Exodus 22, Immigrants, Widows, Debtors: What's a Preacher to Do?

Cambridge, MA. As readers of this blog know, I occasionally post a reflection related to a homily I’ve just given on a given Sunday, in the parish where I help out. Preaching of necessity clarifies my thinking, and though I never write out a homily, I don’t mind sharing it with you. But for this coming Sunday, Oct. 26 (30th Sunday of Year A), there is an interesting challenge in the first reading, on which I have decided to seek your input several days in advance. Namely, we have this beautiful and challenging reading:

You shall not wrong or oppress a resident alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt. You shall not abuse any widow or orphan. If you do abuse them, when they cry out to me, I will surely heed their cry; my wrath will burn, and I will kill you with the sword, and your wives shall become widows and your children orphans. If you lend money to my people, to the poor among you, you shall not deal with them as a creditor; you shall not exact interest from them. If you take your neighbor’s cloak in pawn, you shall restore it before the sun goes down; for it may be your neighbor’s only clothing to use as cover; in what else shall that person sleep? And if your neighbor cries out to me, I will listen, for I am compassionate (Exodus 22:21-27).

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I have two connected thoughts about this reading, in advance of the weekend. They head in different directions. First, preachers will be more or less comfortable in bringing politics to the fore—at all, or during the election season. I usually do not preach on specific political issues, primarily because as a life-long teacher I believe that listeners should be able to raise questions, react, disagree—activities not possible in church. But would one preach on this reading without getting political? “Illegal immigrants” are surely the resident aliens of today, and one can easily quote the August 2013 statement of the U.S. bishops on immigration reform:

The first duty is to welcome the foreigner out of charity and respect for the human person. Persons have the right to immigrate and thus government must accommodate this right to the greatest extent possible, especially financially blessed nations: "The more prosperous nations are obliged, to the extent they are able, to welcome the foreigner in search of the security and the means of livelihood which he cannot find in his country of origin. Public authorities should see to it that the natural right is respected that places a guest under the protection of those who receive him (Catholic Catechism, 2241).

If the instruction on the foreigner in need is clear, the second instruction in this passage from Exodus 22 is equally direct: “If you lend money to my people, to the poor among you, you shall not deal with them as a creditor; you shall not exact interest from them.” There is of course a long history to the story of Christian ambivalence on money-lending at interest—usury—and it can be argued that the modern practice of lending at sometimes exorbitant interest is a clear deviation from the command of Exodus. Should I then preach that the banks should forgive the debts of the poorest Americans, and that the richest nations should forgive the debts of the poorest? Arguably, this passage could be a litmus test by which to rule out voting for the anti-immigration reform and pro-free market capitalism candidates. This would seem to be the case.

None of this is simple, but it is actually more complex than I have made it out to be. The related point, after all, is whether we are really obliged to obey the commands of God (in Exodus) on the immigrant and money-lending. So many Christians do not feel obliged at all, and our politicians are most often among that number.

The answer, we might say, lies in admitting that the Bible does not oblige us uniformly or eternally. Things change. Rightly, Christians can feel more obliged by some parts of the Law given to Moses than by other parts. Consider the equally clear statements that precede the above passage:

You shall not permit a female sorcerer to live. Whoever lies with an animal shall be put to death. Whoever sacrifices to any god, other than the Lord alone, shall be devoted to destruction (Exodus 22:18-20).

I hope that readers of this blog do not think we should kill female sorcerers (witches), do not think that we should kill those practicing bestiality, and do not think we should kill the worshippers of “the gods.” We simply put aside those commands as no longer applicable. Fair enough.

But how then can a progressive, compassionate Christian think that the strictures of Exodus regarding the immigrant and the person in debt still oblige us? Obviously, we need to justify the selective reading of Scripture in terms of a Christian reading of the whole Bible, according to our sense of the wholeness of revelation, and by differentiating what is temporally limited or still relevant for us today. Yes, we are obliged to welcome the stranger, to care for the widow and orphan, alleviate and even forgive the debts of individuals and nations oppressively weighed down by their financial burdens. No, we are not obliged, or even permitted, to kill witches, or those practicing bestiality, or those worshipping other deities. (One might immediately extend this, as is inevitable, to the host of other debated activities condemned in one part or another of the Bible, such as today’s debated issues related to sexuality. But such would be the homily for another day.)

Does this all work out? Since this is only Thursday (October 23), I invite my readers to think about how you would preach on Exodus 22, whether you would draw a clear line from the text to positions at issues in this year’s elections—or whether you would excuse, or agree with, politicians who want to enforce some parts of the Bible but not others. Comment at this site if you wish, by midday Saturday, October 25!

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Joseph J Dunn
3 years 1 month ago
Your request for reader comment seems genuine, and your deadline short (it’s now Friday) so I offer the following though I have no theology training beyond some undergraduate credits long ago. If you are seeking to use passages—and only selected passages—from the Old Testament as a “litmus test by which to rule out voting for the anti-immigration reform and pro-free market capitalism candidates,” that would oversimplify both Christian teaching and American political positions in 2014. Let’s recall an observation made by Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1933: “Nothing is more striking than the simple innocence of the men who insist, whenever an objective is present, on the prompt production of a patent scheme guaranteed to produce a result. Human endeavor is not so simple as that.” Is your litmus test somehow not the equivalent of a patent scheme? If your intent is to glean some useful lessons from the selected passages, I urge you to consider the writings of several recent Popes, who are no doubt bringing to modern times the fullness of these passages in the light of Christian revelation. St. John Paul II, in Centessimus Annus, “The Church has no models to present; models that are real and effective can only arise within the framework of different historical situations, through the efforts of all those who responsibly confront concrete problems in all their social, economic, political and cultural aspects, as these interact with each other.” (No. 43). That’s a long way from pointing to selected passages to prescribe a socially conscious agenda. Pope Francis, in “Joy of the Gospel,” specifically disavows any political ideology (No. 208). He urges us to adopt “decisions, programs, mechanisms and processes specifically geared to a better distribution of income, the creation of sources of employment, and an integral promotion of the poor which goes beyond a simple welfare mentality.” (No. 204). Will your litmus test rule out voting for candidates who propose welfare programs that have all the curative power of “take these two aspirin and come back next month?” Will it support voting for candidates who propose that those receiving financial support also receive counseling from an empathetic local case manager who can guide them to better decisions and help them escape from dependency? Will your litmus test promote those candidates who “strive to increase the goods of this world and make them accessible to all” –-a role that Pope Francis directly attributes to business? (No. 203). As I write this, I’m thinking that your litmus test will be about as effective as the church’s efforts to discern female sorcerers. Remember that Joan of Arc fiasco? Details: If you really want to stick to the selected passages, give some thought to the dilemma that some criticize banks for under-serving poor neighborhoods, leaving the residents to rely on payday loans, etc. If, in fact, the banks are ignoring the poor, can the banks then be prodded to forgive loans they have not made? Is the proposal, this week, to have Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae once again insure home mortgages with only 3% down payments (a major source of foreclosure misery in the Great Recession) something you will endorse, when a parishioner asks a follow-up question after Mass? That's a fair question, once you apply selected Old Testament passages to bankers in Cambridge, MA in 2014. As an alternative, how about enlisting, in the Church community where you preach, a “creative concern and effective co-operation in helping the poor to live with dignity and reaching out to everyone”(No. 207) rather than trying to tie selective Old Testament passages to current social issues and the sound-bite versions of candidates’ positions in a homily that cannot extend beyond a few minutes. I do not envy you your task.
michael iwanowicz
3 years 1 month ago
The synod spoke re: families w/o any 'caring' for the widowed who contribute substantially to the church ... and what about widowed deacons who may nor remarry... Deacon Mike

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