giving: the seventh year and debts

[Where I live, lots of people ask me for money.  This post is one of several in search of a biblical view of giving to the poor.  The introduction is here.  I believe the process of finding a biblical stance is at least as important as the conclusions to which I come.  For this reason, I intend to post portions of several 3-column studies that have helped me arrive where I have on these issues.  For the sake of brevity (not one of my gifts), I’m not including all I’ve discovered in these studies, but rather only those realizations which have pointed me toward my current stance on giving.  For a better understanding of what a 3-column study is and why it’s important, see these instructions.  Also, I’m saving all “I will” statements to print at the end of the series.]

Deuteronomy 15:1-11

Rather than post column 1, I will direct you to Deuteronomy 15:1-11.  Below is a summary and restatement in my own words:

The Lord requires you every seven years to cancel all the debts of your fellow Israelites.  And you will not ask them to pay back any portion of what you’ve loaned.  You can still require payment from foreigners — however, there should be no one poor among you.  God has provided you with this promised land, and will continue to bless you richly if you are obedient to his commands.  God will give you great riches, so that you can lend to all other peoples, but never need to borrow from another.  You will rule many nations, but be ruled by none.

If any Israelite living in the land is poor, you should not hold back money from him.  Instead open up to him all that is yours and lend to him generously whatever he needs.  When the seventh year, the year of canceling debts, is approaching, you should be careful not to entertain greedy thoughts of not lending money to others, for fear they won’t repay you.  Such thinking is wicked — and produces actions that are worse still.  You surely would be guilty of sinning against that brother.  Instead give generously to the poor, without harboring any selfish thoughts.  And God will respond by blessing you in all your work and everything you do.  There will forever be poor people in the land.  So God commands that you be quick to give to your fellow Israelites and to the poor and needy in the land.

What I’ve learned:

  • God frowns upon debt.  He doesn’t want his people to be forever indebted to anyone — whether to their fellow brothers and sisters or to other groups and nations.
  • There is a distinction between the people of God and foreigners.  God’s children have a greater responsibility to meet one another’s needs than we do to meet the needs of those who are not called by his name.
  • At the same time, God’s people are called to help all who are living in their midst.  A “foreigner” who has chosen to live with and among the people of God is to be taken care of.
  • All you have and ever will have has been given by God.
  • And he promises to give you more if you are obedient to his commands — including this command to take care of the poor among you.
  • When you lend or give to those among you who are poor, it should be done cheerfully and generously.
  • Don’t operate out of greed or selfishness.
  • Don’t operate out of fear that you won’t be repaid what you lend to others.
  • Don’t even entertain such thoughts.
  • God responds to our generous giving and lending by himself being generous to us.
  • There will always be poor among us on earth, so the commands to take care of them will also be ever-present.

My thoughts:

While this text is old law and written to the Israelites about to enter the promised land, God is the same yesterday, today, and forever.  We would be wise to find the principles at work in this passage, and apply them to our own lives today.  I myself am comfortable translating (as you’ve seen in the notes above) Israelites to be the people of God, those that belong to him and are called by his name.  Today we are the church, Christians, those living under the sovereignty of the one true king.

We’re beginning to see a trend in some of these passages on giving:  Christians have a responsibility first to take care of other Christians.  Those living in the kingdom of God are expected to meet one another’s needs.  We see a beautiful demonstration of this at work in Acts 2.  But I’m not sure we see this same display of caring and sharing in the church today.  It’s interesting that we will often overlook the hurting and poor in our own congregations in order to give to others in the world.  I’m not arguing against a responsibility to our communities or to the world in general; I’m just saying we seem to find some great honor in giving to the homeless in inner city Nashville or the poor in rural Tanzania, and so choose to focus our efforts there — even when there are single-parent families in our churches struggling to pay their electric bills and put food on the table.  I wonder if that kind of giving is motivated by how it makes us feel; is it somehow more noble to help orphans in Africa than widows who share my pew on Sunday morning?  Or does it make me feel better?

I said the above was interesting to me, though I wanted to use the word ‘sad.’  I was saving the word ‘sad’ for the following sentence though:  It’s sad that we choose to build gymnasiums, youth centers, and ornately furnished auditoriums (used only three times a week), while there are families in our midst struggling to put enough gas in their car to make it to the building, and embarrassed by their clothing when they get there.  I’m not arguing a family with a car and at least some clothes to wear to church is worse off than the family in the hut down the road from me right now (though I could make a very convincing argument).  I’m just pointing out the inequity of it all, and what we deem to be important in our church families.  Our checkbooks point to what is significant and of consequence to us.  And I’m afraid few of our checkbooks would indicate a great concern for the poor in our own congregations.

Other items of note:

  • God doesn’t seem to be a fan of his people being in debt.  He didn’t want individuals forever indebted to one another.  Nor did he want Israel as a whole to be indebted to other nations.  I wonder what that says about Christians and their credit card statements?  What about churches taking out loans for those family life centers we mentioned earlier?
  • I’m not sure exactly how to today translate a foreigner living among the Israelites — I’m certainly open to ideas, would appreciate them even.  But for now I’m assuming these foreigners were drawn to the nation of Israel because of their lives and their God.  I’m also assuming these foreigners were somewhere in the process of trusting and giving their own lives to Yahweh.  The way I see it we’ve got two or three options for “foreigners” today:
    • Those who are currently in the process of being drawn to God?
    • Those who are not Christians but live in our local communities?  This assumes a church is based in a single community and has a presence there.
    • Those who are new Christians?
    • Can anyone offer some wisdom or clarification here?
  • Again in this text, we’re reminded that we’re merely stewards of God’s blessings.  We would do well to remember this when considering whether or not to “give” to those in need.  When I first read this text I wanted to make a big deal of it being about lending and not necessarily about giving (unless you reached the seventh year).  I still believe there is a difference present, but at the same time all we have has only been lent to us by the Father.  In some way or another, any giving we do is lending, and any lending we do requires at least a willingness to give.
  • Another pattern we are seeing repeated:  God promises to bless those who are generous to help the poor.  He promises general blessings in life, such as joy and a right relationship with him and with others.  But he also promises monetary blessings.  When we are good stewards of God’s money, he entrusts us with more of it.  Again, I don’t really like this, but it’s true.
  • I’m never right when I make decisions about giving out of fear or greed.  But seriously, how many of my decisions to not give to others are based on fear of running out of money, or of the recipient misusing the funds, or of me not wanting to take the time to stop and help them, or of just a desire to hold on to what I’ve got?  Lots….

If you’re doing these 3-column studies, the next one will be Luke 6:27-36.

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10 Comments

Filed under giving and generosity

10 responses to “giving: the seventh year and debts

  1. Ike

    “Can anyone offer some wisdom or clarification here?”

    I think it means what it says…..the provision for sabatical release of debts was not intended for one who stayed only temporarily in the Land. That foreigner was still resposible to pay his debts.

    “JB”….I know this is 100% correct because I got it directly from my Johnny Mac Study Bible:-)

  2. Jovan

    “When we are good stewards of God’s money, he entrusts us with more of it. Again, I don’t really like this, but it’s true.”

    What don’t you like about this? Isn’t it reassuring that when you give to the poor God blesses you with more so that you can continue to give to the poor. It’s a promise of God to you. Trusting in that promise curbs the fear of being in want.

    You’re not too proud to be God’s charity case are you? =)

  3. pride has been a problem of mine, jovan. but in this case, that’s not my snag. i just really want Christianity to be about loving God only because he’s God. and serving others only because it’s the right thing to do. i dislike carrots being dangled in front of us — allowing us to in some way choose to do what God would desire because of what we get out of it.

    but i know the way i want it to be is not the way it is. and i’m trying to embrace the truth in it all. Jesus put all kinds of dangling carrots out there — treasure in heaven, rest for our souls, etc. and i’m beginning to truly believe what i’ve known should be true for a long time: that a life with Christ gives me the greatest joy possible.

    you ever read any of john piper’s stuff on “christian hedonism?” it’s a pretty interesting idea…

    p.s. — how’s the hair?

  4. Jovan

    i came across some of John Piper’s stuff in college. I can’t remember most of what i read from him.

    i donated the hair.

  5. toshibaninja

    Hey Brett,
    I can’t believe it took me this long to get around to reading this blog series!

    You make a great point about why we don’t tend to take care of the needy within our churches in North America. I think it’s attributed partly to the individualistic nature of our society and also to just how we’ve wired ourselves to think of “giving” and “helping” others as “exotic activities” – that I have to go out of my way to help someone who is the destitute of the destitute… perhaps we’re lulled into believing that someone who goes to our church doesn’t look like a destitute, but the homeless fellow downtown is definitely a “needy” person.

    You also mentioned how to translate “the foreigner” in the above text.
    When I studied this material last semester, we understood these foreigners as:
    1) the folks you mentioned: the ones attracted to Israel
    2) the folks who WENT with the Hebrews when they left Egypt – if you read the text, you will find that it actually wasn’t just the Hebrews who left Egypt after the series of plagues; this included Egyptians and other enslaved people groups and likely other nomadic groups they “picked up” along the way.

    Great series! I can’t wait to read your next one.

    Blessings

  6. Jovan, you mean someone wanted that hair?

    Ike and Ninja, I think I worded my sentence poorly; what I’m actually wanting to figure is how to best translate the “foreigner” for us today? Who is the foreigner, because it seems they would need to have more connection to the people of God than just living in our neighborhoods… I think?

    Ninja, I agree with giving and helping being “exotic activities” for us today. And it’s interesting, because (at least in Nashville, TN) I know for a fact that many of those “homeless” guys make more money than do some of the single mothers that went to church with me. Not that I’m convinced yet there’s any requirement to give to those in “most need.” But there is a requirement to take care of our brothers and sisters first — as “unexotic” as that may be, and as “unexcited” as a youth group might be about it.

    Ninja, if you don’t mind my asking, where are you in seminary? Just out of curiosity. You seem to be learning a lot of good stuff — not that my master’s program didn’t provide me the same opportunity; I just didn’t really take advantage of it. Wish I could have a redo on a lot of things in life… that’s just one of them.

  7. Thich

    [formerly known as toshibaninja] I just changed my display name to make posting replies easier. =)

    How would I translate “foreigner”? The most literal translation would be “immigrant.”
    I think what’s important here is to understand the “spirit of the law” as opposed to the “letter of the law.” We still have to provide a means for those who do not have a means to help themselves.

    Basically for the Hebrew who heard the laws being given out by Moses, the foreigner was the person who was not from the people of God.
    That means they were literally those outside of the family of God.
    Notice how the law makes distinctions still between the Israelites and the foreigners – that a different law applied to them.

    Take that into today’s context and foreigner would be literally anyone who is outside of your Christian relationships. It is our witness of Jesus Christ by taking care of them.

    I am doing my M.Div at Ambrose Seminary (http://www.ambrose.edu) in Calgary, Alberta Canada (I’m Canadian with an ethnic Vietnamese background) and I can’t wait to join the worldwide missions family once I am done in a couple of years!

    I’m milking my seminary studies for what it’s worth because I know it’ll be some time before I get a chance to do a Ph.D and I want to learn as much as I can as I apply it to what I teach at church and how I live my life.

    =)

  8. Pingback: giving: blow the trumpets and give me my reward « aliens and strangers

  9. Pingback: a contract with God | aliens and strangers

  10. Pingback: motivations for giving | aliens and strangers

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