challenges his people to live up to their covenant commitments to him in one of the seemingly mundane aspects of daily life: how to treat the less fortunate people around you.
This passage falls within a legal section that contains laws on miscellaneous topics—everything from ox-goring to the death penalty to how to celebrate religious festivals. Notably, these rules about social justice, how to justly interact with one’s less fortunate neighbors, comes in this legal context. Social justice is not an extrinsic add-on to obedience to God, but an integrated component of our life of faith. The way we treat the “least” among us is a function of our internal moral coherence, our dedication to God.
The vocabulary of our reading might jump out as bizarre—I mean, whoever thought you’d even have the opportunity to oppress a little green man—but the point is profound. The Lord warns us not to oppress “aliens” or migrants. The Hebrew word is ger, which is usually translated as “sojourner.” A ger is a person who is not a native in the place he dwells. Being a sojourner in the ancient Near East would be tough, since the economics of life were tied up in social relationships. Survival itself would be a challenge for non-natives who might not be attached to a household and certainly would not have clan or kinship ties to support them in difficult times. One drought or one famine might be enough to finish you off if you didn’t have friends and family willing to help you.
Abraham himself was a sojourner for most of his life (see Gen 23:4). And here, the Lord reminds the Israelites that they too were sojourners in Egypt (this passage almost immediately follows the giving of the Ten Commandments, so he’s referring the recent past). Remembering their own story should stir up compassion in their hearts and help them realize that when they have the power in the relationship, they should never abuse it. Compassion is difficult because it involves an orientation toward the other, a looking out from ourselves rather than just looking out for ourselves. Recalling our own difficult times, especially times when others were generous with us in our need, can help us remember to be generous with those in need.
Widows and Orphans
Many times in the Bible, three groups are linked: the sojourner, the orphan and the widow (e.g., Deut 24:19ff, Ps 146:9, Jer 7:6). All three of these groups would be cut off from the household structure of the ancient world that would give economic stability of life. There was no social safety net, government program, or charitable work that would “catch” these people falling through the fissures in the fabric of society. Instead, they were often condemned to a life of begging, inconsistent work, and even gleaning the fields of others for scraps of grain (Lev 19:10). It would be very easy for those who have a stable life to mistreat these unfortunate people, who are trying to scrape by. God forbids “afflicting” them, a term often used to describe slavery (Gen 15:13), imprisonment (Ps 105:18), and even rape (Lam 5:11).
God attaches a serious threat to this commandment against “affliction”: death! It is very tempting for the comfortable to exploit the vulnerable, so the Lord warns that he will hear the cry of the vulnerable against their oppressors. He will respond with serious and complete vengeance, with wrath and sword, against those who oppress the sojourner, widow, or orphan. The gravity of the punishment matches the gravity of the crime. God takes our behavior toward vulnerable people seriously and exacts justice when necessary. While full divine retribution is often on a time-delay until judgment after death that should not allow oppressors to rest easy: punishment after death is just as serious as the punishment of death.
Lending, Interest, and Collateral
Exodus 22:25 specifically forbids loaning money at interest. For centuries, the Church forbade loaning money at interest except under limited circumstances, partially based on this passage. Now, it is important to note that the passage only forbids collecting interest from a fellow Israelite who is poor: “any of my people with you who is poor” (RSV). We’re not talking about venture capital to build an innovative iPhone app or technological gadget, nor is this a luxury loan to get a boat or a Rolex, but a subsistence loan. The money lent would probably be used to buy food, grain, or even seed to make to the next season. Poor ancient Israelites would be trying to get their feet back under them to establish a sustainable household. Indeed, the passage refers to the practice of taking a person’s cloak, their single costly outer garment as collateral for a loan. The cloak was like the car of the ancient near East. Most people only had one and you would wear it every day, almost all the time, even sleep in it. The passage permits taking a cloak as collateral, but only until sunset.
God does not want people to profit off the misfortune of the poor. Rather, money loaned to a poor should be used to help bring them out of poverty. That is why he forbids the exaction of interest in this case. There is a long and complex history of Church rulings against different forms of usury, mainly highlighting the idea that a creditor should not receive more than he has loaned. When money is gold coins in your pocket, this principle is easy to apply, but the monetary system has changed dramatically so the Church’s approach has shifted. The principle underlying the ban on interest-taking remain, but the nature of money has changed. Since money can earn interest in a bank, bond, CD, stock, or mutual fund, the possession of money as such is no longer static. Loaning money to another person bears a real opportunity cost since it could have been invested elsewhere. Loaning modern-day money—ours is called a “debt note” on its face—at interest does not violate the Church’s teaching on usury unless the rate of interest charged is extortionate.
Exodus 22 places justice to the poor and less fortunate at the heart of what it means to be faithful to God’s covenant. The way we treat the vulnerable flows directly from the genuineness of our love for God. The Lord does not want stingy followers who clench their fists at the sight of the poor, but men and women with generous hearts, willing to give, to help, to loan. While we can’t single-handedly end poverty or misfortune, we can allow our hearts be attuned to hear the cry of the poor and reach out to help the people we encounter. Maybe our actions can reflect our words.
image: Christian Bertrand / Shutterstock.com