What If you lived in a place where justice was decided by the majority? As long as the majority is right, that would be okay. But what about when the majority is just plain wrong? I mean, what if the majority was easily swayed? And what if they were easily swayed against you? That would stink. Okay, now what if you lived in a place where justice is decided by the wealthy? And I’m not talking about the wealthy being able to afford the better attorneys. I’m talking about money swaying the judge or the policy makers. I am not one of the wealthy so this feels oppressive to me. I understand why many a Romanian protested when their political leaders passed a law stating that it was okey dokey to accept bribes. Most of the people in Romania are not wealthy and therefore the minority rich would be able to sway lawmakers. And that, my friend, is not cool. But what if justice was unfairly favorable to the unfortunate? In an attempt to balance injustice, the scales of justice tipped toward the poverty stricken. But is it justice if the poor are able to commit crimes merely because they are poor?
Exodus 23:1-9 is all about justice; about making sure the scales are not out of whack. In order to keep those scales balanced God tells his people to not bear an empty or worthless report. The idea is probably that of giving weight or importance to a report that has no weight. If it is an insignificant report, don’t lift it as if it had substance. Kind of like the high priest did with the report against Jesus that he was able to tear down the temple and rebuild it in three days. When the high priest lifted up this insignificant report and questioned Jesus about it, he remained silent. It wasn’t worth lifting. God also told the Israelites not to appoint their hand or strength with a wicked man in order to be a witness for wrong or violent intentions. And if the majority is on the wrong side of justice you are not to become one of the many. And you are not to give testimony in a legal situation in order to stretch toward the many. It seems as if all manner of justice was thrown out the window during Jesus’ trial. And then interestingly, Yahweh instructs that the Israelites are not to pay honor to a poor person in a legal dispute. Some have found this so unpalatable that they have emended the word “poor” to read “great, important.” This emendation is not at all warranted. God knows that we humans tend to swing out of balance. If we see that the poor are overlooked in legal matters, we will tend to swing out of balance toward honoring them in a way that is not justice at all. Poor people commit crimes too you know. They are not innocent because they are poor. And if that assumption is made, then the scales get wonky. There is no justice in that.
Verses 4 and 5 are not about legal matters and therefore they seem out of place. Ancient law codes did not seem to pay much attention to how those laws were listed. But this is still about justice. Justice is about what is right. What is right if you see an ox or donkey joyfully wandering away from its owner? And most of the time we would answer that you do your best to return the animal to its owner. But what if it belongs to someone who is hostile towards you? God said that you should still return it. And if a donkey that belongs to someone who hates you is, because the burden is too much or poorly packed, lying down under the load, you help this hates you person unload and repack the burden. This is not about helping the donkey, it is about living in community with people you do not get along with; who hate you. You do what is right; what is just.
Yahweh did not want his people to bend justice away from their “in want” brothers during legal disputes. Stand far away from false charges which slaughter the innocent and righteous. And isn’t that a great description of the result of false reports? Yahweh is not amused by this kind of deception. He will not treat the wicked as if they were righteous. You may be able to get away with lying to human authorities, but God sees your wickedness. The section ends with a repeated guiding principle: the stranger shall not be squeezed because squeezing the “away from his countrymen sojourner” is not justice. It is wrong people!
If community is to work, there needs to be justice. And justice needs to be balanced. Justice cannot be for the majority or the wealthy or even for the poor. It is about what is right. Doing what is right is not easy. Especially when what is right is in opposition to the mob or the powerfully rich or our emotional responses. What is right has nothing to do with whether the person is our enemy and hates us or if they are poor. Stretch toward justice then. Balance those scales then. Peace, Walter