The Respect of Equality - Exodus 23:1-12

One of the celebrated principles in founding the United States of America was a proclamation of equality. The Declaration of Independence referred to the equality of all men as sharing the very same Creator. The men writing such words and founding the country were struggling against a system of wealth and power tied to a powerful minority who controlled the land in England. They recognized the glaring injustices of a system in which the landed class held wealth and power at the expense of those who struggled as serfs to the land. The Constitution they devised decreed that titles of royalty were not to exist in this new country, but that all would be considered equals.
We are aware of the failings in their application of these ideals. Slavery yet existed. Only those who owned land could vote. Women had neither a political voice nor a vote. These were more than simple issues of oversight in their proclamations. These were problems living up to the ideals they proclaimed, yet the principles laid out were important ones. Later generations would extend these principles to include many who had been left out. People were to be accepted with respect due to their personhood. Class distinctions were to be disallowed. We still struggle with fleshing out this concept in the public sphere and in the day to day of our lives.
This principle of equality ensconced in our founding documents follows the theme of Exodus 23. Yahweh's instructions for Israel demanded they respect one another as equals. God established a system to ensure justice for all. Unlike our tendency to separate life into categories of secular and spiritual, Yahweh's decrees recognized that the secular and economic were part and parcel of living under God's direction. How we treat one another on the job, in court, and in our business transactions are just as spiritual or religious in nature as what we do inside our sanctuaries and homes.
When Jesus quoted “Love your neighbor as yourself,” he was quoting a foundational principle of passages like this one in Exodus 23. These instructions commanded the people to treat each other with dignity and respect. They were to apply the same standards of respect toward the rich as toward the poor, toward the native-born as toward the immigrant, toward the powerful as toward the powerless. They were to go out of their way to meet the needs of those they considered their enemies.
The connected were not to get different access than the less connected. The wealthy were not to be given special honor. The poor were not to be granted special dispensation simply due to their poverty. The immigrant and the native were to be viewed as equals before the court of justice. The majority was not to be given any more right than the minority. Justice was not supposed to be a question of privilege or power or preference. It was to be delivered on the basis of equality among all people.
These are high ideals. These are high standards for any system of justice. Making them reality is no easy task. Whether we intend to distort these ideals or fall prey to distorting them unwittingly, the result is the same. In nation after nation throughout history and around the world, the ideals of justice have never become the normative reality. We fail to measure up to the demands of justice, the demands and concerns of equality.
We treat some with deference and others with disdain. We do this as individuals and as societies. We do this out of the prejudices we were taught as infants and out of the new prejudices we develop along the course of life. We fail to understand the needs and challenges faced by different segments of our society. We don't take the time to listen and learn from one another. We don't invest enough concern for different points of view or how our decisions impact the lives of others. We act as though equality means that everyone should act, believe, and live exactly the way I live. We pretend that equality means we all must share the same values and priorities. We extend equality only to people like unto ourselves.
The result is the same, regardless of motivation or the limitations of our perception. We fail to measure up to the standards of treating one another as equals. In so doing, we pervert justice.
Exodus tells us that the rights and privileges of all people should be accorded in equality. The slave, the immigrant, the heir of the promise, work animals, and wild beasts were all to share equally in God's blessings and provision. It was Yahweh's intention that all be included in both the responsibility to enact equality, as well as recipients of the blessings of being treated with the respect of equality.
These words were given to Israel while they were not yet a nation. These decrees were to establish the foundation for building a society as this band of freed slaves started organizing themselves. Having left an oppressive regime in Egypt, they were to avoid falling into the same system of oppressing others in their stead. The way forward for them would not repeat established patterns of injustice. Yahweh required them to begin according to a completely new standard.
They were to learn from the oppression they had experienced in Egypt. They were to make sure that they did not simply repeat the injustice they had seen, visiting it upon others. Justice required they treat one and all as equals. Yahweh required they treat one and all as equals, just as worthy of Yahweh's intervention as they had found themselves. Rather than simply becoming the new oppressors, they were to establish a nation in which none oppressed. They would do this by respecting one and all as equals before Yahweh, as equals before the court of justice, as equal participants in society.
This is why bribes would not be acceptable. This is why lying would be a crime. This is why pretending to witness a criminal act would itself be criminal. This is why following along with the majority voice was not sufficient grounds for being absolved. The perversion of justice was simply not to be tolerated, regardless of who would come out the winner in such a suit.
Simply not getting involved in the struggles of others was to be deemed the equivalent to causing injustice, harm, or some other difficulty. As strange as it sounds, this is actually the heart of respecting others as equals. When an individual suffers, awareness calls us to step forward, addressing the issue before us.
When we treat one another as equals, we share one another's burdens and joys. If the neighbor's dog gets out, we take it upon ourselves to treat it as our own dog. If someone's care won't start, we treat it as our own car. If a stranger is struggling to carry a burden, we take on that burden as though it were our own. This is the heart of equality. This is the heart of justice. This is the heart of learning to become community and a nation built upon the principles of justice for all.
It is not enough not to murder those we do not like. It is insufficient to refrain from acting out in vengeance, violence, or deception. We are to step forward in receiving and owning the struggles others face. We adopt them into our lives as equals by struggling alongside them.
Respecting others means so much more than writing words on paper. Promoting justice means a whole lot more than making a claim. Accepting the principles of equality requires we invest our lives in the outcomes faced by those who struggle. Until we grant others the same respect we seek for ourselves, we still fall short. How long until we accept that the mistreatment of any is a crime against ourselves?

©Copyright 2017, Christopher B. Harbin  http://www.sermonsearch.com/contributors/104427/ 


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