Shalom is meant to be both personal (emphasizing our relationships with others) and structural (replacing systems where shalom has been broken or which produce broken shalom, such as war or greed-driven economic systems). In shalom, the old structures and systems are replaced with new structures and new systems. The universal expectation for all humanity to live out shalom has been given. Shalom has been decreed. God expects us to make the old way of living new. The Creator requires us to re-shape the world we know into the world God has intended.
The task of creating communities where shalom is lived out may not be easy, but we can know whether or not we are successful in our efforts. How can a community tell if it is practicing shalom? Fortunately, a consistent standard is given throughout the sacred Scriptures. Shalom is always tested on the margins of a society and revealed by how the poor, oppressed, disempowered, and needy are treated. A huge gap between the wealthy and the poor may be a good indicator of the lack of shalom. Large discrepancies between wealth and poverty tend to lead to social oppression through injustice, which leads to other social ills like false imprisonment and disproportionate imprisoned populations of the marginalized (like minorities), unemployment, disproportionate military service by the poor and marginalized groups, high taxes (to support imperialism and the military), the opulence of the wealthy (and corporate tax welfare), children growing up without one or both parents, homelessness, prostitution, hunger, etcetera. These same social dynamics have remained unchanged in societies for thousands of years. As Jeremiah 5:28 notes in his day, “They have grown fat and sleek. They know no limits in deeds of wickedness; they do not judge with justice the cause of the orphan, to make it prosper, and they do not defend the rights of the needy.”
A society concerned with shalom will care for the most marginalized among them. God has a special concern for the poor and needy, because how we treat them reveals our hearts, regardless of the rhetoric we employ to make ourselves sound just. Jeremiah 22:16 (NLT) equates the social task of caring to revealing a genuine relationship with God: “[King Josiah] gave justice and help to the poor and needy, and everything went well for him. ‘Isn’t that what it means to know me?’ says the Lord.”
Even a society with the abuse of wealth can find ways to meet the needs of the most needy among them. If not, the problem becomes systemic and eventually everyone, even the non-wealthy, are considered by God to be culpable. If injustice is left unchecked, “Even common people oppress the poor, rob the needy, and deprive foreigners of justice,” accord- ing to Ezekiel 22:29 (NLT). Amos 5:12 describes systemic oppression of the poor like this: “For I know the vast number of your sins and the depth of your rebellions. You oppress good people by taking bribes and deprive the poor of justice in the courts.” And again in Amos 8:4-5 (NLT): “Listen to this, you who rob the poor and trample down the needy! You can’t wait for the Sabbath day to be over and the religious festivals to end so you can get back to cheating the helpless. You measure out grain with dishonest measures and cheat the buyer with dishonest scales.” Injustice against the poor reveals our own state of shalom and the posture God takes for us or against us.
Widows, orphans, and foreigners/strangers/resident aliens (depending on translation) appear as a triad throughout the Hebrew Testament representing the concerns of the poor, needy, downtrodden, oppressed, and disempowered. Why? In a patriarchal society the needs of these three are more apparent than others. A woman who has lost her husband has also lost all her legal and social standing. She is at the mercy of society. An orphan, having suffered a traumatic loss, is without an inheritance because he/she has no father and therefore no future. A foreigner, perhaps homeless from war or tragedy, is considered an outsider with no family ties and therefore no means of inheritance. A stranger does not know the ways of the people and is not easily trusted, so God commands immediate hospitality and eventual full acceptance for such people. The disempowered triad of widows, orphans, and strangers best represent God’s concern for those who have few material goods (food, clothing, shelter) and who are most easily oppressed (justice). Shalom addresses God’s concern for the socially marginalized.