by Faith Totushek
Who are the poor in scripture and how are they to be treated among the community of God’s people? As believers and those who believe the Bible is our guide, we might examine the many stories, and passages in the Bible to find our way through the various conundrums our society faces. Especially as believers, we have a great and holy call to be agents of God and healers of a sin-sick world.
The group I wish to examine in the Bible are the widows, orphans and foreigners. They are described as the vulnerable ones who need the extra support and focus from God’s people. They are also the ones whom God has said that He himself would defend.
Who are the widows? Widows often become poor or socially vulnerable due to the loss of a husband. This could apply to women who are divorced and raising small children, to women who are emotionally abandoned through abuse and neglect by a spouse. These are women whose husbands have died and are now vulnerable in the community.
Who are the orphans? Orphans are literally, those who have no parents or those who are vulnerable because one of their parents are missing from the family. Children are often the most vulnerable in a society–sometimes preyed upon or used or abused such as what occurs in child abuse and trafficking of minor children. They are the ones who have in some sense been abandoned and are now left to fend for themselves.
Finally, who are the foreigners? The foreigners are the ones who come to a given country because of famine or war as refugees. They are vulnerable because they don’t know the language, customs and laws of a country and often come without wealth or status. I would also add that foreigners are anyone the society perceives as ”not like us.” This could be those of a minority ethnic population that has limited power in a given society. They are easy prey, often exploited as workers or scapegoated by the residents.
So what does the Bible have to tell us about widows, orphans and foreigners?
First, Israel was a people whose identity was forged in a common experience of being a foreigner in a strange land–the land of Egypt. They went to Egypt because of a famine. Joseph, one of Jacob’s sons was taken to Egypt as a slave. He was trafficked by his brothers who were jealous. After being targeted and sent to prison, Joseph emerges as a royal official in charge of food distribution saving Egypt and his people who come seeking grain during the famine. They stayed and settled in the land of Goshen.
Our story tells us that as the Hebrews grew in number and when the friendly Pharaoh died, the new ruler feared the people so he enslaved them. They were vulnerable, exploited and experienced harsh labor. Their sons were murdered by Pharaoh’s decree and tossed into the river because their numbers frightened Pharaoh. He feared they would take over his kingdom. God heard their cries and delivered them. Some of the plagues were direct forms of retribution on Egypt for the way they treated God’s people. The taking of the first born was retribution for the killing of the Hebrew children. And we see just how furious was the wrath of God toward Egypt for the grave injustices done toward the Hebrew nation.
This was their national narrative… God had delivered them from the exploitation of Pharaoh and then created them into a people who would follow after God and live in his way. They were often reminded of their history of having been strangers in a strange land suffering the abuse and enslavement of Egypt. This reminder was to help them remember the vulnerable ones among them – the widow, the orphan and the foreigner. They were to remember empathetically how it felt to be in the socially vulnerable position. Exodus 23:9 says this: ”Do not oppress a foreigner; you yourselves know how it feels to be foreigners, because you were foreigners in Egypt.”
Deuteronomy 10:18 says this: ”He (God) ensures that orphans and widows receive justice. He shows love to the foreigners living among you and gives them food and clothing.”
The point of this is… God himself will ensure justice… if God’s people are to image God well, they will be like him and also ensure that orphans and widows and foreigners are treated with concern, respect and justice. We show we are like God when we care for the vulnerable ones. For more, go to 1John.
Deuteronomy 14:28-29 says this: ”At the end of every third year, bring the entire tithe of that year’s harvest and store it in the nearest town. Give it to the Levites, who will receive no allotment of land among you, as well as to the foreigners living among you, the orphans, and the widows in your towns, so they can eat and be satisfied. Then the Lord your God will bless you in all your work. ”
It is curious to observe that this tithe is gathered from the people and used to care for the vulnerable ones. And note the effect on all of the community–THE LORD YOUR GOD WILL BLESS YOU IN ALL YOUR WORK. Here is the point. When we care for the vulnerable ones, the whole community will flourish and be blessed.
This is contrary to what I often hear from political pundits who claim that caring for the vulnerable ones is a burden on society. Foreigners are often framed as the reason for the suffering of the community at large. (by the way… this falls into the category of bearing false witness. Stereotyping is a way of giving a false witness to someones character). Our call as people who image God is to care for the needs of the vulnerable ones among us–it is counter-cultural and shows the distinctive character of God’s people.
Deuteronomy 24:19-20 says this, ”when you are harvesting your crops and forget to bring in a bundle of grain from your field, don’t go back to get it. Leave it for the foreigners, orphans and widows. Then the lord your God will bless you in all you do. When you beat the olives from your olive trees, don’t go over the boughs twice. Leave the remaining olives for the foreigners, orphans and widows.”
Again, God’s people are to consider the needs of the vulnerable ones and to be intentional about their provision for them. And here again, the result is that the whole community is blessed and flourishes under God’s blessing.
We see this principle played out in the book of Ruth when Boaz tells his harvesters to leave grain for Ruth to glean. And who is Ruth? She is not only a widow but she is a foreigner. She is one who bears a son who becomes a direct ancestor of Jesus.
These are just a few verses found in the book of Deuteronomy–one of the books of the Torah that gave God’s people instructions about how they were to live in the new land as God’s representative people.
In the New Testament, we see Jesus fulfilling the Torah and living as the true Son of God. Israel was the son of God but failed to live out the calling God had given them. Jesus as the true Son, God putting on human skin, entered our world and showed us what imaging God was really like.
The call to image God, to care for the widow, the orphan and the foreigner among us is still an important mandate and has not been revoked. Nor has the the result that comes from honoring the vulnerable… those who do… the nation who does will be blessed and also flourish with enough.
The book of James teaches us that true religion is to care for the widow and orphan among us and that those who exploit the vulnerable will have to contend with the Lord of heaven’s army. James 5:4
In our world we are invited to serve the many vulnerable ones in our communities. We have a great influx of immigrants and refugees as well as many who are made vulnerable through divorce and death. Human trafficking affects children and women who are exploited and enslaved. There are other reasons for poverty many involving injustice, famine, and other hardships. I believe God’s people will find many opportunities to be the face of God to a people who are hurting and lost in a world filled with violence and hardship. Will we remember that serving the most vulnerable among us comes with a promise of blessing?
We need not fear welcoming and honoring widows and orphans and Foreigners in our communities for we will in turn be blessed. We must live in the narrative of God’s story, not the story given by politicos and pundits. The Bible is our story and how we are defined as the people of God.
Faith Totushek has served two churches as a solo pastor in Minnesota and Connecticut. She Currently pastors WayFinders Home church and serves as Director of Worship at St Francis United Methodist Church in St Francis, Minnesota. Faith graduated seminary in 2007 with an MDIV in New Testament and Pastoral Ministry.