Wednesday, June 10, 2020
And it shall come to pass afterward, that I will pour out my spirit upon all flesh; and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, your young men shall see visions: And also upon the servants and upon the handmaids in those days will I pour out my spirit.- Joel 2:28,29
When I read the Prophets for the first time, long, long ago, I noticed that their books were not filled mostly with predictions; I had thought they would be, and saw quickly that such is not the case. They contained predictions as part of the content of prophecy; I paid special attention to those predictive prophecies that were directly foretelling the coming of Christ. But, the role of the prophet was not to act like some kind of fortune teller; it was to be the mouth of God. I also noticed that a very large portion of their prophecy, indeed, the largest content of certain prophets, especially Amos, was to speak directly about justice and injustice to the poor. Through them God spoke to the conscience of fallen men.
The word translated “justice” is also translated “righteousness.” The word is Tsadakah (צְדָקָה). In the novel, The Chosen, by Chaim Potok, the old Rabbi who led his people to the
accepts the decision of his son not to follow in his footsteps, but to become a
psychologist. From the 1982 movie version, I can still hear Rod Steiger as the
Rabbi, saying, “So, become a psychologist already. When you go into the world
you go as a Jew, and you keep the commandments of a Jew. My son is a Tsadok, he is a righteous man; and the
world needs a righteous man. It is good.” United States
The prophets of the Old Testament, therefore, spoke the word of God directly about justice or righteousness. They cried out mostly against two evils: Idolatry and injustice to the poor. We cannot know what they sounded like, except that often the scriptures say they “cried out.” Indeed, it is difficult to imagine much of their words spoken without passion. Jeremiah tried to hold God’s word inside him, but found he could not.
“Then I said, I will not make mention of him, nor speak any more in his name. But his word was in mine heart as a burning fire shut up in my bones, and I was weary with forbearing, and I could not stay.” Jer. 20:9
So, when they spoke passionately about justice, what did it mean? To modern Americans the working definition of “justice” is often limited to punitive measures taken by the authorities. But, the prophets spoke of justice/righteousness as the same thing, and as on behalf of the poor, the widow, the orphan, those imprisoned (rightly or wrongly, it doesn’t specify) and the stranger from a foreign land. Where else do we see those categories, but in the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats?
“…Then shall the righteous answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, and fed thee? or thirsty, and gave thee drink? When saw we thee a stranger, and took thee in? or naked, and clothed thee? Or when saw we thee sick, or in prison, and came unto thee? And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me…Then shall they also answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, or athirst, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and did not minister unto thee? Then shall he answer them, saying, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye did it not to one of the least of these, ye did it not to me….” (See Matthew 25:34-46)
Look again at the Old Testament, this time the words of Isaiah.
“Woe unto them that decree unrighteous decrees, and that write grievousness which they have prescribed; To turn aside the needy from judgment, and to take away the right from the poor of my people, that widows may be their prey, and that they may rob the fatherless! And what will ye do in the day of visitation, and in the desolation which shall come from far? to whom will ye flee for help? and where will ye leave your glory? Without me they shall bow down under the prisoners, and they shall fall under the slain. For all this his anger is not turned away, but his hand is stretched out still.” Isa. 10:1-4
What is meant by “the right” of the poor in that passage? For people living by the Torah, in ancient
many commandments answer the question. To begin with, freedom from debt and
help with the circumstances caused by poverty. This was the Law in Deuteronomy
chapter 15. It included the foreigner who came as a refugee (Deut. 10:19).
There are other similar passages in the Law of Moses, and those commandments
obligated the people to open their hands in generosity to the poor. Israel
It is of interest that in the modern
the poor have certain rights prescribed by our laws. But many years of
experience with the poor on the frontlines, so to speak, has taught me that they
are denied even those rights by an impersonal and uncaring system locking them
in endless appeals if they are disabled. What is required by law to take place
as quickly as possible instead drags on for years. I have known people to die
while living in the stressful anxiety of trying to get their rights to a basic
income and some kind of healthcare, all of which is denied them for a long
time. It is also clearly observable to me, having worked many years as a legal/medical
investigator, and now as a priest finding that I continue to serve the poor as
what seems an inescapable calling, and that when I bring up the rights of the
needy, and the obligation of Christians not to turn a blind eye to their needs,
but to open their hands, that my fellow believers, more often than not, hear
and respond in love as they are able. It is good, and beautiful to behold. United States
But, this does not mean that the Church - which in real life is the local church trying to get by on a budget - can take the place of the Social Security Administration or of Social Services. It is not possible, and never has been possible. Unfortunately, like so many issues of morality and justice, care for the poor cannot be wholly divorced from politics. So it is, that some people argue that we should not be taxed to care for the disabled; that the church would do a better job. How unrealistic that is. Most of our local parishes and missions cannot do much more than we are doing, helping the poor members of our own churches as well as helping poor strangers who come to us and ask in times of need.
But, if you swallow an ideological reason not to be generous, such as blaming all poverty on the people who have been trapped in it, or perhaps some misguided Libertarian objection to taxation, the chances are very good that you also will not give a penny to a starving family. You might give a thousand dollars for something like a stain glassed window; but you would never give a penny to the poor. Or so I have observed. The same people who argue that the church, instead of government, should shoulder the burden of feeding, housing and providing medical care to the poor who cannot make ends meet on their own, would never contribute for that purpose themselves, even if the whole idea was not a complete fantasy to begin with. And, it is a fantasy. Churches simply do not have that kind of money.
One thing of which you can be certain is that the Church, from the Day of Pentecost forward, is the modern home of prophecy. It was Peter, on Pentecost, who quoted those words of Joel that I have placed at the heading of this article. What does that mean for us? It means that the Church must be the voice of moral guidance, and that the clergy (among whom are Apostles, Prophets, Evangelists, Pastors and Teachers - Eph. 4:11) need to speak directly and with moral clarity. Just as we must speak on other issues of justice and morality, such as the Divine requirement that we protect innocent life in the womb, just as we teach people how to live morally in a true marriage rather than to give license to the flesh, so we also must be willing to pick up the mantle in those words, “I will pour out my spirit upon all flesh; and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, your young men shall see visions.”
That means we cannot escape all that is meant by that powerful word in the vocabulary of the prophets, Tsadokah – justice that is also righteousness. If you find yourself always or by impulse to be on the side of the rich and powerful, or if you find yourself supporting a system or program or ideology or party that denies the right of the poor and needy, you had better pay attention to the Bible much more than you have before: Hear the word of the Lord. You see, this is about a sin we often ignore. You cannot escape guilt if you turn a blind eye to the needy. Moral issues often spill over into politics; that is the nature of things. It is for the Church, led vocally by the clergy, to provide moral guidance with clarity. The old Rabbi was right: The world needs a righteous man. Who, if not followers of the Son of Man?