Rev. Doug Floyd
Our lessons today call attention to the poor and particularly the responsibility of God’s people to open their hands to the needy in the land. In the Deuteronomy passage, Moses calls the people to give freely and not grudgingly to the poor brother. We are not told the reason for the poverty, but simply that freely giving to the one in need is the expectation for God’s people. In the 2 Corinthians passage, Paul invites the church at Corinth to fulfill their commitment to help the Jerusalem church in need. He cites both the example of the Macedonian church and the testimony of Jesus as examples of generosity. The Gospel calls attention to Jesus response to those in need: we read of his response to the request of Jarius to help his dying daughter. As Jesus walks toward the house of Jarius, his physical presence heals a woman whose issue of blood has most likely left her on the margins of society. Our Psalm reflects on these readings with a celebration of God’s blessing on the righteous, and the generosity of the righteous toward the poor.
We pause this morning to hear afresh God’s call to provide for the needy and to care for the poor.
When I was in college, I started reading Proverbs and Psalm through each month. There were so many directives about our responsibility to the poor that I began to realize how little contact I had with the poor. At the time, I worked in the church kitchen. Each Wednesday the whole church ate together, and we always had a lot of leftover food. I asked my supervisor if we could take the leftover food to the need, and she agreed, but I didn’t even know where to go. I had to find out somewhere that would even be interested in our leftover. We found a little Pentecostal church near downtown that happily accepted anything we would bring.
This conviction about the poor played a key role in my decision to join and eventually work for an inner city Pentecostal church after college. I realized that I needed to be around the poor and around minorities.
To this day, when I read texts about our responsibility to the poor, I want to pause and take serious God’s expectations. And yet, it can feel overwhelming. There are so many needs in the world and there are so many needs in this one county, it can feel like an insurmountable challenge.
I raised the question about the mandate to give to the poor with a group of folks the other night and the primary response was that most poor people they encountered, took advantage of charity and government programs.
How do we take seriously the clear directives in Scripture in a world of overwhelming needs and in a culture where people do sometimes take advantage of help? That’s a bigger question than a short meditation on Sunday morning, but a brief look at our lessons today could at least help us to begin thinking about our role in relation to the needy.
As we read through the stories of Scripture and of God’s people across the ages, we encounter various forms of poverty as well as distinctive approaches to care for the poor. Our Deuteronomy passage involves the plight of a person whose financial troubles have become so great that he sold himself into indentured service. According to the Torah, this type of service could only last for six years. During that time, the owner of the estate could not work the servant more than days in a row. The servant would be able to rest on Sabbath along with the owner. Then in the seventh year, the servant would be freed from the debt, and the owner would be expected to provide gifts for the person that would allow him to start life afresh without falling back into the same trap.
In verse ten we read, “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.” (Dt 15:10). This is referring to the provision the servant would receive at the end of the six years to allow him to start over again. Servants could have the option to become a permanent servant, committing to work for the owner for the rest of his life and trusting his care and the care of his family to the owner.
Torah made other provisions for the poor and needy as well. Nelson’s Bible Dictionary provides a nice summary of these provisions as follows:
The poor, widow, fatherless child, alien, sojourner, blind, deaf, etc., were to receive humane treatment from God’s people (Ex. 22:21–25). To preserve their self-respect, they were given opportunities to earn a living by gleaning and working for wages. They were also to be paid properly (Deut. 24:14–15, 19–22).
The respectable and responsible poor were to be extended interest-free loans (Lev. 25:35–37). Their cloaks, which they used at night as blankets, could not be taken as collateral. Neither could a creditor forcibly enter a person’s house to collect the debt (Deut. 24:10–13).
The elderly were to be respected, cared for, and protected (Lev. 19:32). Travelers could enter fields to gather a meal for themselves, but they were forbidden to take more than they could eat (Deut. 23:24–25). If these provisions did not satisfy the needs of the poor, they could sell themselves into indentured service (temporary servitude). In cases like this, the law demanded that they be treated humanely (Lev. 25:39–43). In general, treatment of others was to be governed by the law of love (Lev. 19:18) or the Golden Rule (Matt. 7:12).[i]
Provision for the needy was specific to the needs of each person and family. The provision respected their dignity, included them as a member of the extended community, and when possible, helped prepare them to start life afresh.
Unfortunately, Israel will not be faithful to this model of care. The prophets will declare that the nation is failing to be generous and open-handed: the weak, poor and needy are being oppressed by high-interest loans, inhumane treatment. The wealthy are taking advantage instead of helping. This failure to care for the poor was linked with idolatry and adultery.
As the nation descended into idolatry, they failed to treat humans with proper God-given regard. Sexual perversion and abuse, as well as oppression of the needy, were a sign of a culture that had become blind and deaf to humans as images of God.
In the New Testament, Paul’s letters are addressing communities of Jews and Gentiles living in cultures that are rooted in power, sexual perversion, idolatry, and other forms of human degradation. As these Christian communities form, they are often kicked out of the synagogue and no longer enjoy the Roman exception for Jewish communities. At the same time, many of them are cut off from the primary social and economic circles of the city due to the idolatry that so pervaded most social spheres. And many of them like the community Philippi are suffering persecution.
Paul addresses these communities like families. The outward struggle many faced forced them to find strength inwardly. Paul has asked these communities to contribute to a fund for the church family in Jerusalem. When Paul was still serving in Antioch, the prophet Agabus predicted a coming famine that would impact Christians throughout Judea. Paul and Barnabas are initially sent out to help raise money for the church in Jerusalem as a result of this famine.
In today’s letter, Paul is following up with the Corinthians about their plans to help support the Christians who are facing famine in Jerusalem. Unlike the Deuteronomy passage, this is not a general plea to help the needy but a plea for specific help to a specific need in Jerusalem, and yet we still see the same kind of invitation to share freely.
There is a key to understanding Paul’s request in 2 Corinthians 8, that may help us to think about our call to help the poor and needy. He roots his requests in the action of God as revealed in Jesus Christ. He writes in verse 9, “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich.” (2 Corinthians 8:9).
Commenting on this passage, St. John Chrysostom writes, “If thou believest not that poverty is productive of riches, have in mind thy Lord, and thou wilt doubt no longer. For had He not become poor, thou wouldest not have become rich. For this is the marvel, that poverty hath made riches rich.”
How did Christ become poor? “Christ Jesus, 6 who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, 7 but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.” (Php 2:5–7). His descent into humanity reveals an embrace of poverty that exceeds any form of impoverishment that we could endure. He becomes poor that we might become rich.
Paul roots his request to the Corinthians in the gift of God: charis, which is the same word for charity, mercy, love, and gift. It is the same root of charismatic. Paul begins the passage by pointing to the church in Macedonia such as the churches as Philippi and Thessaloniki. Though suffering persecution and poverty, these churches demonstrate abundant giving. Again and again in this passage, Paul will use the word charis or gift or love or grace. The churches demonstrate abundant giving as a result of the grace or love they’ve encountered in Christ Jesus. In other words, the generosity of God overflows in and through them, resulting in a generous gift.
This is similar to the Old Testament basis for giving to the needy. The Hebrews were slaves. God rescued them and showered them with his goodness, they even received gifts from the Egyptians upon their departure. Now they continue to the generosity of God by giving freely to those in need.
Giving to the needy is a demonstration of the grace and mercy of God flowing through us by the power of the Spirit in Jesus Christ. The argument is basically: We have and continue to be showered with the generous outpouring of God’s gifts in Christ Jesus. Let us be open-handed and give freely, showering gifts on others in need.
In light of this very short reflection on giving to the needy in Scripture, we might return to the original question: How do we take serious the clear directives in Scripture in a world of overwhelming needs and in a culture where people do sometimes take advantage of help?
Here are four aspects of responding to our call to help the poor and needy:
Doxology – Giving begins in worship. We rehearse afresh to the generous hospitality of God who in Christ Jesus became poor for our sakes. Our giving begins in his loving grace and all our giving is a response to his love for us. When Paul raises funds for Jerusalem, he does not highlight the horrors of the famine in Jerusalem as a means of persuasion. He highlights the grace and love of God. In 1 Corinthians 13, he tells us that even if we give away all that we have without love it is nothing. Our giving is rooted in the love of God and our response to his love poured out in us through Jesus Christ.
Prayer – In our personal prayers and in the prayers of the people, we might lift up specific situations in the world or in our community or simple names of people for whom we feel a burden. This roots our giving in a posture of asking for God’s grace in a specific situation, and it may provoke us to serve or help specific situations or groups together.
Participation – The main problem for some Christians in helping the needy is that they don’t know many needy people. I admit that I am less connected to the needy in our community that I once was. With many of our commitments in life, it can seem overwhelming to add yet another layer, but I do think we need to consider ways that we might more fully participate in some of the struggling communities in our area.
Wisdom – The Old and New Testaments present a range of responses to the needs of the poor: from loans to gifts to employment to feasting and more. Our response to the needy requires a cultivation of wisdom that suggests simply handing out money is not always the answer. In our little house group there was an older man who had to move away to live with family because of his COPD. The group chipped in and bought him a computer so he could stay in contact with us. His sickness eventually limited his movement but he developed robust conversations and friendships with people all over the world through his computer.
I would pray that we would be sensitive to the needs around us in our community, our nation and our world while also realizing that we are not solving all the problems in the world. Instead, we are helping one person or one group at a time by God’s grace and in the joy of God’s Spirit.
[i] Ronald F. Youngblood, F. F. Bruce, and R. K. Harrison, Thomas Nelson Publishers, eds., Nelson’s New Illustrated Bible Dictionary (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, Inc., 1995).