The prophets of the Old Testament saw the needs of people. Seeing the lack of instruction and desperate need of redemption from oppression, they became mouthpieces for the God who sees. An unfortunate condition of the poor and outcast is their invisibility. Author Christopher Wright says the poor are both invisible and inaudible—but not to the God of Israel.
Israel’s ethical response to poverty is intimately connected with their religious worldview and assumptions to fundamental concerns. Their identity as God’s chosen people indispensably shaped their response to challenges such as what is wrong with humanity and how it can be corrected.
God commanded Israel to offer provision for the poor. They were directed to not cast judgment (see Exodus 23:6), leave a remnant of harvest to feed them (Ex. 23:32), offer assistance (Deut. 15:7,11) and speak on their behalf (Prov. 31:8-9). Within the Hebrew Bible, there are multiple examples of Israel receiving the same instructions for both the poor and stranger in the land. (For instructions about immigrants, see Leviticus 19:10, 23:22, 25:35, Ezek. 22:29, and Zech. 7:10).
Israel was directed to remember their roots as the oppressed strangers in the land and to look after the poor, the afflicted, the fatherless, the widow and the stranger. Israel eventually was blessed and became the conduit for blessings to extend to other nations.
Though Israel was the covenant people selected by God to receive His blessing, they were not exempt from experiencing the same poverty and landlessness in which they were instructed to show generosity for. The land played an integral role in Israel’s understanding of its relationship with God. The occupation and blessings of land were conditional upon Israel’s obedience to God.
This occupation of land, or lack thereof, was a direct symptom of the nation’s moral slide. The most noteworthy period of this landlessness was the Babylonian captivity. It was in Babylon that Israel found itself dangerously exposed and vulnerable to losing their cultic traditions. It was in this immersion of Babylonian culture and religious miscellany that Israel found a way to preserve its own mythos and ethos.
This narrative became relevant to an exiled community that was poised to reenter the land, but was itself landless. Propelled by theological intentionality, the narratives and traditions of the Pentateuch took shape as ongoing relevant material to those of both Jewish and Christian faiths.
Israel had a monumental responsibility in its relationship and service to Yahweh. It was ambitiously charged with the assignment to be a holy nation. As a result, members of this formulating faith community took it upon themselves to identify with the law of their God. It became intrinsic to their identity as a nation.
As they possessed this knowledge, they prepared a means of instruction in which they could train each member of their nation. As they continued to produce children, they determined a means by which their children could be taught the laws of their God. Finally, if they are commanded to train the foreign nations surrounding them, then they had to formulate a means to do so.
The Old Testament provides incredible insight into Israel’s means of teaching. Without fail, aural instruction was consistently combined with something visual—such as the twelve stones that were set up at the base of Mount Sinai as a monument.
As a result of their relationship with God, Israel adopted a means for teaching the generations to come as well as those who lived among them. The audience of the Mosaic Covenant was undeniably responsible for not only obeying the established laws, but was also held responsible for future generations and resident aliens who lived among them to know and obey these laws.
Thus, they had to be educated. Neglecting to do so would bring destructive consequences as demonstrated throughout the book of Judges. The blessing extended to Israel was also extended to the landless who lived among them. One of Israel’s responses to the poor was to teach them about Yahweh so they could experience the blessing that comes from obedience to His law.
It is thus argued that one means of social justice is religious education. This principle of a lack of religious training and direct correlation of oppression and poverty is also recorded in Jeremiah and Malachi. As the imminent threat of attack looms over Judah, Yahweh addresses the nation through Jeremiah. They are rebuked and indicted that even the religious leaders have failed to teach God’s laws (see Jeremiah 2:8).
Malachi 2:7 records a warning to the priests to teach and preserve the knowledge of the acts of Yahweh. The prophets repeatedly reminded Israel that God hears the cries of the poor and the oppressed; He sees social injustice and holds them accountable.
As with Israel, the modern Church is also accountable for how we respond to the poor and oppressed. Addressing immediate physical needs is important. But if we stop there, we foolishly overlook our responsibility to teach. As we recite memorized scripture or give a short sermonette on God’s love, we overlook one of the most powerful means of relating to one another.
It is the testimony of the people that compels the strangers in the land. It is the unimaginable testimony and powerful reflection of reminding people when you saw God move, felt His healing touch, and experienced His interaction that others become hungry to experience the same.
We must learn to see those who are invisible, the poor and the outcast. However, as I reflected deeply on identifying the poor in the land and attempting to define, “Who are they?” I realized my own flawed presupposition. The poor is not a they. It is we.
Israel is blessed with the purpose of being infused with the mission to bring the good news of God’s redemption to those around them. They were the landless people unexpectedly called upon to bring about God’s missional intent.
When I classify the poor as “them,” I miss my place in God’s redemption. I am the outcast; I am the cussing fisherman. I am the Samaritan and the Gentile. I am the untouchable leper. Yet, I am born again; I have been grafted in.
Today I am redeemed and forgiven. I have been made in the image of God. It is now my responsibility to carry this testimony. I am set free. I am healed.
When you see those who are in need, may you also remember your testimony. God interacts. Though he Himself is invisible, His interaction with humanity is not.
Just as the Israelites preserved symbols or memorials to maintain their memory of their testimony, it is our responsibility to remember God’s acts of grace in our own lives and convey our testimony to those who are poor and oppressed.
This article was first published in Encourage magazine.