In a time of mass displacement — the sort of humanitarian crisis so enormous and distant that it’s difficult for many Americans to visualize it, let alone remember that it’s an ongoing and mounting catastrophe — it’s hard not to think of Matthew 25, where God identifies with the poor and marginalized. Most of us are not among the estimated 100 million persons who are currently displaced from their home, but Jesus tells us in no uncertain terms that he is.
Over and over again in the Bible, God identifies with the poor, the marginalized and those on the fringes of society. This is an uncomfortable truth for those of us who aren’t necessarily poor or marginalized, but it’s an important part of understanding the true character of God. And rarely in the Bible is that character made clearer than God’s love for widows and orphans. Pick up a Bible, open to any page and start reading. It won’t be long till you come across a passage about widows and orphans.
In Psalm 68:5, we read that “a father to the fatherless, a defender of widows, is God in His holy dwelling.” In other words, God’s very home is identified with those who have no parents or husband. Later in Psalms, we’re taught that “the LORD watches over the foreigner and sustains the fatherless and the widow, but He frustrates the ways of the wicked.” In the New Testament, James goes so far as to say that looking after widows and orphans is faith in God. “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.”
In fact, Hebrew law saw to it that the nation’s society was structured around providing for orphans and widows, with special legal provisions carved out just to ensure they were cared for. For example, Deuteronomy 14:28-29 instructed Israelites that “at the end of every three years, bring all the tithes of that year’s produce and store it in your towns, so that the Levites (who have no allotment or inheritance of their own) and the foreigners, the fatherless and the widows who live in your towns may come and eat and be satisfied, and so that the LORD your God may bless you in all the work of your hands.”
At the time, widows and orphans were among the most defenseless people in society. Women had few opportunities to provide for themselves without a husband, and children had little infrastructure to rely on if family fell through. As you are probably aware, little has changed — but neither has God. God still makes common cause with the ones society casts away.
The reason God does this isn’t just because of a unique love for every single person, although that’s certainly true. The fact that Hebrew law instructed people to care for orphans and widows shows that there was societal benefit to loving the marginalized as well. A whole community flourishes when its weakest members are cared for. As Mary Gallagher at Kingdom Bloggers writes, “a society is only as strong as its weakest and most vulnerable.”
As Americans, we are a highly individualized society. The old idea that “it takes a village” never really sunk in here, where most of us prefer to be left to our own devices and are mistrustful of community efforts. We are taught to pity those on the margins — orphans, widows and the like — but not to see them as our societal responsibility.
That may be the American way, but it is emphatically not God’s, who in Jeremiah 7 told the Israelites that “…if you do not oppress the foreigner, the fatherless or the widow and do not shed innocent blood in this place…then I will let you live in this place, in the land I gave your ancestors forever and ever.” Here, looking after the fatherless and the widow is linked explicitly to making a home for a people on the land, to inviting God’s blessing into the community. And why wouldn’t it be? When we are looking after the most defenseless, we are looking after God’s own self, inviting God into our midst. The Bible talks about widows and orphan a lot because that is where God can be found. And if we’re interested in loving God well, then loving the most defenseless among us is a place to start.
Tyler Huckabee is RELEVANT's senior editor. He lives in Nashville with his wife, dog and Twitter account.