The Social Message of the Hebrew Prophets

Societies have a responsibility for justice and for their poor and marginalized.

I’ve continued my reading through the Minor Prophets. I’ve been working my way through Zechariah, when I came upon the following passage in Zechariah 7:8-10:

The word of the LORD came to Zechariah, saying: Thus says the LORD of hosts: Render true judgments, show kindness and mercy to one another; do not oppress the widow, the orphan, the alien, or the poor; and do not devise evil in your hearts against one another.

 I stopped when I read it. It perfectly sums up of the social message we find in all the Hebrew prophets…and the Jewish Torah as well. The Lord calls his people to do justice, practice compassion, to respect the lives and dignity of the poor and the socially marginalized, and to nurture love towards all their neighbors.

There is a bit of a clichéd tone to this summation, because it is the essence of the social message of the prophets repeated by prophet after prophet, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Hosea, Amos, Micah, et al. It is given classic expression in the words of Amos.

Especially clichéd is the expression “do not oppress the widow, the orphan, the alien, or the poor.” All of these terms name segments in Hebrew society that were generally vulnerable and defenseless for they were largely powerless within the patriarchal structure of society.

As we read through the Torah and the prophets, we find these segments of society hold particular concern for God. As some Biblical scholars like to express it, God shows a preference for these vulnerable people in society.

God holds Hebrew society accountable for how they treat these segments. Both Israel and Judah fall under God’s judgment in part because of their record of ignoring the widow, the orphan, the foreign resident, and the poor. (For the prophets, the other great sin of Israel is its unfaithfulness to God, manifested in its pursuit of other gods.)

When I say God holds Israel and Judah accountable, I don’t mean that God just holds individuals in both kingdoms accountable. He does, especially the kings, the nobility, and the merchants. But God also holds these kingdoms accountable as societies. How societies handle their responsibilities for justice and the welfare of all has a determining influence on whether they survive as societies.

Jesus and the Hebrew Prophets

Jesus is consistent with this viewpoint. When we encounter his description of the Last Judgment in Matthew 25:31-46, the coming Son of Man separates the sheep from the goats on what basis? On the basis of how they have fed the hungry, given drink to the thirsty, clothed the naked, welcomed the stranger, and visited the imprisoned or not.

I, like most Christians, have traditionally read this passage as a description of Christ’s judgment on individuals. But if we read carefully, we find that the judgment is a judgment “of the nations” (in Greek, ta ethne). This is an ambiguous term. The plural can refer to a collection of individuals, but it also can refer to a society. And that is how I think we need to hear it. This is both a judgment of individuals and a judgment of societies as societies.

The standard for judgment is how these societies have treated the vulnerable, the disadvantaged, the powerless of their societies. This is a judgment consistent with the word of the Lord spoken through the prophets.

I don’t hear the Bible specifying how a society must address the needs of its poor and vulnerable. Should we do this through government programs, through private philanthropy, or through changes to economic and social systems? Or through all three? Portions of the Bible seem to advocate each of the three in different contexts.

What I don’t find consistent with the spirit of the Bible is the libertarian stance (favored by many Americans) that society should operate on a basis where every individual must be free to manage his or her own affairs in a live-and-let-live economy. The idea that morals have no applicability to the Market would be anathema to these Hebrew prophets and to Jesus. That should be a sobering message for Americans who lay claim to being Biblical Christians.