Kevin DeYoung / Feb 5, 2017 / Exodus 22:16-23:19
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Let’s pray. Great God in Heaven, our strong deliverer, we ask that you would give us the grace to listen to and obey your Word. Give us concentration, for we are easily distracted. Give us open minds and humble hearts. Give us faith and mercy, that we might live and think according to your Word. In Christ we pray, amen.
This morning, we’ll begin our reading at Exodus 22:16. As we continue our series through the book of Exodus, we’re moving into “the Book of the Covenant,” as Exodus 24 calls it. It’s assortment of laws that really apply the Ten Commandments to the life of Israel.
If you are reading in the ESV, you’ll notice a heading just before Exodus 22:16. These headings are not inspired. They’re not a part of the Bible proper. They are added solely for our ease of reading. But the heading is, “Laws About Social Justice,” and that’s what I want to talk about this morning: social justice. I don’t have to tell you that that’s a very popular phrase—sometimes controversial, and other times much-beloved. It fits this passage, to a degree. Some of the laws could maybe be put in the category of compassion more than justice, but this section certainly has to do with justice on a broad scale—as in, “What does it mean to live rightly as God’s people?”
The difficulty with the term is that, as soon as you hear it, your mind goes in as many different directions as there are people in this room. Some of you think, “Yes, social justice has all sorts of good connotations.” Other’s are more suspicious of it.
As far as we can tell, the phrase dates back to the 1840s, when it was first used by Jesuit philosopher Luigi Taparelli. Taparelli was considered a conservative in his day (that term means a different thing to us now). He was a Catholic who strongly supported papal authority. He argued for the well-ordering of society according to its constitutionally right arrangements, and even argued that a natural good result of that ordering may be social inequality. So he was a conservative in the sense of wanting a certain hierarchy to society. He wanted things to be ordered rightly. He used the term “social justice” for this, but it really doesn’t relate to that side of his argument anymore.
It still has some relationship (but only some) to his economic philosophy, though. As a Catholic in the 1840s, he was troubled by what he saw as the Protestant economies of the British Isles and North America. He saw things that disturbed him in these new industrial economies. They were birthed out of the ideas of John Locke, and especially Adam Smith (a Scottish thinker and philosopher who is often called “the father of modern capitalism.” He wrote The Wealth of Nations in 1776). Taparelli saw that these new economies were erasing some of the inequalities and social strata that he actually thought were good. He was also was concerned that they were leading people to pursue baser instincts instead of transcending into a higher moral plane.
So he was an interesting thinker. In a sense, he was a progressive and a conservative. He believed that government’s role was to provide moral order to society. He argued for low taxes. He even argued that government employees should do their functions at their own expense. That would be a political winner! Anyway, he’s now long forgotten by most people. I doubt any of you have thought or heard of him before.
But the phrase that he coined about his ideal social order has become very popular. But the difficulty is: what does it mean? John Goldingay, a professor at Fuller Theological Seminary, says:
The notion of social justice is a hazy one. It resembles words such as community, intimacy, and relational, warm words whose meaning may seem self-evident and which we assume are obviously biblical categories, when actually they are rather undefined and culture relative. John Goldingay – “Old Testament Theology, Volume 3”
When most people say “social justice”, they’re probably thinking something like this: “We ought to have a just society, where everyone shares equally in the benefits and wealth of the society.” That often leads to some form of redistribution. As Goldingay says, “…the meaning of the phrase social justice has become opaque [or “unclear”] over the years as it has become a buzz expression.”
So, what are we to do with this term? I’m not telling you that you can’t use it. In fact, many people mean really good things by it. I’m just saying that, as with a lot of terms, you need to know exactly what you’re talking about.
What does the Bible mean by the heading “Laws About Social Justice”? Well, that’s not the Bible; an editor made that title, but it fits. We want to let the Bible tell us what justice looks like. I think we’re all going to find, if we’re listening, that no matter where you put yourself on the political spectrum, there will be some things that make you think, “Is he trying to poke me?” What I’m trying to do is simply to say what the Bible says—where it says something, to say it very emphatically; and where it doesn’t say something, to not say it.
I’m going to look at justice on two planes. The vertical plane looks at justice in relation to God: what does it mean to live rightly towards God? Often, we don’t think about that when we think about social justice, but that’s first. Then, the horizontal plan looks at what justice means in regards to one another. How do we do as we ought in with relation to others—in particular, in relation to the weak and vulnerable? Follow along as I read:
“If a man seduces a virgin who is not betrothed and lies with her, he shall give the bride-price for her and make her his wife. If her father utterly refuses to give her to him, he shall pay money equal to the bride-price for virgins.
“You shall not permit a sorceress to live.
“Whoever lies with an animal shall be put to death.
“Whoever sacrifices to any god, other than the LORD alone, shall be devoted to destruction.
“You shall not wrong a sojourner or oppress him, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt. You shall not mistreat any widow or fatherless child. If you do mistreat them, and they cry out to me, I will surely hear their cry, and my wrath will burn, and I will kill you with the sword, and your wives shall become widows and your children fatherless.
“If you lend money to any of my people with you who is poor, you shall not be like a moneylender to him, and you shall not exact interest from him. If ever you take your neighbor’s cloak in pledge, you shall return it to him before the sun goes down, for that is his only covering, and it is his cloak for his body; in what else shall he sleep? And if he cries to me, I will hear, for I am compassionate.
“You shall not revile God, nor curse a ruler of your people.
“You shall not delay to offer from the fullness of your harvest and from the outflow of your presses. The firstborn of your sons you shall give to me. You shall do the same with your oxen and with your sheep: seven days it shall be with its mother; on the eighth day you shall give it to me.
“You shall be consecrated to me. Therefore you shall not eat any flesh that is torn by beasts in the field; you shall throw it to the dogs.
“You shall not spread a false report. You shall not join hands with a wicked man to be a malicious witness. You shall not fall in with the many to do evil, nor shall you bear witness in a lawsuit, siding with the many, so as to pervert justice, nor shall you be partial to a poor man in his lawsuit.
“If you meet your enemy’s ox or his donkey going astray, you shall bring it back to him. If you see the donkey of one who hates you lying down under its burden, you shall refrain from leaving him with it; you shall rescue it with him.
“You shall not pervert the justice due to your poor in his lawsuit. Keep far from a false charge, and do not kill the innocent and righteous, for I will not acquit the wicked. And you shall take no bribe, for a bribe blinds the clear-sighted and subverts the cause of those who are in the right.
“You shall not oppress a sojourner. You know the heart of a sojourner, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt.
“For six years you shall sow your land and gather in its yield, but the seventh year you shall let it rest and lie fallow, that the poor of your people may eat; and what they leave the beasts of the field may eat. You shall do likewise with your vineyard, and with your olive orchard.
“Six days you shall do your work, but on the seventh day you shall rest; that your ox and your donkey may have rest, and the son of your servant woman, and the alien, may be refreshed.
“Pay attention to all that I have said to you, and make no mention of the names of other gods, nor let it be heard on your lips.
“Three times in the year you shall keep a feast to me. You shall keep the Feast of Unleavened Bread. As I commanded you, you shall eat unleavened bread for seven days at the appointed time in the month of Abib, for in it you came out of Egypt. None shall appear before me empty-handed. You shall keep the Feast of Harvest, of the firstfruits of your labor, of what you sow in the field. You shall keep the Feast of Ingathering at the end of the year, when you gather in from the field the fruit of your labor. Three times in the year shall all your males appear before the Lord GOD.
“You shall not offer the blood of my sacrifice with anything leavened, or let the fat of my feast remain until the morning.
“The best of the firstfruits of your ground you shall bring into the house of the LORD your God.
“You shall not boil a young goat in its mother’s milk. Exodus 22:16-23:19
Wow, there’s a lot here. Several people asked me this week, “What’s the sermon on?” “Well, we’re going to talk about sorcery, immigration, and eating goats!”
Vertical Justice: Our Relation to God
We see here that we owe a number of things to God.
We Owe God Obedience (22:18-20)
First, we owe to him our obedience. Look at verses 18-20. Capital punishments are given for three particularly heinous forms of disobedience. The first is sorcery: an attempt to wield spiritual power by demonic influence. Think of it as the occult, or what’s sometimes called “black magic”. You can make a distinction between that and divination, which the Old Testament also speaks against. Divination tries to know the future, while sorcery tries to manipulate it through blessings, curses, or wielding some sort of spiritual power.
It says here that a sorceress was not permitted to live. Why does it single out women? We don’t know for sure. There are certainly other laws against sorcery in general that apply to men. It may have simply been that this was more prevalent among women. Even today, if you think of a palm reader or a fortune teller, those are usually portrayed in movies by women. Maybe the sheer prevalence of it led directly to the command related to women.
The second capital crime was bestiality. Bestiality was sometimes a part of pagan worship, as was thought to stimulate the gods and produce fertility. Perversely enough, the Hittites (another one of the ancient peoples around Israel) had laws that forbade bestiality with certain animals and allowed it with others. God is not so lenient.
I’m not going to spend much time here, but do not be surprised if we see a movement in our lifetimes to normalize this sin. It will start as something avant-garde—plays, dances, or other art that pushes the envelope. Then it will be something considered funny in movies and popular culture. You’re meant to laugh it as a sort of innuendo in the background. Then (at some point) someone will say, “That’s just how people are made, and nobody really gets hurt.”
The final crime was idolatry. Exodus 23:13 goes as far as saying that no mention of the names of other gods shall be heard on their lips. That didn’t mean that you couldn’t ever say “Asherah” or “Baal” in casual conversation. It addressed using the names as an act of worship or incantation. They weren’t to sacrifice to them, pray to them, or include them in their worship.
And just a reminder of what we saw from 1 Corinthians 5, that capital punishment, in the Old Testament law, gets transposed now in the New Testament to be excommunication. We’re not dealing with theocratic Israel, but those laws carry over into the church that these unrepentant sins are to have no place among God’s people.
We Owe God Reverence (22:28)
We owe God our reverence. Verse 28 says, “You shall not revile God…” Think of Jesus going to the cross, reviled by the soldiers in the battalion, by those who passed by, by the thief on the cross—all of whom were so much beneath him. Everyone cursed God.
“You shall not revile God nor curse a ruler of your people.” Do you see the connection? The rulers may be secular, or may be the church—of course, in Israel, the two were the same. Either way, they are instituted by God (under his authority), so reviling them is reviling the God who placed them in authority.
There’s a story you may remember from Acts 23. Everywhere Paul goes, people are trying to arrest him and have him killed. So he’s at the Sanhedrin, and he calls one of the priests a whitewashed wall. Then someone said, “Whoa, did you know that that was the high priest?” And Paul said, “I did not know, brothers, that he was the high priest, for it is written, ‘You shall not speak evil of a ruler of your people.’” Paul took this commandment so seriously that he wouldn’t have said that if he knew that this was one of the rulers whom God had instituted.
What does this look like in our society, where we have freedom of speech and expression, and we are supposedly governed by ourselves and able to critique others? Certainly, there is a place to agree or disagree with politicians and to critique them strongly, but not to revile or curse them. Whether the person you voted for or the last one you’d want to see is the president, the governor, the Supreme Court justice, or whomever, our rulers are still appointed by God.
That doesn’t mean that everyone who gets elected to office in this country was God’s favorite. It just means that God put that person in that position of power because he had a purpose. It may be to bless us, or it may be to curse us. It may be to lead to prosperity or, it may be to lead to judgment. But God has put the ruler in his place, so we do not revile the ruler without reviling God himself.
We Owe God Our First Fruits (22:29-30)
In verses 29-30, we see that we owe God our first fruits. The idea was that the very first part of your harvest, the firstborn animals in your flocks, and even your firstborn son were to be sacrificed to God. Now (obviously) they didn’t sacrifice their sons. The law later stipulates that you could redeem your son by paying something. But this reinforced to God’s people, “Everything you have is a gift. Whatever I’ve given you was a gift from my hand, so the first thing you need to do is give some of it back to me. I’m gracious. I’m letting you keep and steward most of it. But every good gift comes down from me.”
That’s why we tithe and give offerings. That’s why we don’t just give God the leftovers. We give God what is first and best, because all of it comes from him.
We Owe God Our Consecration (22:31, 23:19)
We owe God our consecration. Look at verse 31: “You shall be consecrated to me.” What does that mean? It means that we have been set apart from the world and devoted to God. This passage gives some unique expressions of that. It says in verse 31: “Don’t eat meat that has been torn apart by other beasts [in other words, don’t eat roadkill]. Why? Because it would be unclean, both ritually and physically.”
Flip the page to the end of this section. Exodus 23:19: “You shall not boil a young goat in its mother’s milk.” This actually shows up three times in the Pentateuch—twice in Exodus, and once in Deuteronomy—so there was something important about this. You can read whole articles (and probably whole dissertations) written about this verse. What does it mean?
Let me give you the two most plausible explanations, which may not be mutually exclusive. The first is that this was common in some of the Canaanite religions. Why would this be a religious practice? Some evidence suggests that they thought it stirred up fertility among their flocks. In other words, if you sacrificed your goat, and you boiled it in the mother’s milk, since mother’s milk is a sign of reproduction, life, and fertility, they thought that this would somehow stimulate their own flocks and herds to reproduce—that the gods would see this and give blessings, and their flocks would grow abundantly. God is saying, “Look, have nothing to do with that sort of magic, superstition, sorcery, and the occult. That’s not how you worship me. Don’t boil a young goat in it’s mother’s milk.”
The other explanation (which has always come to my mind) is that you should not use that which was meant for life to accomplish death. The mother’s milk is to provide sustenance, strength, and nourishment to her young kid, and you don’t use what was meant for life to produce death. If that’s the argument (and it could be both of these), then there’s a kind of natural law argument about function, or “telos”, embedded in this. Telos is a Greek word that philosophers use, which means “end goal” or “purpose”. What is the function, the end goal, or the telos of mother’s milk? It is to give strength, life, health, and nourishment. Don’t use it for the opposite end goal—that is, death.
These same kinds of natural law functionality arguments show up elsewhere—in Romans 1, for example, when Paul talks about sexuality, and about how God made man to be with a woman, because the function of the bodily organs was meant for each other. You do not put an organ that is meant to produce life into a place or cavity that expels death. So… The argument would be one of function—of telos—and one of idolatry. It’s all the same here.
You see all these little commands that don’t make sense to us, but when you dive into them, you see that God had a reason for what he was commanding. We owe him our consecration.
We Owe God Worship (23:10-18)
Finally, we owe God our worship. In verses 10-18, there are a series of commands related to worship. First, about Sabbath rest, both for you and others. Sometimes, the Bible commands the Sabbath because it’s an echo of creation, when God rested on the seventh day. Sometimes, it’s given relative to the Exodus, a deliverance. Here, it’s given relative to the well-being of those around you.
You were to let your crops lie fallow every seven years (giving them a Sabbath year), both because it’s good for the crops (anyone in agriculture will tell you that it helps to nourish and strengthen the soil), and so that the poor can come and glean from among the crops. Further, you take a weekly Sabbath, not only because you need a break, but because your animals, servants, and children need breaks. Remember how Jesus said that “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.”
However you understand your Sabbath (or your Lord’s Day), it’s set aside for rest and worship. Remember that God gave you this day—one day in seven—as a gift. One commentator says,
People who do not observe a Sabbath, either in one day or its distributed equivalent, deny themselves or others the sort of life God intended. Douglas K. Stuart – “Exodus”
If you work non-stop, seven days a week, without a pattern of rest, you’re not living as God intended you to. I know that’s hard to do if you have children in your home right now, but still.
The doorbell rang at our house at eight o’clock this morning. Everyone was thinking, “Something bad must have happened if they’re coming to the pastor’s house at 8 in the morning. Someone must be sick.” No, it was an Amazon package. I wish there was a way to tell Amazon, “Do not deliver this on Sunday.” I think I could have waited three days for this book, and I would’ve been okay. Amazon people, I want you to have a day off and rest! Take over the world with drones later!
Second, there were three main festivals. The Israelite males would come to the tabernacle (and later to the temple) at leasts three times a year: first, for the Feast of Unleavened Bread in April; second, fifty days afterward, for the Feast of Harvest (sometimes called the Feast of Weeks, and later Pentecost, because it was was fifty (penta) days afterward), which would be in late May or early June; and finally, in late September or early October, the Feast of Ingathering (sometimes called the Feast of Booths, or “Succot”).
God not only commands that we worship, but also the when, what, and how of that worship. Look at how he established these rhythms in Ancient Israel. They had a weekly rhythm and a monthly rhythm. They had seasonal holy days and annual holy days. This is just one of the little threads of common grace that God wants to weave into all of our lives. We get Crazy Busy™, and our lives lack rhythm. We’re always on our phones and checking our emails. Our vacations are always working vacations. Even when you’re at work, you’re sort of there, but you’re still checking things. We don’t have any on/off times. “I’m on vacation. I’m on recreation. I’m working. I’m laboring.” God established this rhythm for his people as a rhythm of worship, and we owe him our worship.
That’s all vertical justice. You’ve got to have that, and people who talk about social justice often skip it. What does it mean to live rightly by God?
Horizontal Justice: Our Relation to Others
Then there’s horizontal justice: doing right in relation to others, especially in regards to the weak and vulnerable. We have here a classic list of those who would have been considered weak and vulnerable in the Old Testament. That doesn’t mean they’re lesser. It doesn’t give them a secondary status in the kingdom. It’s just saying that traditionally, these would be the people who would be more weak and vulnerable. I think we could argue that the list is not too much different today.
Justice for Women (22:16-17)
Verses 16-17 say, “If a man seduces a virgin…” This isn’t speaking of rape, which was punishable by death (Deuteronomy 22:25-27). Instead, it’s thinking of seduction—something consensual, even if the man is particularly blameworthy for whispering sweet nothings. So a man and a woman have laid together. Now what?
The man was supposed to pay a bride price. That sounds offensive. You think, “Is he buying a wife? Is she some sort of possession?” That wasn’t the idea. The bride price was actually there to help protect the woman, because (1) he had to show he has money, or some means of providing for this woman who’s going to be a part of his family, and (2) it insured a process of formal negotiations with her family.
Marriage is a covenant, and (as we see in the Old Testament) it consisted of two things: first, there was a formal ceremony involving oaths and vows (i.e. making promises “before God and these witnesses”); and second, there was the ratifying of that oath in the sign and seal of sexual activity, which was meant to ratify the promise that was made before God and these witnesses.
But people both then and now did the covenant ratifying thing without making the formal promises. The bride price helped to prevent the couple from saying, “Okay, secretly, let us profess our own love and affection for each other. I do love you. I do promise. Now we’re married.” No, there was a formal process that the community was a part of, which was played out in public.
So, what happens if this man whispered these sweet nothings to her and (in a moment of passion) they have sex together? Are they married? Notice that the Bible doesn’t say that they are married, or that they must be married. It simply says that if they are going to be married—which, in many cases, might be the best thing—he still needs to pay the bride price. He can’t get out of that just because he’s already done the covenant ratifying thing without doing the promise.
But what if the bride tells the father, “Look, this was a big mistake. I do not want to be with this guy”? The Bible doesn’t say she has to compound one mistake with another life-altering mistake, but it does say that if the father refuses, the man must still pay the bride price. Especially in that culture, it would have been more difficult for a woman to be married after she had lost her virginity, so these rules were meant to protect the woman.
Justice for Sojourners (22:21, 23:9)
Then we move to sojourners. Exodus 22:21: “You shall not wrong a sojourner or oppress him, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt.” Look further over to Exodus 23:9: “You shall not oppress a sojourner. You know the heart of a sojourner, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt.”
Let me recommend to you a book by James Hoffmeier, a professor of Old Testament studies at Trinity International University in Deerfield. It’s called “The Immigration Crisis: Immigrants, Aliens, and the Bible”. One of the important things that he does in that book is looking at the Hebrew terms that fly right by us in English, but which actually have different distinctions to them. On the one hand, you have a citizen: one who is native-born, and living in the land of their parents. Then you have a foreigner (the Hebrew word could be “nekhar” or “zar”): one who is traveling through the land of another—a visitor.
Then you have the word which is used here in our passage: “ger”, which means “one who leaves home to establish a new permanent residence with the approval of a citizen host.” This word, translated “sojourner”, or sometimes “alien”, speaks of someone from another place who entered into a country with permission of a citizen to live, work, and exist in that country. There’s an assumption here that the law is being obeyed and permission has been granted. Remember when there was a famine in Canaan, and Joseph was already ahead in Egypt? The people had to come to Pharaoh, who gave them permission to live in Goshen. These passages about sojourners are not saying laws don’t matter.
What are they saying, then? Simply that we ought to be gracious, hospitable people, because we (of all people) should know what it is like to be far away from home. This was true in a literal sense, for the Israelites. God said, “Look, you know the heart of a sojourner. You had to leave Canaan and go live in Goshen. Then you became slaves, so you know what it was like to be oppressed, and to long for your home. How can you not be compassionate for others who are far from their homes?” Even if you’ve been in Lansing your whole life, this isn’t your home. We’re strangers, aliens, and exiles ourselves. We belong to the kingdom of heaven. We’re just passing through. We too are sojourners here. We (of all people) ought to be warm, welcoming, and hospitable.
Let’s talk for a minute about the thing what everyone has been talking about. You probably know that we have a new president, and you may know that he issued an executive order regarding immigration and refugees. Now a federal judge is saying that that order shouldn’t be upheld, and it will have to be litigated. What are we to think?
The Bible does not give us a number of immigrants or refugees who should be admitted into any given country. That’s something that Christians will disagree about. Some will say, “Look, we need to be safe and secure. It makes perfect sense to close this down for a time until we can really figure it out.” Others will say, “Are you serious? The refugees are the most vetted people out there. Even if there’s an astronomically small chance of something bad happening, it’s worth it to help people who have lost everything.”
Those arguments are based on prudential considerations. That is, you can’t just find a Bible verse that says, “Here’s what the immigration policy should be. Should it be 50,000 people? Should it be 100,000? Should it be 10,000? How many green cards should you issue? How many people from each country should come in?” I’m not saying that some answers aren’t better than others, but those are things which require a level of knowledge and prudential considerations that the Bible alone will not give us.
So what does the Bible say? It doesn’t give us a number, but it most emphatically commands of a specific attitude toward immigrants, refugees, and others who would come and live among us: one that welcomes internationals, foreigners, and refugees. We should think to ourselves, “We know what it’s like to live in a world that’s not our home.” Surely, people who are spiritual descendants of the Israelites want to show whatever love and compassion we can to those who are far from home.
The Bible emphatically tells us what our attitude should be, because these are people made in the image of God. They ought to have our compassion, since we’re rich people in a rich country, who can do much for those who have less. Not to mention that we (as Christians) must think of evangelism. These people might be almost impossible to reach, but the Lord is bringing them to us! Why would we not want to show the love of Christ and speak to them the good news?
So, while the Bible will not tell you what an executive order should or shouldn’t be, it certainly tells us what our heart attitude should be. There is no place for the sort of attitude that says, “These are dirty, strange, foreign people. I don’t want them living by me or being around me. I don’t want my kids in school next to them. They don’t look like us.” We are sojourners. We know the heart of a sojourner. We ought to show compassion to them.
Justice for Widows and Orphans (22:22-24)
Moses then goes on to talk about widows and orphans—the quintessential examples of the weak and vulnerable. Widows had very little legal standing, and were in need of special support. Unless they could remarry, or unless they came from a wealthy family, they were dependent on the kindness of others to even exist. In verse 24, God says that if you do not treat widows and orphans with compassion, “I will kill you with the sword, and your wives shall become widows and your children fatherless.” Do you see what he’s doing there? Again, it’s the lex talionis—“the law of the tooth”. It’s an eye for eye and a tooth for tooth. The punishment fits the crime. God says, “If you don’t care about widows, I’ll make your wife a widow. If you don’t care about the fatherless, I’ll make your children fatherless.” That’s how much God hears the cry of the wronged. He wants us to look for ways to love and help widows and orphans.
Justice for the Poor (22:25-27; 23:1-3, 6-8)
God speaks also of the poor. Verse 25: “…you shall not be a moneylender to [the poor].” I’ve explained before that this isn’t the same sort of interest which we have today for buying a house or a car. This is a predatory loan, where you see a brother or sister who is destitute and starving, and you come along and say, “I’ll give you $5,000, but I’ll charge you 25% interest.” The Bible says, “Don’t get rich off of other people’s misfortunes. You ought to loan them that free of charge, or even just give it to them. Don’t just come along and say, ‘Well, you’re already struggling, so I’ll give you something—as long as I can get rich as a result.’”
Verse 26 speaks of a cloak given in pledge. The poor would give something in collateral for a loan, just like we do. How do you know you’re going to get paid back? Generally someone would have land or flocks, and they would say something like, “Okay, I’ll give you a goat if I don’t pay this back.” This law envisions someone who is so poor and destitute that the only thing they have to give is literally their shirt off their back. That’s what they would wear to keep warm at night, so God says, “Give the man back his cloak at night.” If someone has so little that his collateral is the shirt off his back, make sure you give it back at night. You’re not trying to get rich off of his poverty, or to make him suffer more so that you might suffer less.
God speaks several times throughout the Old Testament against bribes and perverting justice. God is against anyone or anything that rigs the system against the weak.
In Exodus 23:1, we see that “You shall not spread a false report. You shall not join hands with a wicked man to be a malicious witness. You shall not fall in with the many to do evil…” Even if everyone online has already decided “He’s guilty, hang him”—trial by Twitter—you should say, “I’m not going to do it.”
Notice this strange line in verse 3: “…nor shall you be partial to a poor man in his lawsuit.” There’s a phrase that is often used: “God has a preferential option for the poor.” Is that true? Well, it’s one of those things that’s both yes and no. God is always on the side of the humble poor, and on the side of the poor against injustice. But is God on the side of the poor when they’re guilty of sin and crimes? Verse 3 says no. You don’t side with the rich just because they’re rich (which is common), but neither do you side with the poor just because they’re poor. “Well, they ought to get away with it because they’re poor.” No, you need justice. What are the facts? What is the truth? What does each one deserve? God is always on the side of the humble poor, but he’s not above humbling the sinful poor.
We’ve already seen verse 12, in relationship to servants. You are to give people a day off. If you’re an employer, you must pay people well, give them good benefits, and show them appreciation. You need to give them a break and not work them to the bone.
Justice for Our Enemies (23:4-5)
Finally, there are laws relating to our enemies:
“If you meet your enemy’s ox or his donkey going astray, you shall bring it back to him. If you see the donkey of one who hates you lying down under its burden, you shall refrain from leaving him with it; you shall rescue it with him. Exodus 23:4-5
You don’t have to wait until the New Testament to get to loving your enemies. When Jesus said, “Love your enemies,” he wasn’t saying something different from the law of Moses. He was helping them to see what they had missed in the law of Moses. Before there was the parable of the Good Samaritan, there was the Book of the Covenant.
It’s hard to love enemies. It really is. It’s one thing to say, “ …prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies…” (Psalm 23) It’s another thing to say, “Help me to prepare a table for my enemies.”
Notice verse 5: “If you see the donkey of one who hates you…” It’s one thing if you hate someone: “I hate this person, but his car won’t start and he needs a jump. I guess I better go and help him.” But what if he hates you? Some of us would reason, “Well, it’s probably not safe. This person hates me.” Or maybe, “Well, this person is an enemy of God. If I do something to help them, it’s just furthering them in their life.” But God says, “No, cut out all of that foolish reasoning. They’re a fellow human being, made in the image of God. Even if they hate you, they need your help.”
Why Should We Care?
Do you see how God is calling us to such a higher standard than tolerance? Tolerance is such a garbage word. Not only is it used in very intolerant ways (at times), it’s also such a weak virtue. God doesn’t say to tolerate your enemies, but to love them. If you find them and their donkey is in the ditch, go help them—even if they hate you, and you don’t get along with one another. God has such an interest in us loving those who we would not naturally and easily love. That’s what these laws are for.
He’s giving us categories of the weak, vulnerable, and helpless. None of us like to be in them, and I’m not stereotyping every foreigner or every woman (you understand that), but their categories and ours aren’t too different. He’s telling us to look out especially for those who have a hard time making it in life. I hope you understand, brothers and sisters, that that doesn’t make you a liberal. It makes you a Christian.
Then you have others who say, “Don’t talk about justice. That’s what scary people do. I don’t want to think about it. We just want the Bible to tell us what we should be like and how we should love.” That’s why I said that many people have a view of social justice that isn’t really informed by the Bible, and which needs to be corrected.
Who are the weak and vulnerable? Those who don’t have money? Those who don’t have the opportunity for education? Those with physical ailments? Those without connections? That’s often how the world works: if you know people, things just happen.
When Trish and I moved to Orange City, Iowa for my job as an Associate Pastor, we didn’t know how to do life. When we got there, we bought a house and a car and got settled. I didn’t know how to do any of this, but it was a big, generous church in a little town. They just said, “Well, that elder is the president of the bank. That person sells the cars. That person is the realtor.” It just right there! How did normal people do that? I don’t know. I didn’t have to figure it out.
Some of you didn’t have to figure it out, but some of you have to, and may even have extra obstacles. We ought to be looking for those who go through life feeling like, “This world, or this country, doesn’t seem to be set up for people like me.”
I have almost nothing in my life experience that resonates with that. You can call that a blessing, an advantage, a privilege, or whatever, but that’s it. Some of you are so different, and life has had many, many obstacles for you. Every day you feel like, “This just doesn’t quite work for people like me. This is not set up for me.” That’s what the Bible means by the weak and the vulnerable.
The closest thing I’ve had to this experience has been in the last year, after being diagnosed with celiac disease and not being able to eat things. I used to eat 12 things, but now I only eat 7 (my diet has never been really adventurous). I remember walking through an airport, seeing a world of wheat, with pancakes, sandwiches, cookies, and everything. I was in the airport in Amsterdam, and I just wanted to have the Dutch poffertjes, sweet cookies, and all of these things. I said, “This is not set up for people who have what I have!”
Some of you have this every day. You say, “This doesn’t work for me. People don’t understand. It makes perfect sense for them, because they have all of the connections, but not me.” As God’s people, we are called to find ways to show compassion to the weak and vulnerable, and to be mindful of them.
Why these laws? Because of two reasons: who you were, and who God is. This passage says, “Israelites, think of who you were in Egypt. You know the heart of the sojourner.” We could do the same: think of who you were. If you don’t care to help the weak, you are not in touch with your own helplessness, and you have not really come to grips with what grace is. You don’t understand you, and you don’t understand God.
God is the compassionate God—the strong one who became supremely weak so that he could save those who could not save themselves. If you live your whole life and say, “I’m not really interested in finding weak people and helping hurting people. I’m not really interested in those who are vulnerable—the widows and orphans. That is not my thing”, then you don’t understand who you are and what God is like. That’s you, and that’s me. We’re helpless, hurting, weak, and vulnerable. God sent his Son to us from the splendor of Heaven. He who was rich for our sakes became poor, that he might save us, who cannot save ourselves, to the uttermost.
Let’s pray. Father in heaven, even in passages like this that are filled with strange laws, you bring us back to the same questions which we’ve seen all throughout the book of Exodus: who is this God? The God who makes himself known. What is he like? He’s a God who helps the helpless slaves in Egypt, who has mercy on the weak and compassion on the hurting. We pray that we would do the same. Convict us if we have gone astray with a whole host of ideas that can’t really be shown from the Bible, or if we have been too dogmatic about things on which the Bible is silent.
Help us even more so if we have ignored passages like this—if we thought they were for other people, or somehow unsafe. We want to be a people that upholds the rule of law, that does not revile our rulers, and (at the same time) that welcomes those who have come from all over, that we might love them and speak to them of your love. We pray in Jesus’ name, amen.
Transcription and editing provided by 10:17 Transcription
Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations are from the ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.