14 July 2011

A Survey of the Old Testament Law--Treatment of Widows and Orphans

In our journey through Exodus, we come to a place where the Pharisees who lived during the time when Christ walked the earth were in clear and direct violation of this Law that they were clinging to for their salvation. And in the gospels this is a point on which Jesus, far from being the poster child for the “Let’s all just sit down and discuss our differences and come to a mutual understanding so we can worship God in our own way” mentality that is currently popular among many “evangelical” churches, really lashes out at the Pharisees’ religion and pokes His holy finger into their unrighteous heart and shows them that they are false worshippers of God. Exodus 22:21-24“21 You shall neither mistreat a stranger nor oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. 22 You shall not afflict any widow or fatherless child. 23 If you afflict them in any way, and they cry at all to Me, I will surely hear their cry; 24 and My wrath will become hot, and I will kill you with the sword; your wives shall be widows, and your children fatherless.” In verse 21, God reminds them, yet again, that they were strangers and foreigners in the land of Egypt, and they still remembered, no doubt, the pain and suffering and humiliation they endured for those 400 years—therefore they shall be kind to anyone who is a stranger among them. Since God showed them mercy in bringing them out of Egypt, they are to show mercy to strangers that come in among them.

Now, in verses 22-24, this is where we are going to bring the Old Testament into the New. And in this passage God shows that He is not simply some hot-headed ill-tempered despot who simply looks for people to destroy if He doesn’t get His morning coffee. Exodus 22:22“You shall not afflict any widow or fatherless child.” John Wesley—
“Ye shall not afflict the widow or fatherless child - That is, ye shall comfort and assist them, and be ready upon all occasions to shew them kindness. In making worthy demands from them, their condition must be considered who have lost those that should protect them: they are considered to be unskilled in business, destitute of advice, fearful, and of a tender spirit; and therefore must be treated with kindness and compassion, and not to be taken advantage of, nor have any hardship put upon them, which a husband or a father would have sheltered them from.”
Did these people have Social Security? Did they have DCS? Child labor laws? Did they have 401(k) programs and pensions? The widows and fatherless were at the mercy of any who could—and many times would—take advantage of them and make their plight even worse. There were no safeguards for women who lost their husbands or children who lost their fathers. Well, actually, they did have a safeguard—God. God was their safeguard. If noone else would protect them or care for them, God would. And would He ever. Listen to what He says in Exodus 22:23-24“23 If you afflict them in any way, and they cry at all to Me, I will surely hear their cry; 24 and My wrath will become hot, and I will kill you with the sword; your wives shall be widows, and your children fatherless.” If the widow or fatherless had no one to fight for them, God would fight for them. Is it a good idea to fight God?

All throughout the Scriptures, time and time again we see passages that deal with how we are to treat the widow and the fatherless. Deuteronomy 10:17-18“17 For the LORD your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who shows no partiality nor takes a bribe. 18 He administers justice for the fatherless and the widow, and loves the stranger, giving him food and clothing.” Isaiah 1:17“Learn to do good; seek justice, rebuke the oppressor; defend the fatherless, plead for the widow.” Ezekiel 22:6-7“6 Look, the princes of Israel: each one has used his power to shed blood in you. 7 In you they have made light of father and mother; in your midst they have oppressed the stranger; in you they have mistreated the fatherless and the widow.” God stands up when those whom He has chosen are afflicted, oppressed and persecuted. In fact, He did that for you and me. He chose us in Him, and He saved us when we couldn’t save ourselves. Romans 5:6For when we were still without strength, in due time Christ died for the ungodly. And from a human perspective, the most helpless and most powerless among us are orphans and widows. And God demands that no one place even heavier burdens upon them.

And yet by the time the Pharisees came to prominence that is exactly what they did. They built their whole system upon treading down the most powerless of the most powerless. Not just women and children—widowed women and fatherless children. And in His last days before He was crucified, Jesus saved some of His harshest words for those who used the cloak of religion to get wealthy. Turn with me to Luke 20:45. This is an exchange between Christ and the Pharisees—one that we often hear preached and taught as a passage about selfless giving. About “giving all you have to God.” But that is not the reason this exchange is included in the Scriptures. It’s the story of the widow that puts her last two pennies into the collection box. But let’s read it in its proper context. Because this is not a lesson on “sacrificial giving.” It is actually an example of the Pharisees “devouring widows’ houses” as Jesus calls it. This is another example of chapter divisions that they didn’t quite get right. Because this exchange starts at the end of Luke 20, and runs over into Luke 21. Luke 20:45-4745 Then, in the hearing of all the people—He did not come and take them aside, and say, “Now, guys, I want to tell you something but I don’t want to embarrass you, so let’s go somewhere we can talk privately.” In the hearing of all the people, He said to His disciples, 46 "Beware of the scribes, who desire to go around in long robes, love greetings in the marketplaces, the best seats in the synagogues, and the best places at feasts, 47 who devour widows' houses, and for a pretense make long prayers. These will receive greater condemnation." This is actually a parallel of the list of woes that Christ lays down for the scribes and Pharisees in Matthew 23. And if anyone ever tells you “We need to be more like Jesus and just get along with everybody”—take them to Matthew 23.

The context of this passage is Jesus rebuking the Pharisees for their extravagant lifestyles. He is showing the world—in the hearing of all the people—just how the Pharisees are very pretty on the outside—but very ugly on the inside. And after He gets done scolding these Pharisees for being hypocrites, and snakes, and whitewashed tombs and blind guides and so on, then we get to the widow putting her money into the collection. Luke 21:1-41 And He looked up and saw the rich putting their gifts into the treasury, 2 and He saw also a certain poor widow putting in two mites. A ‘mite’—most other translations render it “two copper coins.” It was the smallest of the smallest coins at that time. It would be like if we had a half-penny. 3 So He said, "Truly I say to you that this poor widow has put in more than all; 4 for all these out of their abundance have put in offerings for God, but she out of her poverty put in all the livelihood that she had." Now notice something here. Jesus does not once commend her for any “selfless giving.” He does not say, “Look at what this woman has done, and you do the same.” He was, in fact, condemning the religious practice of the scribes and Pharisees, who taught that you had to give to the temple if you wanted God’s blessing. Jesus says “NO!! God does not want you to give up the last two pennies you have in order to give to Him.” If God demands that widows put in their last two copper coins and go home to starve to death, would that not mean that He would be guilty of “afflicting widows”? And if God condemns those who afflict widows, and if God wants the last two pennies a widow has to her name, then wouldn’t God be condemning Himself?

The first time I ever heard this passage in Luke explained in this was by John MacArthur. Listen to what he said—
“One thing I do know is this, the Lord does not expect you to give 100 percent of what you have so that you have absolutely nothing left. But that's the only obvious principle here if you're going to draw a principle. Besides, why would you inject the principle about giving in a context like this? This is no place to interject, ‘Oh by the way, a few words on giving’…The Lord makes no comment about giving except that she gave more than everybody else relative to what she had. She is not commended. They are not condemned. No one's attitude or spirit in the giving is discussed. And no principle regarding giving is drawn by our Lord. The narrative is not intended to deal with any of those matters. The reason the Lord doesn't say anything about it is that's not what it's about. And if you look at the context before and after, this is all about the condemnation of wicked spiritual leaders and a corrupt religious system that is about to be destroyed.”
And I would agree 100% with his assertion. The Pharisees had built their religion on the back of the poor, demanding that they give to the temple so these religious leaders—under the guise of “giving for the glory of God”—could live in luxury while crushing the poor under their feet.

Again, Jesus never commends her for her generosity. She is, in fact, contributing to this corrupt system. The blind may have been leading the blind—but even those followers were blind. His point here is actually to condemn that corrupt system which was preying on widows and the poor. Because think about it—the Pharisees at the time were like what we have on TBN today. They were teaching, 2000 years ago, that if you were poor it was because you were under a curse from God and you needed to give “the Man of God” all your money. Just like Fred Price or Paula White or Steve Munsey today. And it was that system that Jesus came to destroy. Which is why He goes on to say, Luke 21:5-65 Then, as some spoke of the temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and donations—donations that included the two little copper coins that the widow threw in—5 Then, as some spoke of the temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and donations, He said, 6 "These things which you see—the days will come in which not one stone shall be left upon another that shall not be thrown down." And it came to pass that in 70 AD, not even 40 years after Christ’s death and resurrection, the Roman general Titus surrounded Jerusalem and burned it to the ground, the temple being destroyed in the process.

Josephus, the Jewish historian who lived around the end of the first and beginning of the second century AD, wrote this about the bloodshed within the temple:
“Now round about the altar lay dead bodies heaped one upon another; a great quantity of their blood ran down the steps going up to the altar. Also the dead bodies that were slain above, on the altar, fell down.”
Thus was fulfilled the words of the Law, which said Exodus 22:22-24“22 You shall not afflict any widow or fatherless child. 23 If you afflict them in any way…24 My wrath will become hot, and I will kill you with the sword.”

And just to finish the point, another passage which speaks about the widows and fatherless is James 1:27 (NASB)Pure and undefiled religion in the sight of our God and Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world. Albert Barnes—
“To go to see, to look after, to be ready to aid them. This is an instance or example of what true religion will do, showing that it will lead to a life of practical benevolence. It may be remarked that this has always been regarded as an essential thing in true religion; because this is an imitation of God, who is 'a father of the fatherless, and a judge for the widows in his holy habitation,' (Psalm 68:5); and who has always revealed himself as their friend.”
When we talk about the books of the NT—whether the gospels or the epistles—they all had an intended audience. Paul wrote Philippians to a church which was made up of those who had lived under Roman government and culture, but were now worshipping God. He wrote Ephesians to a church that was surrounded by Greek pagan worship. Peter wrote his two letters for Jewish readers. And like the apostle Peter, the main audience that James was writing to was Jewish Christians. Christians who had grown up hearing and learning the Law. And, yes, even those parts of the Law concerning the widows and fatherless. In fact, that’s what he means when he describes himself in James 1:1James, a bondservant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ, To the twelve tribes which are scattered abroad. And he really corrects their thinking about religion, and shows them that true religion is not tied up in fancy garments and keeping feasts. James is saying that, yes, religion does include “keeping oneself unstained by the world.” But, one must never neglect to help the most helpless of the helpless.

Let me finish up with this comment from Dr. MacArthur about that passage in Luke—
“How would you feel…if you saw a destitute widow who only had two coins left to buy her food for her next meal give those two coins to a religious system…? You would say, ‘Something is wrong with that system when that system takes the last two coins out of a widow's hand.’ That's what you would say and you would be right to say that….how would you feel if you saw a destitute, impoverished person give to her religion her last hope for life to go home perhaps and die? You'd be sick. You'd feel terrible. You would be repulsed. Any religion that is built on the back of the poor is a false religion. What a sad, misguided, woeful, poor victimized lady. It's tragic, painful. And I think that's exactly how Jesus saw it.”

Jesus Christ is Lord.