1 Thess 1:5-10
After weeks of parables about vineyards and harvest banquets, and last week’s Good news about hard decisions regarding competing loyalties, the mood of the readings is turning to ultimate matters. Winter is coming, and with it Advent. I suspect that we could all use a little downtime after the ordeals of the last couple of months… hurricanes, earthquakes, train wrecks, mass shootings and assassinations, the migrations and suffering of refugees and the poor in Yemen, Myanmar, Niger, Haiti, Puerto Rico, and the agonizing struggle continuing in Iraq — to cite only a few. But the readings for today’s liturgy remind us all too clearly that such matters require our urgent and special attention.
The first reading and, if we are attentive, the gospel focus on widows and orphans and refugees.
That in itself should not be surprising, although for many of our countrymen it might be revealing
to learn that it is one of the most frequent refrains in the entire Bible. But then, many of our countrymen have a habit of reading the Holy Scripture selectively.
Almost all of us have or will become widows or orphans at some point. Some of us may even become refugees. Many are already refugees, whether voluntarily or by necessity.
Because of the speed and universality of video communication today, the plight of thousands of our own citizens affected by Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria has hardly escaped attention or controversy. We may be unaware, however, of the suffering of the Muslim Rohingya of Myanmar, half a million of whom are fleeing genocide, or of the desperation of the poor people of Yemen — bombarded, starving, and now besieged by a cholera epidemic. Some government and non-governmental agencies have responded to their need, although generosity is never enough. Something else is required. Something more.
Today’s reading from the book of Exodus contains the earliest mention of the obligation to tend to the needs of the poor – beginning with the second book in the Bible, where God says, “You shall not wrong a resident alien or oppress him…. You shall not abuse any widow or orphan” [Exodus 22:21-22, NRSV].
The final mention in Hebrew scripture is found in the Book of the prophet 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 refugee, and do not fear me, says the LORD of hosts” [Malachi 3:5]. God’s words in the passage from Exodus were far more direct: “My wrath will flare up, and I will kill you with the sword; then your own wives will be widows, and your children orphans” [Ex. 22: 24].
It is a theme found dozens of times in between Exodus and Malachi, especially in the Psalms. In all of them, there’s threat involved in God’s words, even more than usual, which is the Hebrew way of affirming that “This is important: pay attention!” And the command is brought over in the Christian Scriptures as well.
There is ample reason for all that. Widows, orphans, and refugees were the most vulnerable of people in the ancient world, as they most often are today. For they lacked both defenders and economic security. They were frequently denied the most basic human rights. It’s not surprising that Jesus showed himself to be exceptionally sensitive to widows and orphans, to their needs as well as their hope and generosity, as when he restored to life the dead son of the widow of Nain [Luke 7:12-15] and praised the widow who put her two small coins in the Temple treasury [Mark 12:42 and parallels]. Widows, the most vulnerable of all, figure prominently in several of his parables. For him, they were models of faith and trust in God, like those very early Christian in Thessalonika to whom Paul was writing.
In today’s epistle, Paul tells them — and us — that we are to imitate him as he imitates Christ and in turn become models for others, living expressions of the Good News. St. James, in his Epistle, was very direct in regard to how: “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God and the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world” [James 1:27].
In today’s gospel, Jesus says even more simply, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” And he meant love in action.
Yesterday, I found myself stunned by a report about a 10-year-old girl with cerebral palsy, an undocumented refugee brought to the US by her parents when she was 3 months old. Early this week, as she was being rushed to a Texas hospital for emergency gall bladder surgery, the ambulance was stopped by federal immigration officers at a checkpoint. They followed the ambulance to the hospital and after the child was discharged following life-saving surgery, she was arrested and placed in detention rather than being allowed to return to her parents, also in the country illegally. She is now in a juvenile custody center 150 miles away awaiting deportation.*
Beyond generosity lie love and justice. If we have been blessed, especially in this land of plenty, our abundance is not a reward nor is it a treasure to be hoarded, much less wasted on vast engines of death and destruction. The word of God is clear: we are to use the riches of the earth to help those in need. And who could personify that need more than those widowed and orphaned and made homeless refugees by natural or man-made disasters?
In keeping with much of the religious chatter these days, some of my theology students tend to interpret natural disasters and the vast human suffering that result from them as God’s wrath, as punishment for our sinful ways. No, I tell them, God does not punish the poor and innocent for the crimes of the rich and powerful. Jesus taught us that clearly. Awful events happen in the course of nature not as punishment nor even as a test, as if God were some sort of petulant schoolmaster. Rather, they present us with the opportunity of finding Christ and through Christ God in the hunger and thirst, the nakedness, the illness, and mourning of the least of his sisters and brothers.
The measure of our justice is exactly how we provide for those in want and need, how we put our love into action. Let us pray that God will inspire and assist us to do it.