To what degree do we systemically oppress the poor? The question arises amid the popular notion of social justice in our society. The young-adult generation sees social justice as a means to defend the rights of those who are otherwise overlooked. Most forget the fact that the concept is deeply ingrained in the Bible.
This is what the Lord Almighty said: ‘Administer true justice; show mercy and compassion to one another. Do not oppress the widow or the fatherless, the foreigner or the poor. Do not plot evil against each other.’ Zechariah 7:9-10
It’s no surprise that this should influence our culture today, but I think we’ve lost our zeal for implementing justice because we overlook the first seven words from the quote above. This is not a concept or good idea; this is what the Lord Almighty said. It’s not a suggestion. Zechariah had the dubious honor of prophesying to the Israelites who have returned from the Babylonian exile as he tries to convey this poignant message.
They needed to unlearn that which was pounded into them when they were in exile. Our forefathers were assimilated into Babylonia because they lost their way. After 70 years of exile, a remnant was able to return and restore the temple. I can’t imagine how that affected them, but the very next few verses provide a hint:
But they refused to pay attention; stubbornly they turned their backs and covered their ears. They made their hearts as hard as flint and would not listen to the law or to the words that the Lord Almighty had sent by his Spirit through the earlier prophets. Zechariah 7:11-12
They refused to pay attention. Their hearts were like flint–extremely hard and brittle. Before we adjust our seats and judge those ancient people as uninformed and uneducated, look around and observe our society where we see incredible injustice.
Recognize that in this country alone, we had to have a Civil Rights Movement to change the course of history, and yet we know racism still exists. Look at the data, and you’ll see some of the highest incarceration rates in the world in our country. Further, you’ll see most of those in prison are from our most impoverished communities.
If God is the defender of the poor, I think it’s fair to say that we must be as well. In Timothy Keller’s book, Generous Justice, he points out that “injustice is not equally distributed.“1 Those from the lowest economic groups have higher barriers to surpass. If Father Gregory Boyle is right, we have much to learn from our friends who are viewed as the poor in society. It’s my prayer that hearts will change when eyes are finally able to see those we refuse to see.
Let me leave you with some encouragement from the next chapter.
The seed will grow well, the vine will yield its fruit, the ground will produce its crops, and the heavens will drop their dew. I will give all these things as an inheritance to the remnant of this people. Just as you, Judah and Israel, have been a curse among the nations, so I will save you, and you will be a blessing. Do not be afraid, but let your hands be strong. Zechariah 8:12-13
We have the great advantage of being able to look back on this passage and know how God fulfilled His promise through Jesus. The remnant grows, and somehow Jesus is born from this lineage to show us the true way to the Father. In foresight, it’s hard to imagine, but in hindsight, we see it clearly.
In one of Tim Keller’s sermons2, he provided two pictures for us to consider. One was that of an acorn; the other was a 100-year old tree. If we only knew the acorn, how could we ever envision the tree? The potential wrapped up in that tiny seed is precisely what was needed to create a massive tree. What vision has God planted in your heart that no one else can see? Have faith. Don’t be surprised that no one else gets it right away.
Serve the widow, the fatherless, the foreigner, and the poor. Reach out to those experiencing homelessness, drug addiction, alcoholism, substance use disorders of all kinds. Plant the seeds and trust that God sees a mighty forest!
1 Keller, Timothy. Generous Justice: How Gods Grace Makes Us Just, p. 7. Penguin Books, 2016.
2 Gospel in Light Sermon Series, jump to the 36-minute mark for a description of the acorn and the Redwood tree.