When I was in junior high, I was an easy target. I was small for my age and I was too scared to fight back. So, an easy target. Nothing serious mind you. Just minor things like hitting me over the head with tennis rackets during PE or clipping an alligator clip (or as the brave young man who accomplished this amazing feat would refer to it, a roach clip) to the middle of my back just where I could not reach it, while everyone laughed at my distress. It was more humiliating than painful, though it was indeed painful. And isn’t it a part of our reality that the weak; the disenfranchised; the marginalized, are the targets of humiliation. There is something very base in humanity that attacks those who are already down; those who are least able to fight for themselves or have no one to fight for them.
In Exodus 22:21-27 God makes it very clear that in his community; in his family, the weak are not to be taken advantage of. We start with the stranger or the temporary dweller. God has already commanded that the stranger cannot be forced to work on the Sabbath, no matter how convenient of a loophole that may have been. The stranger was also expected to sweep his home of leaven bread during the feast of unleavened bread. Privileges and expectations along with the Israelites. God intended for his people to be a witness to all the nations of what it means to be in a relationship with a holy God. The words used here are interesting. God said you shall not maltreat them nor shall you squeeze them. Well, okay, but does it really matter what happens to that family that just moved into our midst from – “gasp!” – Moab? Especially when they do not have anyone to protect them? God reminds them that they were the strangers in Egypt and they didn’t much care for how they were maltreated and squeezed while there. Why would you turn around and treat people the way you hated to be treated? There is something very base in humanity. So God had to give them this guiding principle.
Widows and orphans were the most vulnerable in this culture. If the widow did not have children to provide for her, she was reduced to begging and/or gleaning the part of the fields set aside for the poor. And even while in these fields, widows might be taken advantage of (see Ruth 2:9 – Boaz’s command to not touch Ruth implies the very real possibility that they might otherwise). And isn’t history full of accounts of orphans being abused and misused. The word used here for “afflict” literally means “make low”. And if you make low those who are already low, even if they have no family or village elder who will hear them, Yahweh will hear their cries of distress. Whoever humiliates one of these precious to God members of community will be destroyed by the burning anger of God and their wives and children will now become the most vulnerable of the community.
Often poor people are desperate for money. It kind of comes along with the territory. And here’s the thing, when people are desperate, they are easily taken advantage of. It was common practice among the nations for the rich to charge inordinately large interest when they gave out a loan. However, God speaks into this custom and said, “This is not business! This is about helping the poor.” No interest was to be charged. And isn’t it the interest that will often keep the poor poor? Not in the community of God. I mean God even goes so far as to command that if the poor person offers his cloak as collateral, that it had to be returned to him before the sun set. This kind of makes the idea of a pledge lose its teeth, doesn’t it. But God understood that the poor only had his cloak to keep him warm at night. If this were about business, you would keep the cloak and those cold nights would serve as motivation to pay off that debt as soon as possible. Right? But this is family; this is community. And once again, even if the rulers refuse to hear him because he is poor, Yahweh will hear him. We are not told this time what Yahweh will do, but you don’t want God to hear a taken advantage of fellow community member’s cry about your mistreatment of them. God is gracious or compassionate. This word is only used of God and it refers to his compassion for the lowly. Something will be done to protect the disadvantaged.
In God’s community, the disadvantaged are not to be taken advantage of. Nah man. In God’s community, you protect the unprotected; you help the helpless; you enable the unable. In God’s community the rich are not more important or greater; nor are the poor less. Everyone in God’s community has a voice! If others refuse to hear, take comfort, God hears you. Be community; be family. Peace, Walter