For those who were appalled by the New York Times report this week on the failure of the U.S. government officials to locate the parents of 545 children separated from their parents at the Mexican border, today’s first reading might come as a shock. After locating 2700 separated parents in 2018, it became apparent that the cruel policy continued to separate children, some as young as 5, from their parents. It was this group that remains separated. [See Exodus 22:20-26, 1 Thess 1:5-10, Matt 22:34-40.]
Perhaps we should not be too surprised. The plight of the defenseless poor, especially widows, orphans, and refugees has been a burning moral issue from the earliest days of the Jewish and Christian scriptural tradition. The first reading from the Book of Exodus. the second book of the Bible, focuses on their treatment. That in itself may not be surprising, although for many of our countrymen it might be surprising to discover that it is one of the most frequent refrains in the entire Bible.
This is the earliest mention of the obligation to tend to the needs of the poor, 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 concluding work of the Canon, 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].
Widows, orphans, and refugees were the most vulnerable of people in the ancient world, as they most often are today. They lacked both defenders and economic security. They were frequently denied the most basic human rights. Paying special attention to the needs of such distressed families and asylum-seekers is a theme found dozens of times between Exodus and Malachi, especially in the Psalms. It is the measuring rod of our moral rectitude in the eyes of God. The command is brought over in the Christian Scriptures as well. St. James, in his Epistle, was very direct: “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 epistle, Paul tells the Christian community in Thessaloniki — 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.
In today’s gospel, Jesus says even more simply, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” And he meant love in action. 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]. He sums up the entire moral teaching of the biblical tradition with his iteration of the two great commandments – love God above all else and love your neighbor as yourself. And he meant love in direct and practical works of justice and mercy. With this he silences his adversaries, but does not quell their enmity. If anything, it enflames. it
If we in this land of plenty have been blessed, 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?
Much of the world is undergoing a severe trial as the Covid-19 coronavirus spreads sickness and death globally without evident signs of diminishing. But it would be a mistake to consider the pandemic to be a sign of God’s wrath, just as it would be in the case of the devastating wildfires in the west or the increasing and intensifying hurricanes creating havoc in the southeast, the coast of Mexico, and the Caribbean. This outcome of is the catastrophic failure of a worldwide effort to stall and possibly to reverse global climate change. We did this ourselves. And the US now appears to be particularly in the way of harm because of our spectacular failure to act responsibly when we could have.
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 or 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 who cry out to us in their want and need.
The measure of our justice is exactly how we provide for them, how we put our love into action. Let us pray that God will inspire and assist us to do it.