First Reading: Exodus 22:20-26

God and Neighbor

The Lord said to the people:

20 "He who sacrifices to any god, except to YHWH only, shall be utterly destroyed.

21 "You shall not wrong an alien, neither shall you oppress him, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.

22 "You shall not take advantage of any widow or fatherless child. 23 If you take advantage of them at all, and they cry at all to me, I will surely hear their cry; 24 and my wrath will grow hot, and I will kill you with the sword; and your wives shall be widows, and your children fatherless.

25 "If you lend money to any of my people with you who is poor, you shall not be to him as a creditor; neither shall you charge him interest. 26 If you take your neighbor's garment as collateral, you shall restore it to him before the sun goes down, 27 for that is his only covering, it is his garment for his skin. What would he sleep in? It will happen, when he cries to me, that I will hear, for I am gracious."

World English Bible

These verses are part of the Covenant Code. In the Exodus narrative, YHWH declared his Law to his people through Moses at Mount Sinai. The code regulated both worship and social behavior. The laws on behavior tried to insure both loyalty to the nation and equitable treatment for the weak in society.

In ancient times, patriotism and religious practice were so intertwined, rules governing such behavior could be called "religious nationalism." Hence, the worship of idols was akin to treason among the Israelites, and was punished accordingly. [22:20]

Warnings against abuse of widows and orphans also carried heavy weight. These were the weakest members of the nation, for they were homeless in a social system based upon extended families. It would be easy to take advantage of them. But the caveat of divine judgement tried to check such behavior. The shame of such acts would carry on in one's descendants. For God himself would punish this crime by making wives widows and children orphans. [22:21-26]

Exodus painted love of God and love of neighbor in stark terms. Yet, the spirit of the Law was clear. Idolatry was punishable by death. Yet, lip-service or indifference to the divine also made one guilty. Abuse of the weak was punishable by natural death. Yet, lip-service and indifference to the poor also made one guilty. To follow love's lead fulfilled the Law.

We humans need laws to regulate harmful behavior. But we need to look beyond the law to its spirit. For the spirit of the law leads to positive behavior and even to acts of charity.

What is the opposite of a particular unlawful act? How can such an "opposite behavior" promote social peace? God's peace?