Ready to Help the Poor

| Deuteronomy 15:1-11

The Point:  Demonstrate God’s heart for the poor.

Giving to the Poor Freely:  Deuteronomy 15:1-11.

[1]  "At the end of every seven years you shall grant a release. [2]  And this is the manner of the release: every creditor shall release what he has lent to his neighbor. He shall not exact it of his neighbor, his brother, because the LORD’s release has been proclaimed. [3]  Of a foreigner you may exact it, but whatever of yours is with your brother your hand shall release. [4]  But there will be no poor among you; for the LORD will bless you in the land that the LORD your God is giving you for an inheritance to possess– [5]  if only you will strictly obey the voice of the LORD your God, being careful to do all this commandment that I command you today. [6]  For the LORD your God will bless you, as he promised you, and you shall lend to many nations, but you shall not borrow, and you shall rule over many nations, but they shall not rule over you. [7]  "If among you, one of your brothers should become poor, in any of your towns within your land that the LORD your God is giving you, you shall not harden your heart or shut your hand against your poor brother, [8]  but you shall open your hand to him and lend him sufficient for his need, whatever it may be. [9]  Take care lest there be an unworthy thought in your heart and you say, ‘The seventh year, the year of release is near,’ and your eye look grudgingly on your poor brother, and you give him nothing, and he cry to the LORD against you, and you be guilty of sin. [10]  You shall give to him freely, and your heart shall not be grudging when you give to him, because for this the LORD your God will bless you in all your work and in all that you undertake. [11]  For there will never cease to be poor in the land. Therefore I command you, ‘You shall open wide your hand to your brother, to the needy and to the poor, in your land.’ [ESV]

“This passage gives added emphasis to two important principles which have already emerged in the book – God’s concern for the individual and His compassion for the needy. One might have thought that, with such an insistent appeal to the well-being of the whole community, the individual Israelite might easily have been overlooked. Although the Lord was creating a people [14:2], that did not mean that individuals were disregarded or devalued. In God’s sight every single man, woman, or child, rich or poor, was of infinite worth, and special care must be taken over their distinctive needs. Moreover, although this book has a great deal to say about the promised well-being of God’s people, it also anticipates the needs of the destitute and the oppressed. Scripture is remarkable for its realism; it certainly does not guarantee the material success of those who put God first. Some of the holiest people in Christian history have encountered times of economic hardship and serious deprivation. Those who honor God readily accept His priorities as their own. If He cares for the needy, so will they. Three classes are here singled out for special mention – the debtors, the poor and the servants. Such people were to benefit from the year of release which was held every seven years [1]. It guaranteed their practical help and relief.

[1-6] The Debtor. Debt in the ancient world was rarely due to irresponsible spending. A poor harvest in any year could throw hundreds of families into serious trouble. Sudden death might rob a reasonably affluent home of a hard-working husband. After some time, the mother might find it extremely difficult to support her young children. Under such circumstances, it would be all too easy to fall into debt. Once they became old enough, the children could even be sold as slaves to pay off the debts. Bereft of her husband, the widow was then robbed of her children also. Such a situation is not an imaginary one. That combination of debt, poverty and prospective slavery is exactly portrayed in one Old Testament narrative which describes how the prophet Elisha was instrumental in giving practical help to one particular family in a time of grave financial crisis [2 Kings 4:1-7]. It was to meet such a situation that God gave these instructions to His people. At the close of every seventh year every creditor shall release what he has lent to his neighbor [2]. The law insisted that in that seventh year the land must lie fallow [Lev. 25:3-4] testifying to the fact that the Lord was the true owner of the property. It was His right to order a Sabbath rest. In such a year it might be difficult for debtors to earn enough money to repay debts, so there must be a letting go or canceling of debt at that time. Some suggest that in that year the cancellation of debt was total and complete. Whatever the amount, the debt was totally removed from the creditor’s books and debtors were let go from any further responsibility for payment. Others believe that debtors were only released from responsibility to pay in that particular year, thus giving them more time to pay off the creditor without him constantly breathing down their necks or threatening to take their children into slavery. Four reasons are given why creditors are to be generous to their fellow Israelites – they must remember God’s kindness, obey God’s word, trust God’s promise, and love God’s people.

(1) They must remember God’s kindness. All the creditors are debtors in God’s sight. Without His generous gifts they too would be in abject poverty. They only have materialistic possessions themselves because the Lord has blessed them in a land which He has given them [4]. If He has dealt bountifully with them, they must not be unkind to others.

(2) They must obey God’s word. This was not an exhortation; it was an order. The creditors are told they must strictly obey the voice of the Lord your God and be careful to do all this commandment that I command you today [5]. The Lord had kept His part of the covenant by giving what He agreed (as he promised you [6]); they must keep theirs by doing what He said. Their obedience could entirely banish all poverty within the community. God anticipates a time when all the people care for one another. Then, there will be no poor among you … if only you will strictly obey [4-5].

(3) They must trust God’s promise. Obedience to the command called for an act of faith on the part of the creditor. If, during that year, he did not persist in his endeavors to collect debts, how could he be sure that his own needs would be met? The promise is clear: For the Lord your God will bless you, as he promised you [6].

(4) They must love God’s people. The matter of relationship is supremely important. The creditor must not regard his fellow Israelite as a tiresome debtor, an expensive irritant in his business affairs. Although the debtor owes money he must not be made into an enemy. The unfortunate debtor is a fellow Israelite and, even more, a brother, bound by ties of love and loyalty. Creditor and debtor alike are joint members of God’s family with one Father caring for them all. We need to ask whether this passage has anything to say to us about debt in our entirely different economic and social context? Although the provisions and stipulations of these verses cannot be mechanically transferred from an Israelite agricultural milieu to late twentieth-century technological society, it has presuppositions and priorities which are just as important as when they were first given. First, we ought to do everything possible to live as responsible stewards of the resources which God has given us and endeavor to live within our monetary limits. Although the words you shall not borrow [6] are in this passage a vivid way of describing Israel’s promised prosperity, they also portray God’s ideal – that in our financial affairs, we do not become dependent on others. We all recognize, of course, that in modern society most people who wish to buy a house are compelled to borrow by taking out a mortgage but, given that necessity, individuals and families need to ensure that such an arrangement does not become a pattern for irresponsible borrowing, thus incurring increasing debt. Secondly, Christians need to help others to manage their financial affairs. Those who work among young people ought to include some regular teaching on issues of this kind, so that the ethical content of the Christian message is not totally preoccupied with negative issues, but is practically orientated. Much ethical teaching among Christians does not include nearly enough help about how to handle some of the big social problems of our time – family life, severed relationships, stress, drinking, sex, and the use of money. Good courses are available for Christians on money management and the Scripture itself offers perceptive insights into the right use of our resources. Such teaching can challenge, inform and encourage many Christian believers who are struggling with problems of serious debt, as well as help others (especially young people) to avoid these hazards in a world where many are lured into compulsive buying. Some churches have set up advice centers on their premises where people with serious money problems can obtain necessary guidance. Thirdly, in the light of this passage it is surely unbiblical, inappropriate and unkind to do anything which actively encourages anyone to go into debt. That may mean that, within home relationships, we do not strive for lifestyles which are beyond our predicable income. It may also have repercussion at work. Christians should do everything possible to ensure that their employment does not deliberately encourage people to adopt instant credit schemes which can later become intolerable burdens, thus making us agents of serious domestic unhappiness long after the necessary forms have been signed.

[7-11] The Poor. Poverty is not remotely necessary in God’s economy [4] but the Lord knows that everyone will not obey His word on the matter: For there will never cease to be poor in the land [11]. Human sin is such that some people will always be greedy and selfish. Adequate provision must therefore be made for those who are destitute: If among you, one of your brothers should become poor [7]. The Lord knows that kind-hearted and generous people will not always be in the majority so the passage tends to address the innate miser rather than the potential benefactor. Stingy people in the Hebrew community are told to avoid four dangers – a hard heart, a closed hand [7], an evil thought [9] and a grudging spirit [10]. Israelites who have been blessed by God are told that, if they become aware of the poverty of one of their brothers, they must not harden their hearts [7]. It is a serious offence against God [9] if the needs of any poor brother are deliberately ignored [7]. If God constantly cares for the poor, the rich must not studiously avoid them. Nor must the rich man hold back any help he can give to his brother. He is told not to shut his hand but to open his hand [7-8,11] gladly making help available, albeit by a loan, to a needy member of the same spiritual family. Anyone who is really mean will be hesitant to loan anything if the year of release is approaching because he might not get the money back. He is therefore warned against such a wicked thought, and urged to be generous-hearted, whether the money will be returned quickly or not. Not to do so is to sin against the Lord [9]. Even if he decides to give, however, the spirit in which he gives is also important. If the person with plenty decides to help the poor, it is not sufficient merely to give them the money they need. The manner in which assistance is offered is as important as the help itself. God is concerned about what is in our hearts as well as what is in our hands. The benefactor must not adopt a grudging spirit towards the poor brother he intends to help. God is concerned about motivation as well as obedience. He does not want people to help others in a totally unwilling spirit: You shall give to him freely, and your heart shall not be grudging when you give to him [10]. The apostle Paul reminded the Corinthians that God loves a cheerful giver [2 Cor. 9:7].”  [Brown, pp. 164-169].

Application. Jesus clearly makes reference to Deuteronomy 15:11 in the context of the woman who poured expensive perfume on His head just prior to the Passion [Matt. 26:6-13]. In that scene, the disciples are indignant because the woman wasted the expensive perfume rather than selling it and giving the proceeds to the poor. Jesus answers the disciples by saying, Why do you trouble the woman? For she has done a beautiful thing to me. For you always have the poor with you, but you will not always have me [Matt. 26:10-11]. Christians throughout the ages have often misunderstood Jesus’ comment here. Some would argue that Jesus’ statement that you always have the poor with you is grounds for social inaction. The problem is that they do not read the context of Jesus’ quotation of Deuteronomy 15:11a, which must be understood in the light of Moses’ immediately following statement: You shall open wide your hand to your brother, to the needy, and to the poor, in your land [11b]. Proper teaching from Matthew 26:11 must stress that a Christian lifestyle is generally characterized by that generosity toward the needy. The woman’s anointing of Jesus is an exceptional situation, and it is preparatory for Jesus’ burial. It in no way denies or abrogates our duty to the disadvantaged.”  [Currid, p. 284].

Questions for Discussion:

1.         We see in these verses a repeated emphasis in the book of Deuteronomy on two principles: God’s concern for the individual and His compassion for the needy. These two principles should be found in God’s church today. How is your church attempting to emphasize these two principles?

2.         What four reasons are given in these verses to describe why God’s people are to be generous (remember, obey, trust, love)? Seek to apply these reasons to your life as you attempt to be generous.

3.         What lessons can we learn from this passage concerning debt and poverty? What do we learn from the contrasting statements concerning poverty in verses 4 and 11? (Probably that poverty will always exist due to our own sin and disobedience to our Lord.) Chapter 15 deals with three classes of people: the debtors, the poor, and the servants. Read the rest of the chapter to see what is said concerning servants. Then summarize how God intends for each of the three classes to be cared for.

References:

The Message of Deuteronomy, Raymond Brown, Inter Varsity.

Deuteronomy, John Currid, Evangelical Press.

Deuteronomy, Eugene Merrill, NAC, Broadman.