[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.]
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.
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.