Israel in Egypt, Edward Poynter, 1867, Guidhall Art Gallery
Fr. Smith’s Commentary on the First Reading
Thirtieth Sunday in Ordinary Time
October 25, 2020
The Jewish people knew themselves to be a people of the covenant. A covenant is more than a recognition that a relationship exists, but one so important that the terms must be clearly defined and accepted. It is more than a contract for goods and services, but a sharing of flesh and blood. A covenant includes a sacrifice in which the contracting parties share a meal as a sign of this union.
This was common among Middle Eastern people and we see Abraham (Gen 21:22-24) and Jacob (Gen 31:43-48) make convents with other chieftains but it was also used to show the intimate relationship that the Jewish people had with the LORD. We see that again with Abraham (Gen 17:5-6) but most importantly for us with Moses.
Moses went up the mountain to God.(Ex 19:3–5)
Then the LORD called to him and said,
“Thus shall you say to the house of Jacob;
tell the Israelites:
You have seen for yourselves how I treated
the Egyptians and how I bore you up on eagle wings
and brought you here to myself.
Therefore, if you hearken to my voice
and keep my covenant,
you shall be my special possession,
dearer to me than all other people,
though all the earth is mine.
Following this introduction, the LORD gave the people the 10 commandments. Except for the first three they are examples of tribal wisdom: universally needed regulations for ordering the common good. Yet they are more than that. The Decalogue begins with:
I, the LORD, am your God,(Ex 20:2-3)
who brought you out of the land of Egypt,
that place of slavery.
You shall not have other gods besides me
The LORD has stated that these laws come from him and obeying them reveal that the people have responded. He has shown them as well that he has entered their history and is known to them. These laws are addressed to the people directly and order that certain acts are required, and others forbidden (apodictic). This would have been not uncommon in the ancient Middle East, but the laws would usually be written in the third person: “No one shall be put to death on the testimony of only one witness.” Yet these laws, which are directly connected to the covenant are spoken in the second person: “You shall not have other gods, you shall not steal etc.” The LORD wants an intimate and personal relationship with his people. Obeying the law is affirming that we reciprocate.
The ten commandments do not exhaust the ways that the LORD wishes to bond with us. Chapters 20 to 23 add other legislation, which will be called “the book of the Covenant” (Ex 24:7) The legislation will extend from how slaves should be treated (Ex 21:1-11) to laws regarding bodily injury (21:18-31) and property damages (21:33 – 22:14) Much of this is in the third person, but today’s reading returns to the 2nd, intimate, person.
You shall not molest or oppress an alien,(Ex 22:20)
for you were once aliens yourselves
in the land of Egypt.
Alien here means a foreign-born resident in Israel who does not own property. This was a tribal and clan-based society and without these supports a person was unprotected. The LORD reminds his people that they were once aliens in Egypt and required his help to be free.
The LORD’S concern extends to all who are unprotected. This includes widows and orphans. A person was connected to the society through the male heads of households. Where this is lacking people live precariously and can be easily victimized. The LORD himself is the great protector of both. This is literally proverbial:
Do not rob the poor because they are poor,(Proverbs 22:22-23)
or crush the afflicted at the gate;
for the Lord pleads their cause
and despoils of life those who despoil them
Do not encroach upon the field of the orphans,(Proverbs 23:10)
For they have a mighty Kinsman,
And He will surely take up their cause with you
Dating anything in the Pentateuch, the first 5 books of the Bible, is notoriously difficult but the ideas behind these verses are at least 3,000 years old. That the LORD could command Iron Age people to care for the marginalized and expect to be obeyed is amazing; look at the trouble he has with us who call ourselves modern and progressive.
The next paragraph however might reflect the world of (First) Isaiah around 700 BC. The agricultural economy which protected people was, as we have seen many times, breaking down. People were being forced off their land which made some people very prosperous and others paupers. In their previous world, lending money or food would have been the responsibility of the community. Without this community, many would have been defenseless and at the mercy of extortionists. The LORD is not only angered by violence done against the poor and discarded, Pope Francis’ “Throwaway People” but at the violence done against the community itself. He will truly listen for this is his nature, he is compassionate.
Compassion is one of the essential traits of God. It means to “suffer with, to accompany” It is usually connected with mercy. This time it is not. The person who has had his dignity as well as his property taken from him is entitled to have at least his garment returned not as an act of mercy but by right.
This compassion is the principal motivation of the LORD. He is the only one who is called compassionate in the Hebrew bible. It is found throughout the book of the covenant. It is why he saved the Israelites in Egypt as well as why he cares for the outcasts in Israel and the marginalized in our own world.
Compassion however is used for the disciple in the New Testament. We are to be marked by how fully we accept the grace of God. We will show that we have understood and lived this reading when we fulfill the injunction of St Luke: “Be compassionate as your heavenly Father is compassionate. (Luke 6:36, New Jerusalem Bible)