For if you truly amend your ways and your doings, if you truly act justly one with another, if you do not oppress the alien, the orphan, and the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not go after other gods to your own hurt, then I will dwell with you in this place, in the land that I gave of old to your ancestors forever and ever. [Jeremiah 7:5-7]
One of the consistent themes that runs through both the Old and New Testaments is God’s concern for the widow, the orphan, and the stranger. Many of the Old Testament prophets measure the nation of Israel by how widows, orphans, and foreigners are treated. Jeremiah is no exception.
In the time of the prophets, becoming a widow was the fate most feared by a woman. To be a widow was to have no power, no social standing. It was a world of, and for, and run by men. Women could only be represented legally by men. Women could only be defended socially by men. They were people with no means of support. They didn’t own property. They usually didn’t have any way to earn money. They were people on welfare – living off handouts from society or family.
When a woman’s husband died, she could go back to her own family – if they would pay for her. Otherwise she would have to stay with her husband’s family, and was usually given very low and humiliating jobs. She was an extra burden on them. Therefore a widow’s whole life is dependent upon the grace of other people.
God keeps a special watch over the vulnerable of society – and we should do the same. These people can only have a good and safe life if others help. God’s direction is very clear to those with means, that a change of attitude is in order if the people of Israel are to live in peace and prosperity in the land which God provided for them.
What matters to God, is the quality of the people’s relationships, especially with those who are poor and marginalized. God identifies with those who suffer under overbearing and unjust structures. The Temple does not offer special privilege to one whose ethics are deficient.
A significant part of our response to God’s love, and the blessings, spiritual and material that are showered upon us, is that we share God’s concern for those that are vulnerable in our midst. And it is not only about how much we give to the poor, but it is also about how we make our money.
Everything in our economic system generates wealth only at the expense of something or someone else.
Right now there’s a bitter debate among our nation’s legislators over a federal minimum wage.
On a global scale, we exploit the resources of the world, especially of impoverished nations, in order to have our goods delivered to us cheaply, or to increase the profit margins. I have some very principled friends who will not shop at Wal-Mart for that very reason. I admit that it is difficult not to go in, especially when you can buy something for a few dollars less than the name brand store down the street.
To be clear, I am not saying don’t shop at Wal-Mart or any other discount store for that matter. But ponder this thought when you enter any place to shop: Where are their products manufactured? Does the employee earn a living wage? Do they have adequate benefits, such as health care?
You can expand these questions even further as it relates to your own material wealth.
- Do you invest in companies who make money by lending at high rates of interest to those who can’t afford it?
- Do you invest in concerns that profit from the misfortune of others, either when they are sick or grieving?
- Do you even know what holdings your mutual funds have or who they might be exploiting?
If we gave any thought to these concerns, the words of the prophet Jeremiah would get very personal for many people very quickly.
Despite the severity of their tone, Jeremiah’s words serve to teach us about commitment to relationship, the kind of commitment to which Christ continually calls and recalls us – a commitment of self, with a passion that becomes the power of Christ’s kingdom breaking into our lives in this time and in this place.
Lent is good time to ponder how to live our life more faithfully in obedience to God’s commands, namely, to love God with all your heart and your neighbor as yourself. It does make a difference in how we live and act, as individuals, as a society, and as a worshipping community.
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