A Theological Grid for Orphan Care
Today I took one of my daughters to work with me for a portion of the day. She did some homework while I worked on my sermon for Sunday and graded some papers. Well, she was supposed to be doing some homework. She was watching music videos on iTunes. “Dad,” she said, “did you know that at the end of this video it says that many of the children in Africa don’t have homes?” I stepped away from my desk to watch the video with her. I could tell that the song, images, and text had gripped her. I put my hand on her shoulder as we watched together for a moment.
And in that moment, I wondered if she was thinking about her own history. My wife and I adopted her almost four years ago. She was neglected by her biological parents, grandparents, and aunt. She was as homeless as the kids in Africa portrayed on the music video. As we watched, I thought about her and about Christian theology. In Scripture, God is described as the God who cares about His image-bearers and calls His people to care about them as well.
A Theology of Victory—and Vulnerability
Psalm 8 describes humanity as those through whom God demonstrates His greatness. In this psalm David writes that God demonstrates His warrior power even through the cries of an infant: “From the mouth of infants and nursing babes You have established strength because of Your adversaries, to make the enemy and the revengeful cease” (v. 2). In David’s mind, suckling children and the sounds of a church nursery are war cries of God’s greatness. How so? God is the Creator of life, accomplishing a feat that none of His foes could replicate. Since babies bear the image of God, even the cry of a baby shuts the mouths of any boastful opponents exalting themselves in God’s presence. David used the ironic picture of a crying child—not an image of power in our day or his—to present God’s power as Creator.
Since God has created man in His image (Gen 1:26-27), it follows that God’s enemy would seek to destroy life. The Devil’s chief strategy is to ruin relationships by separating people from God and one another. His strategy has not changed since Genesis 3, in which he deceived Eve to sow discord between God and His image bearers, the first human family. Because of sin’s entrance into the world, God’s image-bearers yet suffer the consequences of fractured relationships.
The God Who Cares for the Vulnerable
Both Old and New Testament writers describe God’s care for those of His image-bearers who find themselves on the margins of society. In Deuteronomy 10, 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). Psalm 10 places God’s concern for the orphan as a means of describing His care for all who are oppressed. Even though the arrogant scheme and carry out injustice, the psalmist prays, “The unfortunate commits himself to You; You have been the helper of the orphan” (v. 14). In Psalm 68, David describes God as so powerful that He is a father to the fatherless and a judge (a rescuer) for widows (v. 5). In Jeremiah’s prophesy against the nation of Edom he states that God would care for the orphan and widow even when foreign nations came to invade them (Jer. 49:11). Hosea prophecies similarly, seeing in God’s concern for the orphan a basis of hope that God would care for Israel despite the threat of foreign invasion (Hos. 14:3). Whether concerning foreign nations or Israel, the prophets of Israel want God’s people to understand God’s personal concern for the vulnerable.
Throughout Scripture, God’s personal concern for the marginalized serves as the motivation for His people to join Him in caring for the orphans among them. This is God’s strategy for orphan care. In Deuteronomy 14:29, Moses commands Israel to provide for the orphan just as they would the Levites who had no portion of land. Moses commands Israel that when they celebrated national festivals, they were to include orphans (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). 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. Click To Tweet 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).
Old Testament prophets like Isaiah and Jeremiah echo Moses’s commands for Israel to care for the orphans among them, even heightening the severity of consequences if Israel would refuse to treat the vulnerable the way that God had treated them. For Isaiah and Jeremiah, Israel’s fidelity to the orphan-care commands serve as a litmus test for Israel’s faithfulness to God. Isaiah begins his prophesy by indicting Israel of their sinful ways and calling the nation to repent. What would repentance look like? In part, to practice orphan care: “Learn to do good” Isaiah states, “seek justice, reprove the ruthless, defend the orphan, plead for the widow” (Isa. 1:17). Israel’s leaders were in Isaiah’s crosshairs: “Everyone loves a bribe and chases after rewards. They do not defend the orphan, nor does the widow’s plea come before them” (Isa. 1:23). According to Jeremiah, the fact that God’s people prospered while the orphan and needy among them continued in desperation was evidence that Judah no longer reverenced the Lord. Many in Jeremiah’s day thought themselves safe because the temple yet stood in Jerusalem (Jer. 7:1–8). In Jeremiah 7, the prophet is as concerned for the orphan as he is the state of the temple, prophesying that unless the people of Judah would take up causes like justice for the orphan then God would come and remove not only the temple from Jerusalem, but them from the land.
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’ statement that pure and undefiled religion includes orphan care (James 1:27). Not just for the people of biblical times, but for us today. In Until Every Child is Home: Why the Church Can and Must Care for Orphans (Moody Publishers, 2019), I write that God’s plan to care for the vulnerable like orphans is to work through you and me. We have the framework to care for orphans not as a project but as an expression of our God.