1 Thess 1:5-10
Since last week at this time there has been a dismaying increase in the ranks of widows, orphans, undocumented immigrants, grieving parents, and frightened people everywhere – not just because of the Ebola virus scourging west Africa, but because of shootings and violence right here in our cities and towns. Today’s readings are a sobering reminder that God looks on these who suffer from illness and violence and oppressive governments with a merciful eye…and expects a lot of us who claim to be Christian when doing something is paramount. Hand-wringing is not enough. Fences along porous borders are not the solution, either. They are part of the problem, whether fences of steel and wire or fences of policy.
Enter Jesus. But not alone. His compassion for widows, orphans, and refugees was rooted in one of the most pervasive traditions of his people.
The obligation to show mercy and justice to widows, orphans, and refugees, the resident aliens in the land, is one of the first and most pressing of all the duties God enjoined on Israel as part of the covenant. They were the most vulnerable of all the people, for they lacked both defenders and economic security. Today as well, widows, orphans, and refugees are frequently denied the exercise of the most basic human rights. Jesus was particularly sensitive to their situation, and often seemed to go out of his way to assist or defend them. Widows, the most vulnerable of all, figure prominently in many of his parables.
Today’s first reading from the book of Exodus contains the earliest mention of the obligation to tend to the needs of the poor – from the second book in the Bible. God tells the Israelites in plain words,
“You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. You shall not afflict any widow or orphan. If you do afflict them, and they cry out to me, I will surely hear their cry; and my wrath will burn, and I will kill you with the sword, and your wives shall become widows and your children fatherless.” [Exodus 22:21-24.]
The last we hear of them in the Hebrew Scriptures is in the concluding work of the Hebrew Bible, the Book of: Malachi:
“Then I will draw near to you for judgment; I will be a swift witness against the sorcerers, against the adulterers, against those who swear falsely, against those who oppress the hireling in his wages, the widow and the orphan, against those who thrust aside the sojourner, and do not fear me, says the LORD of hosts.” [Malachi 3:5]
From the beginning to the end of Scripture, care for the widow, the stranger, and the resident alien in the land – the refugee, the migrant worker – is a constant theme. The command is repeated seven times in the Book of Deuteronomy, in language just as strong: “For the LORD your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great, the mighty, and the terrible God, who is not partial and takes no bribe. He executes justice for the fatherless and the widow, and loves the sojourner, giving him food and clothing.” [Deut. 10:17-18.]
Relevant to our own season of plenty, one of the most important of these passages has to do with the harvest, the remains of which are to be left for the poor: “When you reap your harvest in your field, and have forgotten a sheaf in the field, you shall not go back to get it; it shall be for the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow; that the LORD your God may bless you in all the work of your hands. When you beat your olive trees, you shall not go over the boughs again; it shall be for the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow. When you gather the grapes of your vineyard, you shall not glean it afterward; it shall be for the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow.” [Deut. 24:19-21]
The Christian scriptures are no less insistent. Jesus continually shows himself to be exceptionally sensitive to widows and orphans, to their needs as well as their hope and generosity, as when he praises the widow who puts her two mites in the Temple treasury, or spectacularly when out of compassion, he raises the to life the dead son of the widow of Nain.
If we haven’t got the point by now, we never will. The measure of our justice is exactly how we provide for those in want and need. Still, we hear the same message over and over from the prophets, the Psalms, and the Wisdom tradition. It is a message that bears repeating. And we probably need reminding.
St. Paul tells us that we are to be models for all believers, imitators of him as he imitated Christ. And in the gospel reading, Jesus simply reminds us that next to wholehearted love of God, love for our neighbor is the greatest of all the commandments. Not just tender feelings, but active, energetic care expressed in concrete works of mercy and justice
At the very least, let us hope — and surely pray – that we may never be among those who abuse the powerless, desperate, and vulnerable, especially by the visiting the horrors of modern warfare upon the defenseless, among whom are the widows, orphans, and refugees of Syria, Iraq, and now the poverty-stricken countries of west Africa. May we learn to wage peace with as much energy as we resort to war. I suspect that God has a keen interest in how well we succeed.