Giving in a Greedy Culture

 

Week of January 29, 2012

 

Bible Verses:Deuteronomy 15:7-11; 24:10-15, 17-18.

 

Lesson Focus:We have an obligation to meet the needs of people our culture would prefer to ignore.

 

Share Generously: Deuteronomy 15:7-11.

 

[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]

 

The theme of the defenseless or dependent members of society is further expanded in 15:1-11, again as an aspect of service to the Lord. The issue here specifically is debt cancellation, reflective of the problem indigenous to every culture, that of borrowing and lending. Through poor judgment, wrong advice, or circumstances beyond human control, there are always persons who become destitute and who must therefore cast themselves upon the merciful beneficence of others. Such contingencies in ancient Israel could be addressed by interest-free loans that could be repaid either by goods or by labor. The latter case is legislated in 15:12-18, so the focus in 15:1-11 is on loans that are to be repaid in ďcashĒ. The terms under which such transactions were set up are not spelled out in the Old Testament except that the lender could charge no interest to a fellow Israelite [Ex. 22:25; Lev. 25:35-37]. Presumably arrangements were made on a good-faith basis with adequate protection for the creditor as well as the debtor.

 

[7-11]Poverty is not remotely necessary in Godís economy [15:4] but the Lord knows that everyone will not obey His word on the matter. Human sin is such that some people will always be greedy and selfish. Adequate provision must therefore be made for those who are destitute. 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 be hard-hearted [7]. It is a serious offense 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 be tight-fisted but open-handed, gladly making help available, albeit by a loan [8], 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 [9] is approaching because he might not get the money back. He is therefore warned against such a unworthy 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: give to him freely, and your heart shall not be grudging when you give to him [10]. Teaching of this kind is not simply restricted to the conduct of pre-conquest Israelites. The eighth-century prophets took up these themes with passionate social concern, and they are equally relevant in our own time. Homelessness is one of the acute social problems of our generation, and committed Christians cannot possibly ignore the Lordís command in these verses. Widespread unemployment result in the daily repossession of homes. Believers who take Godís word in these verses seriously must express their concern in practical ways by encouraging responsible attitudes to money management, as well as by active participation in local initiatives and community enterprises for homeless people. Christians need to use their influence to relieve this alarming social problem and offer church and personal help whenever possible to people in need.

 

Treat with Dignity: Deuteronomy 24:10-15.

 

[10]"When you make your neighbor a loan of any sort, you shall not go into his house to collect his pledge. [11]You shall stand outside, and the man to whom you make the loan shall bring the pledge out to you. [12]And if he is a poor man, you shall not sleep in his pledge. [13]You shall restore to him the pledge as the sun sets, that he may sleep in his cloak and bless you. And it shall be righteousness for you before the LORD your God. [14]"You shall not oppress a hired servant who is poor and needy, whether he is one of your brothers or one of the sojourners who are in your land within your towns. [15]You shall give him his wages on the same day, before the sun sets (for he is poor and counts on it), lest he cry against you to the LORD, and you be guilty of sin.

 

[10-13]A group of laws are found in chapter 24 which concern the welfare of people in debt. Anyone in serious financial difficulty might gain immediate relief by obtaining an interest-free [23:19-20] loan and in such cases it was customary to make a pledge available to the lender Ė some item of furniture, clothing, jewelry, or other personal effects which the lender could redeem should the loan not be repaid. Two laws are introduced governing the use of pledges within the covenant community. One controls the kind of article which can be offered [see 24:6,12-13], the other relates to the collection of them [see 24:10-11]. The first law concerns some items which were forbidden pledges. In the first place, one piece of equipment could not be removed from an Israelite home [6]. Moreover, two items of clothing were also on the forbidden pledges list. If a poor manís cloak [12-13] was offered as a pledge it could not be retained by the lender after nightfall. A man would have had to be utterly destitute even to consider offering his cloak as a pledge. In such circumstances a borrower would have had nothing else to offer as security. The law protected him, however, for that cloak also served as the quilt on the poor manís bed. Although extremely hot during the day, in many parts of Israel it could be bitterly cold at night. The debtor was in enough trouble without having to shiver through sleepless nights because of the severe drop in the temperature. Whatever his financial difficulties, the Lord wanted the debtor to have a good nightís rest so that he could work properly on the following day and help to pay back his debts. The fact that a cloak had to be returned at dusk would naturally discourage a creditor from taking one as a pledge. Acts of kindness, such as ensuring that a poor man had a good nightís sleep, were right in Godís sight and would prompt the grateful borrower to seek Godís blessing on the one who had helped him. His prayers might obtain treasures for the creditor which money could not buy. The second law concerning pledges relates to their collection from the home of the debtor [10-11]. The Lord was concerned about the deprived manís feelings as well as his poverty. It was difficult enough for him to cope with his financial problems; there was no reason why he should also be exposed to unnecessary emotional strain. The creditor who loaned him the money must not go into his house to collect his pledge. He must stand outside the poor manís home so that the debtor could bring the pledge out to him. That someone should enter his poor home in order to take away his few remaining possessions would be a degrading act, and God protected the debtor from such pain by promulgating a law which prohibited such a thoughtless action. We see from these laws that the Lord was concerned about the poor manís financial deprivation (no interest on the loan), social embarrassment [24:11] and physical comfort [24:13].

 

[14-15]Once the people entered the land and settled down to their new life, there was always the likely danger that some oppressive landowner might misuse a needy employee, either a fellow Israelite or a refugee living in one of the Israelite towns. When sin and greed become entrenched in human lives, its victims are quite prepared to treat their fellows harshly in order to acquire financial, material or social improvement for themselves. This law insisted that, on the day he earned it, every laborer must be given his full wages before sundown so that he could buy the food he needs to take home to his hungry family. God is concerned about the wage packet. He would not dream of leaving such matters to the goodwill of the individual farmer. He knows He is dealing with sinners. Therefore, the employer is not advised but bluntly told that the wages of the hired man who is poor and needy must be properly and promptly paid. If such a matter is neglected, the poverty stricken worker may cry to the Lord against his employer. Such a breach of the law would be a serious sin for which the negligent, greedy or preoccupied farmer will be accountable to God. The employer neglects his duty; the poor manís family is hungry; the worker cries to God in his need and the Lord will not overlook the sin. There is a deliberate contrast here with the earlier passage [24:13] where instead of crying against his fellow, the poor man blesses his creditor for his generosity, thoughtfulness and kindness. Whereas the employerís indifference becomes sin in him, the creditorís deed is a righteous act in the sight of the Lord. We live in a very different society and the payment of wages at the close of every day is not normally necessary. There is a word here, however, for men and women in the contemporary world. It reminds all employers of the importance of just and fair wages in return for honest work, and it reminds all wage-earners of the importance of settling our accounts so that we donít run ourselves into debt. Many lives, homes and families are wrecked by financial mismanagement. No Christian can afford to be careless about basic matters of this kind. His or her personal integrity and testimony as a Christian are at stake. More importantly, it is dishonoring to God if we drift into debt. Like the Hebrew employer, it is important that we also do what is right before the Lord so that other people are not able to point at sin in us as far as our financial affairs are concerned.

 

Protect with Mercy: Deuteronomy 24:17-18.

 

[17]"You shall not pervert the justice due to the sojourner or to the fatherless, or take a widow's garment in pledge, [18]but you shall remember that you were a slave in Egypt and the LORD your God redeemed you from there; therefore I command you to do this. [ESV]

 

[17-18]Further laws are here introduced [24:17-22] which were specifically designed to help those people in Israelís towns and villages who, without such legislation, might be in danger of serious neglect. The fatherless, widow and alien were the deprived members of any local community but they were the objects of Godís special love and care. He was father to the orphan, husband to the widow, and friend to the homeless. If the Lord cared about such weak people, nobody in Israel must allow them to be forgotten. Three basic human rights are treated here, their right to justice [17], clothing [17] and food [19-21]. First, from time to time, such people would naturally have cause to seek legal aid. There was always the danger that these disadvantaged members of the community could suffer at the hands of a corrupt judge. For example, on the death of a husband, a close relative might offer attractive bribes to a judge in order to gain material advantages, but all at the widowís expense. Such behavior was an offense to God for He had said that any form of bribery is strictly forbidden [16:19]. If there was a disobedient and dishonest judge in the community, children were in particular danger. Defenseless children were without proper legal status. Somebody must be their helper. The fatherless could not plead effectively for themselves so Israelís judges were firmly told that under no circumstances must they pervert the justice due to the sojourner or to the fatherless. Even if such disadvantaged people have money, life is still hard for them so God is especially concerned to see that they have a fair deal [10:18]. In contemporary society, many children are tragically exposed to danger, and rapidly increasing numbers of these young people are emotionally deprived, spiritually ignorant, and morally vulnerable. In the light of teaching such as that found here and elsewhere in Deuteronomy, Godís people have a responsibility to respond to the challenge of this serious problem. With the tragic escalation of marriage breakdown, the emotional deprivation of children is inevitable. In years of crucial psychological formation, many of them are denied the right of support from both parents; an increasing number belong to one-parent families. The Christian church has the opportunity to provide for many hundreds of children the love, security and practical support which they have lost through a broken marriage, and any initiatives to help such children would certainly honor the intention of Godís word in these verses. A large proportion of children are spiritually ignorant, being totally out of touch with any congregation of Christian believers. Those Christians are to be applauded who have risen to the challenge of dispelling this widespread ignorance of biblical truth on the part of thousands of children in the modern world, and one hopes that more and more believers will discover imaginative and creative ways in their own neighborhood of attractively presenting this generation of children with the stories of the Bible and the claims of Christ.

 

Questions for Discussion:

 

1.†††††††† What four dangers of the heart does 15:7-11 warn the community to avoid? What do these verses say about the importance of the proper motivation (heart) for helping the poor? Note the year of release was the seventh (or Sabbath) year when debts were forgiven.

 

2.†††††††† What indication in 24:10-18 do you see that the Lord was not only concerned about the poor personís financial needs but also about social embarrassment and physical comfort? How can you apply these laws today when you seek to help the poor and needy?

 

3.†††††††† In the present economic climate with widespread unemployment there is a rapid increase in homelessness and broken marriages caused by financial strains and difficulties. What is your church doing to help meet these needs and provide physical comfort and spiritual encouragement? What are you doing as an individual?

 

References:

The Message of Deuteronomy, Raymond Brown, Inter Varsity.

Deuteronomy, Eugene Merrill, NAC, Broadman.