I was once struck by a brief radio address given by a Jewish Rabbi on the morning of Yom Kippur. She spent the whole time allotted to her talking about Isaiah 58 and how it links to the deliverance of Israel in Jewish understanding.
Very helpfully she reminded her audience that all ethnic Jews can trace their roots back to forebears who were themselves refugees and migrants. From their original temporary residence in Canaan, to their becoming refugees and then slaves in Egypt, right through to the 40-year trek that took them finally to a homeland of their own, they were ‘of no fixed abode’ and were often dependent on the kindness of pagan neighbours in order to survive. And God used that kindness – even from their erstwhile oppressors, the Egyptians – to sustain them. But how quickly Israel forgot.
The Rabbi then read the Isaiah passage in anticipation of its also being read that night in many Jewish homes, prompting conversations in light of the current crisis. The passage is so potent that it is worth re-reading ourselves as those described by the apostle as ‘the Israel of God’ (Ga 6.16):
Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter– when you see the naked, to clothe him, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood? Then your light will break forth like the dawn, and your healing will quickly appear; then your righteousness will go before you, and the glory of the Lord will be your rear guard. Then you will call, and the Lord will answer; you will cry for help, and he will say: Here am I. “If you do away with the yoke of oppression, with the pointing finger and malicious talk, and if you spend yourselves on behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed, then your light will rise in the darkness, and your night will become like the noonday. The Lord will guide you always; he will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land and will strengthen your frame. You will be like a well-watered garden, like a spring whose waters never fail. Your people will rebuild the ancient ruins and will raise up the age-old foundations; you will be called Repairer of Broken Walls, Restorer of Streets with Dwellings. (Isa 58.6-12)
The concerns God himself is outlining in this passage are labelled by some as being ‘social justice‘ and restricted to his desire for his theocratic kingdom under the Old Covenant administration. (The implication being that they therefore do not express his desire for the church in the New Covenant era.)
The difficulty with that, of course, is that Jesus borrows the language of this passage in what he says about the character of his kingdom and the conduct of those who are its subjects in Matthew 25 – especially in terms of their treatment of the hungry, thirsty, sick and imprisoned (25.31-46). Indeed, the King himself, during his earthly ministry, went out of his way to not only identify with, but also provide for the needs of such people in his care for the disadvantaged and the dispossessed.
It is something of a moot point as to whether Jesus was merely referring to the way his people are to treat their fellow-citizens of the kingdom when he said, ‘whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me’ (25.40) [italics added]. The apostle Paul certainly gave it a broader horizon in his application of this principle to the situation in Galatia. To those churches he said, ‘Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers’ (Ga 6.10) [italics added]. Christian compassion may well be intended to find its focus within the household of faith, but it is by no means to be restricted to it.
The fact God uses this imagery to depict his own mercy towards a people who were both spiritually as well as physically destitute – portraying them as an abandoned baby at the point of death (Eze 16.1-6) – could not be more poignant. He uses his own conduct towards Israel to exegete the scope of covenant compassion in its physical as well as spiritual dimensions.
How does this impinge upon our response as Christians to the current crisis? At the most basic level it means we cannot ignore it. That is true not just for Christians in Europe for whom it is literally a crisis in our own backyard, but also for Christians around the world. This does not diminish the duty of world governments – not just in the West, but those of Russia, China and their satellites too and perhaps especially in the oil-rich Islamic states, many of whom are doing precious little to help their fellow-Muslims. In the globalized world in which we live, it is easy to reap the benefits of a global economy, while not always shouldering the burden of those it has failed.
Yes, it is true that the liberalization of Christian theology in the late 19th Century degenerated into a gospel that was merely social by the early part of the 20th, but that does not de facto negate the dimension of social responsibility that should be a tangible expression of God’s new humanity in Christ.
In the words of the apostle Paul, when the church extends such kindness to the world, ‘men will praise God for the obedience that accompanies your confession of the gospel of Christ, and for your generosity in sharing with them and with everyone else’ (2Co 9.13). People will see that the God of the Bible is very different from the god of the Quran.
This article originally appeared here.