Caring for the Needy

by Ian McFadden

In our sermon yesterday on Acts 4:32-5:11, we explored briefly how the trajectory of God’s redemptive work among his people arcs toward greater economic parity and communal responsibility to care for the needy.  Today, I thought I’d take a few paragraphs to scrape that surface a little more deeply.

Deuteronomy 14 indicates an ideal of a triennial (every three year) tithe of produce to be stored up for use by the various landless (and thus economically needy) groups including widows, sojourners, Levites and orphans.   In addition to this, every seventh year was to be called a “sabbatical year to the Lord,” because “the Lord’s release has been proclaimed.”  During the sabbatical year (Deut. 15) debts were to be forgiven so that those who had needed to borrow money to stay afloat could be freed from their debt service to start afresh.  The sabbatical was not merely humanitarian, but also ecological and during this year crop fields were allowed to “rest” and lie fallow to replenish themselves.  Of course, the fields continued to produce some adventitious crops during the sabbatical season and these crops, fittingly, were protected for harvest by the poor (Ex. 23:10-11).   Combined, the triennial tithe for the poor, the sabbatical year release and the annual right of the poor to glean from the profit margin of the fields, orchards and vineyards (Deut. 24: 19-21), amounted to a sustainable safeguard against ever-widening economic disparity.

Perhaps our American evangelical ears need to be shocked further.  Deuteronomy focuses the spotlight on this sort of stewardship and generosity towards the poor by making it what Chris Wright calls the “litmus test of covenant obedience to the whole of the rest of the law.”  This is what Deuteronomy 26:12-15 seems to be saying.  It is only once the worshiper has paid his third year tithe to the storehouse for the poor that he can breathe a sigh of relief and say to God, “I have not transgressed any of your commandments, nor have I forgotten them.”

All of a sudden, Jesus’ interaction with the rich yuppie in Luke 18 makes so much more sense.  Jesus quotes a few of the ten commandments, making a verbal nod to the entirety of the Old Testament law and the self-confidant young chap declares that he’s kept them all from his childhood.  “Oh really?” Jesus seems to say.  “What about the poor; how is it that you are so comfortable and some of your brothers can’t sleep because of hunger pangs and shivers?”  In Jesus’ mind, it seems, one couldn’t claim to be maintaining God’s standards while ignoring the poor and sitting on a fat wallet.

This is hard for us to hear (author included).  We Americans pride ourselves on being the biggest donors behind global charities.  For many of us these gifts come out of huge margins—we give high dollar amounts but we never feel the pinch of sharing.  For others of us we run our accounts with such slim or negative margins that we can’t afford to share—even though our annual income is many times that of Christians in the majority world and some in our own neighborhood.  That’s why I’m glad we have the example of David, who refuses to make offerings that cost him nothing (2 Sam 24:24).  That’s why I’m glad we have the example of the penurious widow in Luke 21 who gave despite her circumstances.  That’s why I’m glad we have the rest of the global church who helps us to recognize that our evangelism cannot be divorced from social and economic responsibility (Lausanne Covenant, article 5).

If you’re interested in reading more, a good place to start—given our series in Acts—might be with Lukan passages dealing with economics.  Here are some options:

Luke: 4:12, 7:41-43, 10:29-37, 12:16-21, 16:1-8, 18:18-23, 19:11-27

Acts:  2:42-47, 4:32-37, 5:1-11, 6:1-5

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