Justice, Generosity, and Jesus
Growing up, butchers all seemed quite similar—big men with booming voices and Popeye forearms. Almost all had lost a finger or two on a bandsaw, and what they lacked in digits they gained in personality. They maintained a boisterously flirtatious banter with their housewife customers, rarely failing to coax out an unplanned purchase. And while they weighed cuts of meat, their fat thumbs rested quietly upon the scales. This was their habit, and they did it so unselfconsciously and with such good humor that it seemed almost mean to ask that they re-weigh the meat sans thumb. Strangely enough, those weighty thumbs made the butcher roguishly endearing, and even today people laugh at the memory of this.
But open the book of Proverbs, and you will soon see that scale tampering is not funny to God. Proverbs 11:1, “The LORD abhors dishonest scales, but accurate weights are his delight.”
Market scales are very important, and very easy to manipulate.
The merchant displays his rice at $2/kg. You pay $4 for two kilos. He puts two one-kilo weights on one side of the scale and fills up the container on the other side until the scale is even. But the scoundrel has secretly shaved some of the metal off his weights, so that though each is stamped 1 kg, they actually weigh just 990 grams. You have paid for 2 kilos, you have received 1.98 kilos.
That difference might not seem much to worry about. But if you buy rice like that every day, then by the end of the year you will have received 7.3 kg less rice than you have paid for. (Let alone the other goods you have bought.) And let’s imagine that the merchant sells rice to 200 people a day in the village. By the end of the year, every family has missed out on the nourishment of 7.3 kg of rice, while the villain has $1,460 extra in his pocket.
The Hebrew original of Proverbs 11:1 vividly describes God’s view of such behavior. Let me paraphrase in a way that brings out its emotive language:
A treacherous and deceitful scale or balance is an abomination, is detestable, is offensive to the LORD. And a safe, complete, and ‘peaceable’ (shālëm) weighing stone is his desire and delight.
The LORD is a just God.
When you use dishonest weights, you steal. You rob a person right in front of their face. And you rob them while making a spectacle of being fair to them. This offends the LORD. For he is a just God. Justice goes to the heart of who he is. If he was not just, then he would not be God.
Thus Proverbs 16:11, “Honest scales and balances are the LORD’s; all the weights in the bag are of his making.” Honest scales belong to God and are made by God in that they reflect and conform to his attributes of justice and righteousness.
Recently it was discovered that AMP Insurance had charged thousands of people for life insurance premiums, for people that they knew had died. It was not an accident. It was company policy. The Commonwealth Bank acted the same and charged a customer with fees for more than ten years after she had gone to her grave.
Such dishonesty disgusts God. So is not settling our debts or paying workers what is owed to them (Lev. 19:13; James 5:4). So is not paying the taxes and revenue you owe to the government (Luke 20:25; Rom. 13:7). So is taking more from people than what is right and fair (Luke 3:13). So is stealing (Exod. 20:15; Eph. 4:28). So is taking any kind of financial advantage over another (1 Thess. 4:6). God is righteous and just, and God’s people will want to be the same.
The Westminster Larger Catechism draws out all the implications of the Eighth Commandment, and it is worth quoting the 142nd question in full:
The sins forbidden in the eighth commandment, besides the neglect of the duties required, are, theft, robbery, manstealing, and receiving any thing that is stolen; fraudulent dealing, false weights and measures, removing land-marks, injustice and unfaithfulness in contracts between man and man, or in matters of trust; oppression, extortion, usury, bribery, vexatious lawsuits, unjust inclosures and depopulations; ingrossing commodities to enhance the price; unlawful callings, and all other unjust or sinful ways of taking or withholding from our neighbour what belongs to him, or of enriching ourselves; covetousness; inordinate prizing and affecting worldly goods; distrustful and distracting cares and studies in getting, keeping, and using them; envying at the prosperity of others; as likewise idleness, prodigality, wasteful gaming; and all other ways whereby we do unduly prejudice our own outward estate, and defrauding ourselves of the due use and comfort of that estate which God hath given us.
In short, “Better a little with righteousness than much gain with injustice” (Prov. 16:8).
Proverbs extends this condemnation of injustice to our speech.
“A truthful witness does not deceive, but a false witness pours out lies” (Prov. 14:5). “A truthful witness saves lives, but a false witness is deceitful” (Prov. 14:25). Exactly the same emotive verbs as Proverbs 11:1 are employed: “The LORD detests lying lips, but he delights in men who are truthful” (Prov. 12:22).
God is a God of truth and light, light being the Bible’s main metaphor for truth. God began creation week by making light. In the Tabernacle stood a seven-branched menorah—a symbol of God’s perfect and complete truthfulness. The apostle John declared that “God is light; in him there is no darkness at all” (1 John 1:5). And twice John recorded Jesus saying “I am the light of the world” (John 8:12; 9:5). When we lie, exaggerate, and withhold the truth, we act against all that God is and loves.
God hates the exploitation of the poor.
Coming back to stealing, God is especially aggrieved by those who rob the poor:
He who oppresses the poor shows contempt for their Maker, but whoever is kind to the needy honors God. (Prov. 14:31)
There is an ancient saying: “The poor are a gold mine.” Time and again the greedy and powerful have enriched themselves, not, like Robin Hood, by plundering the riches of other wealthy and powerful people, but by plundering the poor. Why? Those with less educational privileges are perhaps more easily deceived. Certainly, the poor have far less ability to defend themselves. And few in power care enough about the poor to be roused from their downy beds and restaurant booths to defend them.
An architect recently estimated that St. Peter’s Basilica cost $600 million to build in today’s money. Another estimated the cost of the Palace of Versailles at one billion dollars. Where was the money found? In the case of the Vatican by flogging “indulgences” to Europe’s poor (it was the fleecing of the poor just as much as the theological travesty of indulgences that upset Martin Luther). In the case of Versailles, by taxing France’s peasants. God hates this exploitation. It outrages his heart for the poor.
Jesus was born into a family so impoverished that they sacrificed a pair of doves at Jesus’ birth (Luke 2:24). The sacrifice of a pair of doves was permitted to those too poor to offer a lamb (Lev. 12:6-8). It was almost certainly the Magi’s unexpected gift of gold that funded the flight to Egypt that saved Jesus’ life (Matt. 2:11-15).
The incarnate Jesus was quite literally homeless (Luke 9:58) and reliant on charity (Luke 8:3). Though all the riches of the universe belonged to him, “for your sakes he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich” (2 Cor. 8:9). Instead of plundering the poor, Jesus gave away his riches and made himself poor. He identified with the poor in order to enrich us with forgiveness and life.
It is impossible to read the Bible without seeing again and again the very special place in God’s heart for the poor, the widow, and the orphan:
Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress. (James 1:27a; see also Ps. 68:5; 146:9; Isa. 1:16-17; 58:6-7)
God feels so strongly about this that he promises—in fact threatens—to personally defend the cause of the poor:
Do not move an ancient boundary stone or encroach on the fields of the fatherless, for their Defender is strong; he will take up their case against you. (Prov. 23:10-11, also 15:25; 22:22-23)
What could be more tempting than to sneak the boundary stone of a neighboring widow’s property a few feet closer to her home? She probably won’t notice. If she does it will be her word against yours. And she has no hope of winning a lawsuit against your fancy lawyers. But the Lord takes her side. He is her Redeemer and Defender. Proverbs uses legal language here: God will take up her case pro bono (literally, for the good) and will not lose. For he is strong—a word that also means hard, severe, even violent. And he is the Judge!
God will vindicate the poor.
This is the lesson of Jesus’ great and terrifying Parable of the Sheep and the Goats (Matt. 25:31-46). Ultimately, he himself will vindicate the poor, those who have been treated with injustice and without compassion.
This parable reminds us also that it is not only positively inflicted injustice that Jesus will severely condemn, but the passive ignoring of their plight. Proverbs 28:27 teaches similarly: “He who gives to the poor will lack nothing, but he who closes his eyes to them receives many curses.” God’s curse is a very terrible thing. It is the opposite of his blessing. It is his determination to utterly destroy. Upon whom does this curse fall? Not only upon those who afflict the poor, but also upon those who shut their eyes to their affliction. Upon those who hear about the poor and shrug their shoulders and go back to sipping their flat whites and munching their Croques Messieurs.
Do we do this? Do we shut our eyes to the poor? Are we bringing upon our heads “many curses”? If we do shut our eyes, we cannot plead the righteousness of Christ as our hope. For by shutting our eyes, we show that we lack the saving faith in Jesus that brings such righteousness and prove instead that we have turned our back on Christ:
“I tell you the truth, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.” (Matt. 25:45; emphasis added)
This will be the appalling fate of those who are culpably ignorant and willfully blind to the fate of the poor: “Whoever shuts their ears to the cry of the poor will also cry out and not be answered” (Prov. 21:13).
Thus, Proverbs urges open-handed generosity. “A generous man will himself be blessed, for he shares his food with the poor” (22:9), and,
One man gives freely, yet gains even more; another withholds unduly, but comes to poverty. A generous man will prosper; he who refreshes others will himself be refreshed. People curse the man who hoards grain, but blessing crowns him who is willing to sell. (Prov. 11:24-26)
One need not be rich to be generous.
As the ancient Macedonian churches taught us for all time:
Out of the most severe trial, their overflowing joy and their extreme poverty welled up in rich generosity. For I testify that they gave as much as they were able, and even beyond their ability. Entirely on their own, they urgently pleaded with us for the privilege of sharing in this service to the saints. And they did not do as we expected, but they gave themselves first to the Lord and then to us in keeping with God's will. (2 Cor. 8:2-5)
This is the true Christian. This is the person cloaked with the righteousness of Christ. Their joy of salvation poured out even from deep poverty into a wealth of generosity. Christ did this for them, and they cannot help but do the same for others.
Has Proverbs exposed in you a heart of greed? A Christ-less heart? A faithless heart? A terrible future judgment? There is only one thing to do:
“Sell your possessions and give to the poor. Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out, a treasure in heaven that will not be exhausted, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys.” (Luke 12:33)
Campbell Markham is a Presbyterian pastor in Hobart, Tasmania. He blogs at Campbell Markham: Thoughts and Letters.
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