The Quartet of the Vulnerable

In his book Justice Nicholas Wolterstorff coins a great phrase to highlight the concerns in the Old Testament to care and seek justice for the weak and vulnerable. Wolterstorff calls these vulnerable groups "the quartet of the vulnerable": the poor, the foreigner residing within your borders, the orphan and the widow.

The quartet is mentioned, in bits and pieces, all through the Old Testament. One passage where the whole quartet appears:

Zechariah 7:9-10a
This is what the Lord Almighty said: "Administer true justice; show mercy and compassion to one another. Do not oppress the widow or the fatherless, the foreigner or the poor."

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6 thoughts on “The Quartet of the Vulnerable”

  1. Through out my childhood I often heard Christians make convenient use of the scriptures, "Never have I seen the children of the righteous begging for bread", and "You will always have the poor with you", to relieve "faithful" members of the church from any consideration of the poor.

    Also, conservative Christians seem to have a fairy tale notion of what and who the legitimate poor are; that they should act and behave like the poor in Bible movies, always gentle and kind, yet, subservient. It saddens me to hear, "But they act so entitled, so angry at those of us who work".

    The truth is the poor are the poor in every age. Some are gentle and kind, others are angry. But Jesus, and love, never makes the distinction.

  2. You might be interested to know that three of this "quartet" are part of standard ancient rhetoric, going back centuries before the Old Testament: kings claimed to exercise justice on behalf of the widow, the orphan, and the poor. As far as I have been able to find, however, they do not mention the foreigner--there is something distinctive about the Old Testament's ethics in accepting the foreigner.

  3. Please don't lump all conservative Christians together. There is a tendency to equate what we personally know with all of a group. In my area of the country, it is the conservative Christians who are the soup kitchens serving, driving Meals on Wheels routes in poor urban neighborhood, and making sure middle school students have food over the weekends.

  4. I like that quite a lot. These are the ones who lack the securities that the established of society take for granted. It's interesting to think how the community is urged to extend compassion and support in their time of lack. In my own work I've been reading a great deal about the paradox of salvation (the loss of self that leads to the finding of self), and it strikes me that such a movement is formally identical to the practice of contemplative prayer.

    In this form of prayer one intentionally induces the vulnerability that is described here. The usual mental securities (which are more often than not false securities) are released. We become the widow, the fatherless, the foreigner and the poor in prayer. And it is here, in this place of desolation, that we are encountered and supported by the God who is beyond our fathers, husbands, national structures, and financial security.

  5. Those who made use of the verses I mentioned were all conservative. All whom I have heard speak of those who "act so entitled" were all conservative. Yes, many of these were of congregations who had food pantries and refused no one as far as I know. Yet, these same Christians disdained any taxation to help the poor, while supporting an unjust war, Vietnam, with our taxes, referring to all who disagreed as liberals who did not love God and country. These same Christians certainly did not refuse tax exempt status for their congregations, and accused all who disagreed as liberals who do not love the gospel. And they certainly did not refuse Social Security for themselves. But taxation to help the poor? Every one I remember who said "Absolutely not!", and there were many, were conservative.

    I heard all this while growing up, while hearing the poor and the alien, as well as liberals, ridiculed and disregarded with a smirk and a simple twisting of scripture.

  6. Let me see if I understand. Taxation for the poor is good. Food pantries who don't refuse anyone are not up to par?

    This is not a tax issue in my mind. It doesn't matter how much of the tax money I contribute is used to feed the poor if I don't personally take responsibility and help those in the area where I am.

    I tend to the proposition that those closest to the situation do the most good—therefore local churches can do the best work. I haven't found the verse that says that the government should do all (or even most) of what a Christian is called to do.

    I understand your point that some folks are willing to take advantage of government practices but don't want to contribute. That is fairly universal across the political spectrum—just not the same practices. It's wrong. You'll get no argument from me on that.

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