UPLIFT THOSE IN NEED
Then the daughters of Zelophehad came forward. Zelophehad was son of Hepher son of Gilead, son of Machir, son of Manasseh, son of Joseph, a member of the Manassite clans. The names of his daughters were: Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah. 2 They stood before Moses, Eleazar the priest, the leaders, and all the congregation, at the entrance of the tent of meeting, and they said, 3 “Our father died in the wilderness; he was not among the company of those who gathered themselves together against the Lord in the company of Korah, but died for his own sin; and he had no sons. 4 Why should the name of our father be taken away from his clan because he had no son? Give to us a possession among our father’s brothers.”
5 Moses brought their case before the Lord. 6 And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying: 7 The daughters of Zelophehad are right in what they are saying; you shall indeed let them possess an inheritance among their father’s brothers and pass the inheritance of their father on to them. 8 You shall also say to the Israelites, “If a man dies, and has no son, then you shall pass his inheritance on to his daughter. 9 If he has no daughter, then you shall give his inheritance to his brothers. 10 If he has no brothers, then you shall give his inheritance to his father’s brothers. 11 And if his father has no brothers, then you shall give his inheritance to the nearest kinsman of his clan, and he shall possess it. It shall be for the Israelites a statute and ordinance, as the Lord commanded Moses.”
ACTS 6: 1-6
Now during those days, when the disciples were increasing in number, the Hellenists complained against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution of food. 2 And the twelve called together the whole community of the disciples and said, “It is not right that we should neglect the word of God in order to wait on tables. 3 Therefore, friends select from among yourselves seven men of good standing, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may appoint to this task, 4 while we, for our part, will devote ourselves to prayer and to serving the word.” 5 What they said pleased the whole community, and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit, together with Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolaus, a proselyte of Antioch. 6 They had these men stand before the apostles, who prayed and laid their hands on them.
As I read these two scriptures, I have been troubled by the gap between our ideals and our actual behavior. Last week, we spoke of sharing as a response to human need and began to come to grips with how rarely we do so. This week presents the same dilemma. I believe in the worth and value of every life and I believe it is my responsibility to seek equity and validation for anyone who is ignored, dismissed or discriminated against. That said, in real life, that is a big ask. I get depressed at the enormity of the needs around me as well as my reluctance to engage such needs. I find a variety of ways to detach. I fail to be accountable for my unwillingness to mitigate the obvious disparities that surround me.
On first reading, both of these scripture passages reflect the difficulties of two groups of disenfranchised women—the daughters of Zelophehad and the widows of both the Hellenist and the Hebrews. It was literally not safe for women to be without male protection in 2000 BCE nor in the first century and in much of the world in this century. But gender injustice is but one of many injustices based upon our human insistence upon seeing the differences between us as ways to determine individual worth. White skin, maleness, US citizenship,middle class help identify me. None of those characteristics change my standing as a child of God. That understanding is fundamental to my faith and it stands in stark contrast to the more familiar ways humankind has used differences. Far more often, differences are used to compare and rank. It happens around gender, wealth, age, piety. It hardly matters what descriptor is used, most often, these traits are ranked and compared. We don’t necessarily mean to do it but it happens most of the time.
In human evolution, it is hard for the weak to assert themselves against the strong. Biologically human females are 15-20 per cent smaller than human males. Within the species and especially when survival required more physical strength, human males had a huge advantage. This led to both physical dominance as well as control of wealth and resources. Men made rules and established structures to maintain their advantage. We even use God to support our self-serving views. (This was how God made us so male dominance must be what God wanted.) Instead of an emphasis on the strong having a greater responsibility to care for the weak, history is filled with attempts to justify whatever advantage we have.
Only in rather recent times has physical strength lost much of its significance. And only in recent times were women allowed to be part of decision making. The right to vote is barely 100 years old and, though it is changing, women in leadership positions remain the exception rather than the rule. That has led to a sea change in the balance of power. Intelligence, both intellectual and emotional, is much more evenly divided between men and women. Men can no longer assume deference because they are stronger—or even because they made the rules in the first place. Men have a much harder time claiming superiority when what makes them superior matters less and less.
But in the time of Moses, the daughters of Zelophehad had no claim on the family land because they were women. They were about to be destitute solely on the basis of gender. In the scripture, these women pushed against the expectations and customs of their society. This itself was brave and could have ended very badly. But their concerns prevailed.
But, paradoxically, their case is far less about women’s rights or gender equity than it is about their cunning use of the system against the system. They did not argue their case on the basis of gender equity or their human need. It is a story about how the women framed their argument in terms of male prerogatives. Their case was decided on the basis of potential harm to their father—not a regard for them as women. Later in Numbers, we discover that the men made a rule that required the woman to marry within their clan. The women were not free agents with autonomous authority over the land—they were stewards until they married–at which time the land reverted to the husband. I think it can be argued that the woman’s success was a function of their superior ability to ‘read the room’—a trait many women have cultivated as a means to deal with physical disadvantage. Though this outcome falls far short of equitable treatment, it was a considerable improvement over the destitution these women faced.
The women won the day but the inherent, male dominance remained. Bias and prejudice run very deep. We see a similarly flawed process in Acts. Even though Acts 2 and 4 describe a community that shared ‘all that they had’, Such generosity was breaking down by the sixth chapter. Sharing was becoming ethnically competitive. The Hellensist widows were getting a lesser portion of food than their Hebrew counterparts. The same problems of rankings and discrimination that afflict secular life were alive and well in church life.
The church leaders themselves were no exception. They wanted no part in adjudicating ethnic conflicts—-“It is not right that we should neglect the word of God in order to wait on tables.” Addressing the real life conflicts surrounding equity was somehow ‘neglecting the word’. But by making such a distinction, they not so subtly made a value judgment—’waiting upon tables’ was less important than ‘tending to the word’. Paul devoted two letters to Corinth to call people to be mindful of the individual members, as well as individual gifts. Even with Christian ideals, we continue to discover how often we rank order ourselves and others. Whenever we do so, we help create the needs we aim to lift up.
In real life, I asked both FIRL groups what happened to the board of deacons in our own church. Both groups had the same report. Many of the deacons felt ‘second class’. They did not feel that their gifts were equally valued. That is a problem in a church that proclaims the Good News—that we are all loved and we all matter. Once again, our ideals run into the brick wall of our limitations.
I believe what separates us as Christians from good social work and any number of service organizations is the willingness to face our limits—in theological terms, our sinfulness. Both of these scriptures reveal as much of our failing as they do our mindfulness. We believe that God’s love extends directly, personally and unconditionally to us and to every single person. But we insist upon differential treatment and continually look for ways to measure up.
We do not care for others because we are supposed to or because it is the right thing to do. We respond to human need and inequity because God loves us in the full knowledge of our individual shortcomings and failures. If we need to succeed in offering such care, I can assure you we will fall short. It is only when we recognize how we fall short can we appreciate what it means to be loved anyway. We know how terrible it feels to feel inadequate, unsure and never enough. That is how the world measures people and how we most often measure ourselves. It is not the way God loves.
Though I believe our ideals has us more mindful of gender equity (and many other forms of discrimination), care for others has remained flawed at best. In the church and out of the church, we continue to judge ourselves and one another. We have been largely unsuccessful at changing the world. If that is the scale, we all fail. But when we receive God’s love, we trust that every bit of kindness matters.
So in that faith “Love the person in front of you.” Treat them as you have been treated —as a child of God. You may do it well. You may miss the mark by miles. You may be appreciated and you may be rejected. But, If we can accept God’s care, we will be humble—we know we can never do enough. We will be grateful—we know that we have been received and loved. We will lift up the needs of others because we have received God’s grace and want to share that grace with others. Only then are we freed to do what we can when we can. So start by sharing kindness to someone, to anyone today. Love the person in front of you.
We love because we are first loved. Let it be so.