May We Open Our Eyes
Is justice blind? Or does justice call us to open our eyes to the plight of those who are suffering?
As far back as 2680 B.C. in Egypt—more than a thousand years before the time of Moses, justice has been depicted as a goddess holding a symbol of truth in one hand and a symbol of authority in the other hand. Since the 16th century, a blindfold has commonly been placed over the eyes of Lady Justice to suggest that justice is blind to a person’s social standing and treats everyone impartially.
But if we close our eyes to the wrongs and needs that surround us, will there ever be justice?
Moses was granted unprecedented privilege and opportunity. By law, he should have been thrown in the Nile River as a baby. Instead, he was rescued by Pharaoh’s daughter and raised in the royal courts as a grandson of the king of Egypt. He had everything going for him and could have lived out his years in luxury.
But as Moses was out and about one day, his eyes were opened to the “forced labor” the Hebrew people were suffering. Indeed, Moses “saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew.” Rather than closing his eyes to the mistreatment, Moses struck down the Egyptian in indignation and buried his body in the sand. When Pharaoh learned what Moses had done, Pharaoh sought to take Moses’ life, but Moses fled. Moses travelled east, past the Sinai Peninsula, and sat down for a rest beside a well in Midian.
As Moses sat beside the well, he may have contemplated the sudden upheaval of his life. For forty years, his home had been the courts of Pharaoh, where he enjoyed the luxuries, privileges, and protection that provided. But when he stood up on behalf of an abused Hebrew slave, and when word got out about what he did, his life imploded. What good had it done Moses to meddle in the affairs of others? What good had come from getting involved in somebody else’s fight? The person he had tried to protect remained a slave, and Moses lost everything.
As he sat beside the well, mulling this over, seven sisters, ranging in age from little girls to young women, came to the well with their father’s flock of sheep.
In the ancient Middle East, it was common for the daughter (or daughters) of a family to lead the family herd out to nearby pasture in the morning, to watch them through the day, then to lead them home at the end of the day. For many shepherdesses, the highlight of their day was when they brought their flock to the community well, which was a social gathering place.
But spending time at the community well does not seem to have been the highlight of the day for the daughters of Reuel. They were routinely bullied by a band of shepherds who took advantage of the work the girls did in filling the trough with water, then chasing them away so that they could use it first. The problem was so perennial that Reuel had become accustomed to his daughters coming home late.
But Moses saw what the bullies did to the girls, and he could not bring himself to ignore or overlook what he saw. He steps in to help. The pursuit of justice begins not with blindfolded eyes but with eyes that are open to the suffering of others.
In an article entitled Six Habits of Highly Compassionate People. Hooria Jazaieri points out, “Compassion can be thought of as a mental state or an orientation towards suffering that includes four components: Bringing attention or awareness to recognizing that there is suffering (cognitive); feeling emotionally moved by that suffering (affective), wishing there to be relief from that suffering (intentional), and a readiness to take action to relieve that suffering (motivational). That’s what happened with Moses: He became aware of the injustice that was being inflicted upon those young women. He felt for them; he was moved by their mistreatment and suffering. He wanted these young women to be able to refresh their sheep in the troughs of water which they had filled. So he stepped in; he came to their defense and he watered their flock.
In the book Beautiful Souls: The Courage and Conscience of Ordinary People in Extraordinary Times, Eyal Press tells the story of Paul Gruninger who was dismissed from his job as captain of the police in St. Gallen, Switzerland on April 3, 1939 when it was found that he had falsified hundreds of documents to allow Jewish immigrants fleeing from Hitler to enter Switzerland. Two days later, in a letter to the Swiss government defending himself, Gruninger wrote, “Whoever had the opportunity, as I had, to repeatedly witness the heartbreaking scenes of the people concerned, the screaming and crying of mothers and children, the threats and suicide and attempts to do it, could…ultimately not beat it anymore.”
Like Paul Gruninger and like Moses, when our eyes and ears are open to the suffering of others, it becomes difficult simply to walk away.
God’s call to us is to open our eyes and to open our ears to the suffering and the struggles of others, and to take a stand on behalf of compassion and justice.