The Bible is not bashful about admitting the reality of evil. Original sin is quickly introduced as our first parents’ perennial flaw. The murder of Abel by Cain, the vengeance of Lemech, and the pride of Babel’s tower builders are vividly narrated in the Scripture’s opening chapters. But among the treacheries, infidelities, and brutalities that abound in Holy Writ, there are four sins that the sacred authors claim “cry out to God for vengeance.” In the second reading at Mass this coming Sunday, St. James cites one of this evil quartet: “Behold, the wages you withheld from the workers who harvested your fields are crying aloud; and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts.” St. James bases his conviction that defrauding the laborer of his hire cries out to God for justice on the clear teaching of the ancient Pentateuch, the first five books of Jewish Scripture. For example, the Book of Deuteronomy resolutely demands, “Do not take advantage of a hired worker who is poor and needy, whether that worker is a fellow Israelite or a foreigner residing in one of your towns. Pay them their wages each day before sunset, because they are poor and are counting on it. Otherwise they may cry to the Lord against you, and you will be guilty of sin.”
The first sin listed first in the Scripture crying out to God for justice is fratricide. God lambasts Cain, “What have you done? Listen! Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground.” This murder was not just a crime of violence; it was a compounded crime of violence and injustice. Cain and Abel were brothers; Cain owed his brother fraternal respect and esteem. His sin not only violated Abel’s physical well-being; it also sullied the family bond. Fratricide is not only cruelty; it is also hatred.
The second sin mentioned as calling out to God for justice is the wickedness found in Sodom. Genesis records God’s thoughts: “The outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah is so great and their sin so grievous that I will go down and see if what they have done is as bad as the outcry that has reached me. If not, I will know.’” Scripture later twice explains the sins of Sodom. Ezekiel writes, “Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy. They were haughty and did detestable things before me. Therefore I did away with them as you have seen.” The New Testament author Jude is more explicit: “Sodom and Gomorrah and the surrounding towns gave themselves up to sexual immorality and perversion. They serve as an example of those who suffer the punishment of eternal fire.” Again, the Sodomites did not only sin by sexual aberrations, but they also sinned against justice by their unconcern for the poor. Theirs was a compound sin of excess and insensitivity.
The Book of Exodus has two citations that mention sins crying out to God for satisfaction. The Old Testament bluntly decries oppression of the poor, specifically the oppression of slavery and famously the oppression of widows and orphans. The author writes: “The Israelites groaned in their slavery and cried out, and their cry for help because of their slavery went up to God.” And again, “Do not take advantage of the widow or the fatherless. If you do and they cry out to me, I will certainly hear their cry.” Clearly oppression is a sin against justice and decency. Slaves, orphans, and widows are first of all human beings, children of God. Like Abel and like the lesser citizens of Sodom they deserve respect and furthermore encouragement. God notices those who exploit their neighbors.
The fourth sin that pleads for justice before God is the defrauding workers of their wages. The fifth Pentateuch book, Deuteronomy, demands: “Do not take advantage of a hired worker who is poor and needy, whether that worker is a fellow Israelite or a foreigner residing in one of your towns. Pay them their wages each day before sunset, because they are poor and are counting on it. Otherwise they may cry to the Lord against you, and you will be guilty of sin.” As cited above, St. James would later echo these thoughts exactly: “Look! The wages you failed to pay the workers who mowed your fields are crying out against you. The cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord Almighty.”
All four of these egregious offenses are directed against the human person. The killing of a brother, insensitivity toward fellow citizens, the exploitation of slaves, the ignoring of widows and orphans and cheating the worker are violations of the mutual respect that all human beings should maintain towards one another. God will not, cannot, ignore these cries against justice, honesty and civility.