The Exodus was the pivotal event in the Hebrew Scriptures. In that act of deliverance God freed the Hebrew slaves from Egyptian bondage. The Exodus became the foundation for Israel’s understanding of God and for their ethical approach to life. Repeatedly the people were told in their tradition that they should treat one another with compassion, justice, and kindness because they were once slaves in Egypt and experienced oppression, cruelty, and want. From that experience they should realize their solidarity with anyone suffering and in need and do what they could to become a liberating blessing to those ground up in the wheels of oppression.
Because of the Exodus, justice became a primary concern within the Jewish faith. The message of Amos, the first classical prophet, was entirely about the lack of justice in Israel. The key verse in the book of Amos is, “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness (a synonym for justice) like an ever-flowing stream.” (Amos 5:24) Every prophet after Amos spoke of the necessity for justice in the life of Israel. Justice was a non-negotiable part of the Jewish faith. Jeremiah even says that to know God is to do justice. [In Jeremiah 22: 15-16 Jeremiah censures King Jehoiakim, who has abandoned the ways of his righteous father Josiah. Jehoiakim is building a new, luxurious palace while many of his subjects languish in poverty. The palace will be paneled with cedar which probably was imported from Lebanon. The prophet says, “Are you a king because you compete in cedar? Did not your father eat and drink and do justice and righteousness? Then it was well with him. He judged the cause of the poor and needy; then it was well. Is not this to know me? says the Lord.”]
But what is justice? Justice in the Bible is not what the king decides or what the courts rule. It is not a matter of the application of rigid laws and rules without consideration of the circumstances in question. Justice is what God wills for the world. The background to the Hebrew word for justice is very instructive. The word in Hebrew is mishpat formed from the verb shaphat. Shaphat means “to deliver.” So, justice is some form of deliverance. Frequently in the Hebrew prophets we find the phrase “to judge the widow and the orphan.” When I was a child and heard those words, I was puzzled. I assumed that by “judge” the texts meant to condemn and punish. I thought it was terribly unfair to condemn and punish a woman who had lost her husband and a child who had lost a father. (The Hebrew word for orphan refers to a child whose father is dead). But, of course, the prophets didn’t mean this at all. What they were saying was that it was the obligation of the Israelite society to deliver the widow and orphan from any oppression and vulnerability resulting from their unfortunate status. To think of “judge” as “deliver” also helps us understand the book of the Bible called “Judges.” Rarely do the judges in that book make judicial decisions or arbitrate disputes. What they all do is “deliver” the people of Israel from their surrounding enemies. Properly understood, the book should be called “Deliverers.”
There are four groups singled out in the Scriptures who need justice (deliverance): the poor, the widow, the orphan, and the stranger. (“The stranger” could also be translated “the alien” or “the immigrant.”) This last category is understandable in a world where anyone outside of their own culture was extremely vulnerable. They were at the mercy of the inhabitants of whatever foreign country they found themselves in. Hospitality for these strangers was a sacred duty for those who claimed the God of the Exodus as their Lord. To violate the stranger was a most serious offence before the Living God.
This concern for the stranger continues in the New Testament. In Matthew 25, the only place where Jesus gives a detailed account of the “Last Judgement,” he identifies with the most needy and vulnerable in society. To one group Jesus offers commendation as he says, “I was a stranger and you took me in.” To another group he offers condemnation when he says, “I was a stranger and you did not take me in.” Jesus is continuing the Exodus tradition of deliverance for all who are in need. He even says that when we take in any stranger, we are taking in him because of his identity and solidarity with the most vulnerable in the world.
I wonder what Jesus would say today to the citizens of the United States as they debate the issue of the aliens/strangers/immigrants. How would he respond? Would he turn them away? Separate children from their parents? Put children in cages? Deny them medical care? Build walls to keep people fleeing from oppression and life-threatening poverty? Would he demonize them by calling them “murderers, rapists, criminals, drug dealers” without a shred of evidence that this is in fact who these people actually are? Would he call them “animals?” Or would he remind his followers of their responsibility to do justice? Would he point out that we are in this country because our ancestors found a home here when they immigrated?
Would he tell us that a large part of the reason these people are seeking sanctuary and a new life is because of the past and present support by the United States of dictatorships and foreign investments which have drained the resources of their homelands and robbed them of any chance of a good life? Would he challenge us to change our foreign policy and greedy exploitation of other countries so that there would be no need for people to leave their homelands and seek a humane life for themselves and their children? Perhaps he would read the inscription at the base of the Statue of Liberty and then read Matthew 25 and ask why we have abandoned the promise we made to be the land of the free and the home of the brave and the promise we Christians made to follow his example? And perhaps he would remind us of the message and warning of Matthew 25: when we reject those most in need, we are rejecting him regardless of what else we may profess about our “Christian” faith.
There is a reference in the New Testament to a wall. It is found in Ephesians 2:14: “For he (Jesus) is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us.” Granted, Paul here is talking about the wall that separated the Jews and the gentiles. But elsewhere he asserts that the ultimate purpose of God is the reconciliation of all people and all things. Such can be done only by breaking down walls of division. Jesus did that 2000 years ago. When we erect walls to divide and demonize others, we turn our backs not only on the mandate for justice we find in the Scriptures. We also crucify Christ afresh as we continue the hostility he came to end. We can build walls or tear them down. It’s our choice. But I think there is no question as to which choice reflects the will of the One we call our Lord.