Deuteronomy 24 records some interesting requirements for how Israel is to act toward those who have less than them: the needy, the orphan, the widow, and the foreigner. When you make a loan to your neighbor, don’t enter the house to claim it but wait outside. If the neighbor is destitute, don’t keep their cloak, but give it back so that he can sleep. Pay your workers at the end of each day; don’t abuse them. They are living day-to-day and need the money now. Make sure foreigners and orphans get their just rights. Don’t take the cloak of a widow as security for a loan. When you harvest your grain, don’t go back and pick up every last piece. When you shake the olives off the tree, don’t go back over the branches and strip them bear. What is left is for the foreigner, the widow, and the orphan. Moses then presents the justification for these rules, “Don’t ever forget, you were once slaves in Egypt.” Moses reminds them of their past enslavement and uses that past episode as motivation for future living.
It’s really easy to look down on those who don’t have as much. It’s easy to justify someone else’s situation as the result of sin or poor choices. They lost their job because they were drinking. They are homeless because they would never work. They have had difficult lives because they were consumed with sin. All of these statements may be absolutely true, but when we make these blanket statements we objectify the other. The other is not a mom or dad, a neighbor or friend. The other instead becomes a problem. A problem to be fixed or a problem to be avoided. Problems don’t have faces or names, they are abstract. It’s hard to love the abstract. Most people, however, just want to be seen. They want to be respected as individuals. They want to be given dignity and honor, not because they are more special than anyone else, but simply because they are human.
What makes the encouragement from Moses so meaningful is that Moses is encouraging Israel to not see others as objects or problems, but people. Your neighbor is not just a means to make money off a loan, but will always be your neighbor. Give them the dignity not to walk in their home and take their things. Give them respect and trust that they will pay back the loan. The foreigner, the immigrant, may not have rights protected by the government because of their legal status, but as human beings they deserve rights and justice. Help them receive justice, because they probably can’t seek justice on their own. Don’t make people beg for food. Even though you have every right to harvest every inch of your field, leave some so that others can receive of your blessings. Give them the dignity to be able to share in the harvest, and not just have to beg on the side of the road. For this is your community. These are not problems, they are people with faces and stories that deserve common dignity and honor.
Part of the problem with slavery is that slaves have no rights. Israel knew what it was like to not have dignity or honor; to be seen as forced labor and not as human. Israel knew the pain of being nothing but a number. Because they knew the pain, Israel was to treat others differently. Don’t ever forget, you were a slave, but by the grace of God, you were rescued. You are only where you are today because of God. If not for the grace of God you might still be a slave; or worse.
It’s true that some people find themselves on hard times because they made poor choices. It’s also true that some people find themselves on hard times because life is hard and the blessings haven’t fallen in their direction. Most of all, it’s true that everyone has a name and a story. Everyone deserves dignity and honor, simply because they are a part of the human race, and as humans, they are made in the image of God.
The next time we are confronted with a “problem” (someone wanting money, food, or a handout) it might be good to take the time to learn a name, to learn a story, to share some dignity and honor. Just hearing someone’s story could be one of the greatest blessings of all. Remember, if not for receiving some blessings in life, our places could have easily been reversed. Then find a way to bless them in some meaningful way.