In the Hebrew scriptures, that part of the Bible we call the Old Testament, we find a strong religious challenge to always welcome the stranger, the foreigner. This was emphasised for two reasons. First, because the Jewish people themselves had once been foreigners and immigrants. Their scriptures kept reminding them not to forget that. Second, they believed that God’s revelation, most often, comes to us through the stranger, in what’s foreign to us. That belief was integral to their faith.
The great prophets developed this much further. They taught that God favours the poor and that consequently we will be judged, religiously, by how we treat them. The prophets coined this mantra (still worth memorising): the quality of your faith will be judged by the quality of justice in the land; and the quality of justice in the land will always be judged by how orphans, widows and strangers fare while you are alive.
Orphans, widows and strangers! That’s scriptural code for who, at any given time, are the three most vulnerable groups in society.
And the prophets’ message didn’t go down easy. Rather, it was a religious affront to many of the pious at the time who strongly believed that we will be judged religiously and morally by the rigour and strictness of our religious observance. Then, like now, social justice was often religiously marginalised.
But Jesus sides with the Hebrew prophets. For him, God not only makes a preferential option for the poor, but God is also in the poor.
How we treat the poor is how we treat God. Moreover, the prophets’ mantra – that we will be judged religiously by how we treat the poor – is given a normative expression in Jesus’s discourse on the final judgment in the Gospel of Matthew, Chapter 25. We are all familiar, perhaps too familiar, with that text. Jesus, in effect, was answering a question: what will the Last Judgment be like? What will be the test? How will we be judged? His answer is stunning and, taken baldly, is perhaps the most challenging text in the Gospels. He tells us that we will be judged, seemingly solely, on the basis of how we treated the poor – that is, on how we have treated the most vulnerable among us.
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