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The word this week

Moses’s blueprint for a compassionate society

Thirtieth Sunday of the Year: Exodus 22:20-26; 1 Thessalonians 5-10; Matthew 22:34-40

By on Friday, 21 October 2011

“The Lord said to Moses: ‘Tell the sons of Israel this. You must not molest the stranger or oppress him, for you lived as strangers in the land of Egypt. You must not be harsh with the widow, or with the orphan.’ ”

These words, part of the detailed legislation that expanded the Ten Commandments, enshrined in legislation a privileged place for the poor of Israel’s society. Many of the provisions that we find in this code reflect the social conditions that Israel would face as she became a settled nation in the land. As such, they spell out the principles that should guide the governance of any society. They are not without significance as our own society seeks to respond to the ever deepening consequences of the present financial crisis.

The guiding principle, expressed in the words of Moses, was the graciousness of God. Israel herself had been an outsider and had, during her captivity in Egypt, experienced poverty and exploitation.

Through the grace of God she had been delivered from bondage. It was therefore imperative that the society she was to build should become an expression of the graciousness that she had received. For this reason, the law of Moses enshrined a particular concern for what might be called the institutional exploitation of the poor. The lending of money, with its attendant interest, must never become the means of entrapping and enslaving the poor.

The detail of a cloak, taken in pledge, is explained in like manner. The cloak, the only covering left to the poor, could never be retained in payment. In today’s society, with its complex financial institutions, we must safeguard whatever is the cloak’s equivalent: whatever is the only covering left to the poor.

The Gospel passage underlines the graciousness at the heart of the Old Testament Law. The Pharisees, hoping to entrap Jesus in the complexity of the law, asked: “Which is the greatest commandment of the law?”

Jesus responded with well-known verses taken from the book of Deuteronomy: “You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your mind.”

To these he added equally well-known verses from the Book of Leviticus: “You must love your neighbour as yourself.”

In his summary Jesus described the whole law as hanging on these two commandments. These commandments of love enshrine not only the fundamental principles that must guide our personal lives but which must also find expression in our civic and legal regulations.

If we are to love our neighbour as ourselves, then our understanding of “neighbour” must reach beyond the narrow circle of family and friends. The scriptures would undoubtedly consider the poor, together with the dispossessed immigrant, as “neighbours”. This should, and must, find expression in the manner in which our society regulates such difficult issues as immigration and credit.

The law of Moses gave expression to God’s compassion in its legal codes. Can we, who have known the Father’s compassion in Jesus Christ, do anything less?

St Paul commended the Thessalonians for living lives that were an imitation of his own fidelity to the Lord. Thus they became an example to all believers. If we long for a compassionate society then our lives must become the compassion that society follows.