Deuteronomy 24: Protecting the Poorest and Most Vulnerable
When I was in high school, I was fortunate to be in a school that invested in school shows. We would do one or two musicals or plays each year, rehearsing for months and then performing the show for a week at the end of term. One year, we put on the musical based on Charles Dicken’s book, Oliver Twist. I love performing in front of people. I think ordination is probably often a calling for frustrated performers! Moreover, I was glad to have a singing and speaking role in the show. I was especially pleased that I was to play the particularly horrible undertaker’s wife. If you don’t know the story, Oliver is born into an orphanage where he spends all of his early life. Having caused a little trouble for those in charge, the decision is made that it’s time for him to leave the orphanage to go work for a living at the local undertakers. The orphanage benefits from this arrangement as the undertaker effectively pays to have the boy come and work. The undertaker’s wife is a horrible, mean and self-important woman: a role I loved as it’s always more fun to play a wicked character than someone nice! She picks on Oliver, is mean to him, doesn’t protect him from the older boy who also works in the shop and, at one point, shuts him in a coffin and sits down on the lid. Yet in her mind, she is quite justified in her actions. The boy is an orphan and clearly a trouble-maker, not to be trusted, and would probably steal from them and cause all sorts of problems. After all, he’s just come out of an institution, and Victorian institutions like orphanages were not known for their lavish love and home comforts.
Read Deuteronomy 24:10-22
This passage gives instructions for acting rightly for all those in the wider community, and there are two particular emphases within this passage. The first is a requirement to remember those who are less fortunate, leave provision for them to find food and make sure that they do not go without. The second emphasis, however, might not be what we immediately expect from an Old Testament passage: to make sure that those who are poorer and more vulnerable are treated with honor and respect. It’s not just about providing food, but making sure that the way in which you do this doesn’t humiliate them. For example, the people are instructed not to feel entitled to enter their house when collecting a pledge, but rather to wait outside for them to bring it out (vv. 10-11). It would have been difficult for the less powerful person to object to someone entering his home, but this passage insists that everyone is treated with respect and shown value as a human being, made in God’s image.
In England, during the time that Dickens was writing Oliver Twist and his other novels, there was an approach to care for the poorest in the community that ensured the poor were humiliated and shown a lack of respect or basic human decency. And this was clearly the approach that my character in Oliver Twist thought was the right one to follow. A distinction was made between the ‘deserving poor’ and the ‘undeserving poor,’ those who were merely poor through circumstances and those who were poor because they were assumed to be immoral, lazy or of bad character. This latter group might well end up in a workhouse, where conditions were intentionally poor and harsh, partly to discourage people from using it as an easy option, but also in the hope to instill a better moral character. Yet what this actually meant was those who were fortunate to have money, position and privilege were able to sit in judgment of those of much more limited resources. Having wealth brought with it an ability to judge others, but also the freedom to act without being subject to similar prohibitions and judgments on their moral character.
The instructions in this passage do not mean that people should be given free handouts, nor that legal expectations, such as a pledge for a loan, should be forgotten just because the person from whom it is being demanded is poor. Yet rather, these instructions are given so that the person in a position of power or authority does not take advantage of others. When wages are owed, they should paid appropriately and without holding them back. Where an individual is rightly owed justice and due process, then it shouldn’t be overlooked or ignored. Similar to this are the instructions regarding the crops in the field. It is interesting to note that the instructions are not to take some of the harvest and give it to the poor, but rather the direction was not to go back over your field a second time; instead leave crops behind and allow those who don’t own fields to glean from what is left (vv. 19-22). We see this very instruction in action in the book of Ruth, where the widow and foreigner Ruth is able to work to get enough on which Naomi and her can live.
Deuteronomy 24 reminds us that each person is made in God’s image, an echo of what Jesus says to us in Matthew 25, that what we do for the least, we do for Him.
Questions for Reflection
- Have you ever done something that on the surface appears like a ‘good deed,’ but was more about doing a good deed or being seen to do something good, rather than enabling or honoring the other person?
- Is there anything in this passage and its commands that surprises you in the way that it asks people to behave?
- What would it look like to follow the spirit of these commands in the world today?
- How might you this week be able to show love to others, especially those who are more vulnerable, in a way that honors the person?
- Can you think of a time where someone unexpected has treated you with more honor or respect that you expected from them? How did you feel as a result?
- How might you be able to model to your children, family, friends or colleagues a way of treating others that honors as well as shows generosity?
- For more exploration of this passage, read the book of Ruth and see how the ideas here are reflected in that passage.
A Prayer for this Week
Dear heavenly Father, help me to love others as You love them and to see others as You see them. Help me to reach out and offer help and support to those who do not have the things that I have, and help me to learn to value everyone and treat others with dignity and respect, as You would treat them and as You treat me. Amen.
The Rev. Dr. Jenny Corcoran
Chaplain to the Bishops of Canterbury