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Shemot/Exodus 23:6 You shall not pervert the justice of your poor in his dispute
The word translated 'poor', variously "needy poor" or "destitute person", , comes from the root , which has the meaning to desire or long for something.Rashi therefore comments, "This is an expression of longing for he is detached from any possessions and longs for all that is good," and introduces the idea that there are different types of poor people. The Midrash (Vayikra Rabbah 34:6) reports that there are eight designations for the poor that are used in the Hebrew Scripture, each one with a different shade of meaning: , afflicted (Shemot 22:24); , one who longs (our verse); , despised (Ecclesiastes 4:13); , impoverished (1 Samuel 18:23), , detached [from his ancestral property] (Shemot 23:3); , oppressed (Psalm 9:10); , trampled upon (Vayikra 27:8); , vagrant (2 Samuel 12:4). Some of these terms reflect the state of the poor person and how he comes to be in that situation, while others describe the attitude of other people to him. In some cases, the poverty may be of the individual's own making, while in others, he could be an innocent victim of war or circumstances - either of another party's deliberate instigation or by happenstance.
TheMekhilta asks, "Why is this said? Because it says: 'Neither shall you favour a poor man in his cause' (v. 3) from which I know only about the poor. But what about the needy poor? It says here: 'You shall not pervert the judgement for the needy in his case.'" The verb comes from the root , which can mean both "to stretch out or extend" and "to decline or pervert"; the Mekhilta is pointing out that justice may not be altered in either direction: not in favour of the poor man because he is needy, so whoever is bringing a case against him must be oppressing or persecuting him unjustly; not against the poor man because in his desperation or sheer wickedness he must have done something wrong. No matter what the status of the plaintiff or the defendant, justice requires that the evidence be examined fully and impartially and that a judgement or verdict be handed down strictly on the basis of that evidence and the applicable law, regardless of the parties involved.
While the poor feature in both stories and teaching in the Gospels, Yeshua said three things things in particular about the poor that bear investigation. Gospel texts in Hebrew today are all modern translations and they universally choose the word or to translate 'poor', which clouds any possible differences that might have been present in Yeshua's actual words. However, we have no extant Hebrew originals for either complete or partial gospels, with the possible exception of the Shem Tov Matthean text1, so we have to assume that the word we have is a generic word, covering the other possible meanings.
When Yeshua as anointed with an expensive perfume and His talmidim complained that the perfume could have been sold and the money given to the poor, Yeshua replied, "the poor you will always have with you" (Matthew 26:11, Mark 14:7, John 12:8). Whom did Yeshua have in view - was He talking about people who choose to be poor - the homeless by choice, about those who have fallen on hard times and become poor as it were by accident, or about those who have been persecuted or made poor as a result of human action? Perhaps all three; although the earth could produce enough food to feed everyone on the planet, poverty seems to be one of life's bottomless pits: no matter how much resource is put in - by individuals, by companies or by governments - there are still hungry people and no sign of the problem getting any smaller.
The passage known as the Beatitudes starts, "Blessed are the poor in spirit" (Matthew 5:3, Luke 6:20) and surely addresses a different class of 'poor'. Yeshua here is not talking about the physically poor, or even the afflicted or persecuted, but those who have become separated or have separated themselves from the power of money or their ancestral holdings in order to save G-d and focus on kingdom values and priorities. It may also speak of those who are despised or derided by the rest of the world because of their dedication and commitment to G-d.
Finally, when Yeshua is approached by the disciples of John the Immerser who are seeking confirmation that Yeshua really is the one who was expected, the Messiah whom John had announced, Yeshua replies by quoting from one of the prophetic passages that foretold His ministry: "the poor have the good news proclaimed to them" (Matthew 11:5, quoting Isaiah 61:1). This time, all eight categories of 'poor' are surely intended, for all those who are poor in any way need to hear the good news. In its direct meaning, this would obviously apply to the financially poor, the disadvantaged and disenfranchised, the outcasts, widows and orphans; indirectly, it must include those who are isolated from G-d or their communities and long for relationship, or have been separated from their ancestral holding, the assurance of being a part of G-d's chosen people; reaching further out, even those who have chosen to be vagrant, those who live lives of rebellion, deliberately wandering far from the ways of G-d - even these get to hear the good news of salvation and reconciliation with G-d. Why? Because G-d Himself observes the sense of the commandment in Shemot: "you shall not stretch out or withhold the justice of your needy poor in his conflict".
1 - This is a set of Hebrew manuscripts for the Gospel of Matthew, traceable to a 14th century Spanish Jew, Shem Tov Ibn Shaprut. Its earlier provenance is unknown, but it clearly contains some very early portions of Hebrew text intermingled with mediaeval rabbinic accretions. Eusebius wrote in the 3rd century that the Jewish believers of his time had a version of Matthew's gospel in Hebrew; this is confirmed by Jerome, who writes of such a manuscript in the Alexandrian library, that he had consulted on a number of occasions. The Shem Tov manuscripts may contain original readings from this Hebrew Matthew or may simply be a slightly later translation of Matthew into Hebrew.
Further Study: D'varim 16:19-20; Isaiah 10:1-2; 1 John 3:17
Application: Whether you are the poor, in need of hearing of G-d's justice; or whether you are now rich because you have received G-d's grace, know that it is G-d's purpose to share His good news with everyone - no matter who or where they are.
© Jonathan Allen, 2008
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