Today, February 6th, is nestled between the feasts of two extraordinary people. Saturday, February 8th, is the feast of St. Jerome Emiliani, who lived right around the time of the Reformation and devoted much of his adult life to the care of orphans, prostitutes, the sick and the poor. He also founded the order of Somascans (which I had never heard of until doing this research), who look primarily after orphans and troubled youth.
This past Monday, February 3rd, was the feast of the passing of Mother Mary Lange, who came to the US as an exile from now-Haiti in the early 1800′s and founded the Oblate Sisters of Providence in Baltimore in 1828–the first order of nuns of African descent in the United States. The primary mission of the Oblate Sisters was originally to evangelize to and educate African Americans, which at the time meant operating an orphanage and school–all of which occurred in a slave state before the Civil War. Mother Mary Lange died on February 3, 1882, and her cause for sainthood is “on track” according to a 2008 report by the Catholic Review.
However, this post is not actually about Mother Mary or Saint Jerome, despite their remarkable stories and heroic actions. In my history of Catholicism, Saints are talked about as examples to follow, but they more often seem like exemplars who had “special grace” that the rest of us could never possess. I don’t know if its the American theologian in me, but I find that argument unsettling because it excuses the rest of us from really trying and sets up certain people in the world as simply better than others. If Saints have “special grace,” then who are we to really try to live their lives?
So, in honor of anti-exceptionalism and in honor of Mother Mary and Saint Jerome, this post about not accepting the fact that orphans must always exist within society. To be a parent-less child is to be in poverty, no matter how much money is thrown your way. And, as theologian Gustavo Gutierrez writes:
For a long time, poverty was understood as a fate: some people are born poor, other people are born rich, and both must accept this fate. To be sure, the duty of the rich was to be generous, but the underlying structure was not questioned. The assumption was that, for some, poverty is the will of God. We cannot accept this. Indeed, to be for the poor is not to accept their poverty. (In the Company of the Poor, p. 31)
To place this in terms of practical care for orphans, I believe that we live in such a wealthy society that every Christian–single, married, with children, without children–should seriously consider adopting a child or welcoming foster children. I also think that every Church should include a plea for its parishioners to adopt at every service, every week, every year. What does it hurt? In a world where so many evils are so far away and so far out of our control, there are thousands upon thousands of children of any age who are waiting to be adopted here in the U.S. and in Canada at little to no cost to the adoptive parent or parents.
Is this too much? I don’t think it is if we take seriously just how deep into scripture lay the call to protect orphans. For Christians who like to only talk about the New Testament, it’s easy to cast off a call to adoption because it is only mentioned once, in James 1:27.
“Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.” (NRSV)
However, the scarcity of the New Testament call is not because it was considered unimportant to Jesus and early Christians, but because it was considered assumed as a sacred duty for all Jewish people. Jesus did not preach about orphans because he didn’t have to. Perhaps, if he came back today, he would need to do so again since we rarely reflect on the ethical call of the Hebrew Bible in contemporary Christianity.
So, as my #tbt post, I present a throwback to about 2100-2700 years or so ago, in order to remind us just how important the care for orphans is within Christianity. I have divided the Hebrew Bible into its traditional Jewish divisions, so we remember the reality that Jesus was/is Jewish, and that Jesus preached the Gospel within the Jewish tradition of mercy, compassion, and care for the least in society. At the end, I’ve included references from the apocryphal literature, although Jewish Bibles today do not include those writings as canonical.
1. Torah (Law)
Ex 22:22-24: You shall not abuse any widow or orphan. If you do abuse them, when they cry out to me, I will surely heed their cry; my wrath will burn, and I will kill you with the sword, and your wives shall become widows and your children orphans.
Deut 10:17-18: For the LORD your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who is not partial and takes no bribe, who executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and who loves the strangers, providing them food and clothing.
Deut 14:27-29: As for the Levites resident in your towns, do not neglect them, because they have no allotment or inheritance with you. Every third year you shall bring out the full tithe of your produce for that year, and store it within your towns; the Levites, because they have no allotment or inheritance with you, as well as the resident aliens, the orphans, and the widows in your towns, may come and eat their fill so that the LORD your God may bless you in all the work that you undertake.
Deut 24:17-22: You shall not deprive a resident alien or an orphan of justice; you shall not take a widow’s garment in pledge. Remember that you were a slave in Egypt and the LORD your God redeemed you from there; therefore I command you to do this. When you reap your harvest in your field and forget a sheaf in the field, you shall not go back to get it; it shall be left for the alien, the orphan, and the widow, so that the LORD your God may bless you in all your undertakings. When you beat your olive trees, do not strip what is left; it shall be for the alien, the orphan, and the widow. When you gather the grapes of your vineyard, do not glean what is left; it shall be for the alien, the orphan, and the widow. Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt; therefore I am commanding you to do this.
Deu 26:12-13: When you have finished paying all the tithe of your produce in the third year (which is the year of the tithe), giving it to the Levites, the aliens, the orphans, and the widows, so that they may eat their fill within your towns, then you shall say before the LORD your God: “I have removed the sacred portion from the house, and I have given it to the Levites, the resident aliens, the orphans, and the widows, in accordance with your entire commandment that you commanded me; I have neither transgressed nor forgotten any of your commandments.
Deu 27:19: “Cursed be anyone who deprives the alien, the orphan, and the widow of justice.” All the people shall say, “Amen!”
2. Nevi’im (Prophets)
Isaiah 1:16-17: Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.
Isaiah 10:1-4: Ah, you who make iniquitous decrees, who write oppressive statutes, to turn aside the needy from justice and to rob the poor of my people of their right, that widows may be your spoil, and that you may make the orphans your prey! What will you do on the day of punishment, in the calamity that will come from far away? To whom will you flee for help, and where will you leave your wealth, so as not to crouch among the prisoners or fall among the slain? For all this his anger has not turned away; his hand is stretched out still.
Jer 5:26-28: For scoundrels are found among my people; they take over the goods of others. Like fowlers they set a trap; they catch human beings. Like a cage full of birds, their houses are full of treachery; therefore they have become great and rich, they have grown fat and sleek. They know no limits in deeds of wickedness; they do not judge with justice the cause of the orphan, to make it prosper, and they do not defend the rights of the needy.
Jer 7:3-7: Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel: Amend your ways and your doings, and let me dwell with you in this place. Do not trust in these deceptive words: “This is the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD.” For if you truly amend your ways and your doings, if you truly act justly one with another, if you do not oppress the alien, the orphan, and the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not go after other gods to your own hurt, then I will dwell with you in this place, in the land that I gave of old to your ancestors forever and ever.
Jer 22:3-4: Thus says the LORD: Act with justice and righteousness, and deliver from the hand of the oppressor anyone who has been robbed. And do no wrong or violence to the alien, the orphan, and the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place. For if you will indeed obey this word, then through the gates of this house shall enter kings who sit on the throne of David, riding in chariots and on horses, they, and their servants, and their people.
Hosea 14:1-4: Return, O Israel, to the LORD your God, for you have stumbled because of your iniquity. Take words with you and return to the LORD; say to him, “Take away all guilt; accept that which is good, and we will offer the fruit of our lips. Assyria shall not save us; we will not ride upon horses; we will say no more, ‘Our God,’ to the work of our hands. In you the orphan finds mercy.”
Zec 7:8-10: The word of the LORD came to Zechariah, saying: “Thus says the LORD of hosts: Render true judgments, show kindness and mercy to one another; do not oppress the widow, the orphan, the alien, or the poor; and do not devise evil in your hearts against one another.”
Mal 3:5-6: Then I will draw near to you for judgment; I will be swift to bear witness against the sorcerers, against the adulterers, against those who swear falsely, against those who oppress the hired workers in their wages, the widow and the orphan, against those who thrust aside the alien, and do not fear me, says the LORD of hosts. For I the LORD do not change; therefore you, O children of Jacob, have not perished.
3. Kethuvim (Writings)
In Job, the disparagement of orphans is commonly used as a hyperbolic insult which simply means: you are evil.
Job 6:1, 26-27: Then Job answered… “Do you think that you can reprove words, as if the speech of the desperate were wind? You would even cast lots over the orphan, and bargain over your friend.”
Job 22:1, 5-9: Then Eliphaz the Temanite answered… “Is not your wickedness great? There is no end to your iniquities. For you have exacted pledges from your family for no reason, and stripped the naked of their clothing. You have given no water to the weary to drink, and you have withheld bread from the hungry. The powerful possess the land, and the favored live in it. You have sent widows away empty-handed, and the arms of the orphans you have crushed.”
Job 23: 1; 24: 1-4: Then Job answered…”Why are times not kept by the Almighty, and why do those who know him never see his days? The wicked remove landmarks; they seize flocks and pasture them. They drive away the donkey of the orphan; they take the widow’s ox for a pledge. They thrust the needy off the road; the poor of the earth all hide themselves.”
Job 29: 1, 11-12: Then Job answered…”When the ear heard, it commended me, and when the eye saw, it approved; because I delivered the poor who cried, and the orphan who had no helper.”
Job continues this same speech, a final argument, with multiple entries for his care of orphans:
Job 31:16-22: “If I have withheld anything that the poor desired, or have caused the eyes of the widow to fail, or have eaten my morsel alone, and the orphan has not eaten from it–for from my youth I reared the orphan like a father, and from my mother’s womb I guided the widow–if I have seen anyone perish for lack of clothing, or a poor person without covering, whose loins have not blessed me, and who was not warmed with the fleece of my sheep; if I have raised my hand against the orphan, because I saw I had supporters at the gate; then let my shoulder blade fall from my shoulder, and let my arm be broken from its socket.”
But you do see! Indeed you note trouble and grief, that you may take it into your hands;
the helpless commit themselves to you; you have been the helper of the orphan.
Break the arm of the wicked and evildoers; seek out their wickedness until you find none.
The LORD is king forever and ever; the nations shall perish from his land.
O LORD, you will hear the desire of the meek; you will strengthen their heart,
you will incline your ear to do justice for the orphan and the oppressed,
so that those from earth may strike terror no more.
Psalm 68:4-5: Sing to God, sing praises to his name; lift up a song to him who rides upon the clouds– his name is the LORD– be exultant before him. Father of orphans and protector of widows is God in his holy habitation.
Psalm 82: 1-4:
God has taken his place in the divine council; in the midst of the gods he holds judgment:
“How long will you judge unjustly and show partiality to the wicked? Selah
Give justice to the weak and the orphan; maintain the right of the lowly and the destitute.
Rescue the weak and the needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked.”
O LORD, how long shall the wicked, how long shall the wicked exult?
They pour out their arrogant words; all the evildoers boast.
They crush your people, O LORD, and afflict your heritage.
They kill the widow and the stranger, they murder the orphan,
and they say, “The LORD does not see; the God of Jacob does not perceive.”
Psalm 146: 8-10:
The LORD lifts up those who are bowed down; the LORD loves the righteous.
The LORD watches over the strangers; he upholds the orphan and the widow, but the way of the wicked he brings to ruin.
The LORD will reign forever, your God, O Zion, for all generations. Praise the LORD!
Proverbs 23:10-11: Do not remove an ancient landmark or encroach on the fields of orphans, for their redeemer is strong; he will plead their cause against you.
Also: the entire book of Esther is about an orphan girl who was adopted by her uncle, saved the Jews, and became Queen
Esther 2:7: Mordecai had brought up Hadassah, that is Esther, his cousin, for she had neither father nor mother; the girl was fair and beautiful, and when her father and her mother died, Mordecai adopted her as his own daughter.
4. Apocrypha (Not in the Hebrew Bible canon, but in the Roman Catholic and some orthodox. Written in the last few centuries before Jesus’ birth)
Sirach 4:9-10: Rescue the oppressed from the oppressor; and do not be hesitant in giving a verdict. Be a father to orphans, and be like a husband to their mother; you will then be like a son of the Most High, and he will love you more than does your mother.
Sirach 35: 15b-19: For the Lord is the judge, and with him there is no partiality. He will not show partiality to the poor; but he will listen to the prayer of one who is wronged. He will not ignore the supplication of the orphan, or the widow when she pours out her complaint. Do not the tears of the widow run down her cheek as she cries out against the one who causes them to fall?
2 Macc 8:30: In encounters with the forces of Timothy and Bacchides they killed more than twenty thousand of them and got possession of some exceedingly high strongholds, and they divided a very large amount of plunder, giving to those who had been tortured and to the orphans and widows, and also to the aged, shares equal to their own.
4 Esdras 2:10, 20-22: Thus says the Lord to Ezra…”Guard the rights of the widow, secure justice for the ward, give to the needy, defend the orphan, clothe the naked, care for the injured and the weak, do not ridicule the lame, protect the maimed, and let the blind have a vision of my splendor.”