You shall not wrong or oppress a resident alien, for you were all aliens in the land of Egypt. You shall not abuse any widow or orphan. If you do abuse them, when they cry out to me, I will surely heed their cry; my wrath will burn, and I will kill you with the sword, and your wives shall become widows and your children orphans. If you lend money to my people, to the poor among you, you shall not deal with them as a creditor; you shall exact interest from them. If you take your neighbor's cloak in pawn, you shall restore it before the sun goes down; for it may be your neighbor's only clothing to use as cover; in what else shall that person sleep? And if you neighbor cries out to me, I will listen, for I am compassionate. Exodus 22:21-27)Not too compassionate, you might think, since God promises to kill those who abuse the widow and the orphan. But that sentence is the clue to God's audience: the men, the ones with the power. Notice the symmetry of the punishment: "your wives shall become widows and your children orphans." And maybe then, they'll get better treatment, because they are a specially protected class, under God.
We also have to keep in mind that this is covenantal language, part of the law of Israel, the bond made between Israel and the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Europe tried to lay claim to that privileged status more than once, but no European country ever tried to live under the laws of Moses.
The other point here is that the power rests in God, but God recognizes the power men had in Israeli society. God doesn't supplant that power; God directs it, to be used to care for and protect the powerless: the widow and the orphans. If there is an obligation placed on a society by Christianity, that is where it begins: in justice, in the use of power to benefit those without power. God is not interested in power and punishment: God is interested in justice.
Which is why the lawyer asks Jesus the question:
"Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?" He said to him, "'You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.' this is the greatest and first commandment. and the second is like it: 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself.' On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets." Matthew 22:36-40The heart of justice is love; is concern first for the other. Take care of them, and you will be taken care of; and justice will be known, and done.
But worry about who is in control, and how much control they have, and how to maintain control; and you are playing the game of the world. The game Ivan Ilych had to stop playing, in order to depart in peace.
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