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Background Scripture: Isaiah 1:1-31


The righteous care about justice for the poor, but the wicked have no such concern. Prov. 29:7

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, the famous Russian dissident, wrote of the lengthy prison sentences that Soviet children received for stealing in order to eat:

And the hungry fourteen-year-old girl Lida . . . walked down the street picking up, mixed with the dust, a narrow trail of grain spilled from a truck (doomed to go to waste in any case). For this she was sentenced to only three years because of the alleviating circumstances that she had not taken socialist property directly from the field or from the barn.

Why was this unjust? Is it that Lida was treated differently from the others who were not poor? That is certainly not why Solzhenitsyn objected to her treatment.  Formal equality of rich and poor is not all there is to justice, a point Anatole France underscored in his sarcastic observation that the law “in its majestic equality forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in streets, and to steal bread.”  Justice for the poor requires more than formal equality.  It requires steps to overcome the effects of poverty and powerlessness.

Compare Lida’s situation with that of poor immigrants in biblical times. The Old Testament law of gleaning (Lev. 19:9-10) prohibited owners of fields from harvesting them twice in order to get the last pieces of grain.  Instead they were to allow the poor to come onto the field after the reapers in order to gather grain for food.  We know that this was more than a “law on the books” because of the practice of gleaning was central to the story of Ruth and her husband-to-be Boaz.

Biblical justice works to accomplish deliverance of the oppressed. Because of that, it can seem that Scripture has a preference for the poor:  When Isaiah begins his denunciation of the rebellious nation of Israel, he announces that the Lord is not interested in their religious ceremonies.  Instead he wants them to “seek justice, encourage the oppressed, defend the cause of the fatherless, plead the case of the widow.” (Isaiah 1:17) Had the Lord left it at “seek justice,” we might view the injunction as useful, although rather general, direction.  But He moved quickly from that to particular instructions about the kind of caseload he wanted the lawyers of that time to have: the oppressed, orphans, widows.

This reference to the poor and oppressed is not an isolated one. Look in a complete concordance sometime (or use a computerized concordance) and you will find that references to the poor, the oppressed, widows, orphans, and aliens run through Scripture, and that they almost always end with an injunction to defend them.  Defend them against the powerful, the rich, those who belong, those who have friends in the right places.

What relevance does this have for us today? Are these repeated and urgent calls to defend the oppressed addressed to contemporary lawyers?  How would obedience to those calls affect the makeup of our client base?  These are questions that each of us must answer for ourselves.  Some have concluded from this that they should devote their professional lives to legal aid practice.  Others have chosen to “tithe” their time by devoting ten percent of their billable hours to pro bono work for indigent clients.  Others have chosen to take on particular issues, such as death penalty appellate work, which are time-consuming, emotionally exhausting and professionally challenging.

There is great satisfaction in identifying a situation in which someone is being oppressed and in being able to defend that person and bring about a just result. We enjoy books and movies in which this happens, it is something that many lawyers aspired to when they decided to go to law school, and it is something society celebrates.  This satisfaction may come because intuitively we understand what Scripture makes explicit: the God who does justice seeks to bring deliverance to the oppressed.

Dan Van Ness

Suggested reading: Meditate on the story of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37), and imagine what it was like to be each of the persons who passed by the crime victim. What were the barriers they would have to overcome if they became involved?  What would the cost be? The benefits? Which of the three do you most relate to?

– This article comes from AI’s devotional for lawyers titled, “What Does the Lord Require of You?”