Giving what I Received

It was not just being adopted that prompted me to lead my family to adopt out of the foster care system (though that was part of it). My biological parents met in high school, once, at a party. When my biological mom discovered that she was pregnant, her parents kicked her out of their home. She found the hospitality of a physician in Omaha who took her in until I was born. She did light housework and helped with his younger children as payment. There is no record that she told my biological father that I exist. At just one month old, I was adopted into a loving family and have never struggled with identity issues related to being adopted.

Orphan Care as Rescue Mission

Three months before my wife and I began pursuing our foster care license, I graduated with a Ph.D. in New Testament. My research compared language and imagery of the messiah in Second Temple Judaism with the Christology of Hebrews. I spent a significant amount of time thinking about the messianic figures in texts like the War Scroll (1QM) from Qumran. On the great day of battle, the author of the War Scroll writes, God sends the angel Michael to rescue his beleaguered people from demonic and human foes (1QM XVII, 4-9). But the messiah figure of the War Scroll is an angel, neither personal nor permanent in fellowship with the faithful soldiers of Qumran.

As a New Testament scholar, I see orphans through the lens of Scripture. At its core, the New Testament is God’s revelation of himself in Christ to forgive the sins of people from all ethnicities, establishing them as a special body, the church, to display to the world what he has done for them. Yes, a few elements might be missing but here is a coatrack upon which various doctrinal emphases might be placed. Did you notice that I did not use the word “adoption?” Yes, adoption is referenced in key doctrinal passages like Romans 8 and Ephesians 1. But my point here is that the idea of adoption (and let’s include foster care for the moment) is a ministry that squares with the very macro themes of the New Testament—even when the word “adoption” is not used. In fact, adoption was not invented by Paul. He employed it because it described what he was getting at: God’s revelation of himself in Christ to forgive the sins of people from all nations and by the Spirit bring them together in the church to give away what they have received. The idea of being taken in, receiving God’s hospitality—with the result that we take in, extending hospitality to those in need—is the fabric of the New Testament.

Studying the work of Christ in the Epistle to the Hebrews motivated me to initiate adoption in my family. The author of Hebrews describes Jesus’s incarnation as a rescue mission: Jesus took up human flesh so that through his death he would defeat the one having the power of death, the devil, and free those who all their lives were held captive by the fear of death (Heb 2:14-15). For the author of Hebrews, Jesus’s atoning self-sacrifice was the very act that defeated the devil, robbing him of power to enslave humanity in fear of final condemnation. My Ph.D. research brought to the surface of my mind the fact that New Testament Christology is in many ways summarized in the phrase “rescue mission.”

Hebrews’ description of Christ parallels John’s portrayal of Jesus in his Gospel. In John 12, when Jesus approaches Jerusalem for the final time, he tells a crowd gathered around him that the time for the judgement of the world had come, the time for the ruler of the world to be cast out (John 12:31). John notes at the outset of the Upper Room Discourse (John 13-16) that the devil was active in persuading Judas to betray Jesus (John 13:2, 27). There Jesus states that the love he was showing the disciples by washing their feet was to mark their commitment to one another (John 13:12-17, 34-35). In 1 John 3:16-17, the apostle writes that God’s love has been manifested in Christ’s sacrificial death—which in turn is to be the motivation for believers to demonstrate love in all directions. In John’s view, if one does not show love to the needy there is no surety that God’s love abides in him. And who could be more needy than homeless, family-less children? What I here briefly note of John’s writings exhibits the same logic as James 1:27, that pure and undefiled religion in God’s view is to look after the needy—like orphans and widows. What does James mean by pure and undefiled religion? Religion that has integrity: it gives what it has received. Whole religion cares for the vulnerable—like orphans—by joining God in his care for them.

The Logic of Orphan Care in the Old Testament

The mandate for orphan care surfaces throughout the storyline of the Bible. Old Testament writers describe God’s care for those on the margins of society. Orphans and widows are noted as special examples of vulnerable people. Moses exhorts Israel to remember not only their privileged status in God’s redemptive plan but also to remember God’s personal concern for the orphans among them (Deut 10:18-19). Likewise, the author of Psalm 10 recalls God’s concern for the orphan even though the arrogant scheme and carry out injustice. In a song of celebration, the author of Psalm 68 rejoices that God is a father to the fatherless. Hosea sees in God’s concern for the orphan a basis of hope that God would care for Israel despite the threat of Assyrian invasion (Hos 14:3).

Old Testament writers like Moses describes God’s personal concern for the marginalized as the motivation for his people to join him in caring for the orphans among them. In Deuteronomy 10:29, Moses commands Israel to provide for the orphan just as they would the Levites who had no portion of land. Orphans were to be included in the celebration of Israel’s national festivals (Deut 16:11, 14). During harvest, Israel was to leave portions in their fields that those like the orphans could come and find provision from God’s bounty (Deut 24:19-21). But Moses commands not only that the Israelites leave in their fields a portion for the needy but also that they regularly bring a portion of their profits to support those like the orphans who had no means of income (Deut 26:12).

Joining God’s Rescue Mission

Tracing God’s concern for orphans and his call to his people to join him in caring for the needy establishes an accurate perspective for understanding James’s statement that pure and undefiled religion includes orphan care (Jas 1:27). God has finally rescued his people in Christ and calls his people to join him in rescuing the needy—like orphans in our own neighborhoods, cities, and states, as well as those around the globe.