This emphasis in the Bible has led some, like Latin American theologian Gustavo Gutiérrez, to speak of God’s “preferential option for the poor.”21 At first glance this seems to be wrong, especially in light of passages in the Mosaic law that warn against giving any preference to rich or poor (Leviticus 19:15; Deuteronomy 1:16–17). Yet the Bible says that God is the defender of the poor; it never says he is the defender of the rich. And while some texts call for justice for members of the well-off classes as well, the calls to render justice to the poor outnumber such passages by a hundred to one.
Why? Rich people can certainly be treated unjustly, but philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff says it is a simple fact that the lower classes are “not only disproportionately vulnerable to injustice, but usually disproportionately actual victims of injustice. Injustice is not equally distributed.”22 It stands to reason that injustice is easier to perform against people without the money or social status to defend themselves. The poor cannot afford the best legal counsel, as my friend Heather knew very well. The poor are more often the victims of robbery, one of the most common forms of injustice, and ordinarily law enforcement is much quicker and more thorough in its response to violence against the rich and powerful than against the poor. Wolterstorff concludes, “One has to decide where lie the greatest injustices and where lies the greatest vulnerability. Other things being equal, one focuses one’s attention on those.”23 In short, since most of the people who are downtrodden by abusive power are those who had little power to begin with, God gives them particular attention and has a special place in his heart for them. He says:
Speak up for those who cannot speak up for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute. Proverbs 31:8
If God’s character includes a zeal for justice that leads him to have the tenderest love and closest involvement with the socially weak, then what should God’s people be like? They must be people who are likewise passionately concerned for the weak and vulnerable. God injected his concern for justice into the very heart of Israel’s worship and community life with these texts:
Cursed be anyone who withholds the justice due to the immigrant, the fatherless, and the widow. Then all the people shall say, “Amen!” Deuteronomy 27:19
This is what the LORD says: “Do what is just and right. Rescue from the hand of his oppressor the one who has been robbed. Do no wrong or violence to the immigrant, the fatherless, or the widow, and do not shed innocent blood in this place.” Jeremiah 22:3
Israel was charged to create a culture of social justice for the poor and vulnerable because it was the way the nation could reveal God’s glory and character to the world. Deuteronomy 4:6–8 is a key text where Israel is told that they should keep God’s commands so that all the nations of the world will look at the justice and peace of their society, based on God’s laws, and be attracted to God’s wisdom and glory.24
This is why God can say that if we dishonor the poor we insult him, and when we are generous to the poor we honor him (Proverbs 14:31). If believers in God don’t honor the cries and claims of the poor, we don’t honor him, whatever we profess, because we hide his beauty from the eyes of the world. When we pour ourselves out for the poor—that gets the world’s notice. Even when Christians were a small minority in the Roman Empire, their startling charity to the poor evoked great respect from the populace. To honor him we must defend the poor and needy (Jeremiah 22:16). — Timothy Keller, Generous Justice: How God’s Grace Makes Us Just, 1st ed. (New York: Dutton, 2010), 7–10.
Timothy Keller, Generous Justice: How God’s Grace Makes Us Just, 1st ed. (New York: Dutton, 2010), 1–2.
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