“If there is a poor man with you, one of your brothers, in any of your towns in your land which the Lord your God is giving you, you shall not harden your heart, nor close your hand from your poor brother, but you shall freely open your hand to him, and shall generously lend him sufficient for his need in whatever he lacks.
Beware that there is no base thought in your heart, saying, ‘The seventh year, the year of remission, is near, ‘and your eye is hostile toward your poor brother, and you give him nothing; then he may cry to the Lord against you, and it will be a sin in you.
You shall generously give to him, and your heart shall not be grieved when you give to him, because for this thing the Lord your God will bless you in all your work and in all your undertakings. For the poor will never cease to be in the land; therefore I command you, saying, ‘You shall freely open your hand to your brother, to your needy and poor in your land.’” – Deuteronomy 15.7-11
A few days ago, the Washington Post cited that over 10 million Americans applied for unemployment benefits in March as the economy struggles during the COVID-19 crisis. A record 6.65 million people filed a new jobless claim in the week that ended March 28th. As April 1st passed, millions applied for rental assistance or have been petitioning their landlords, mortgage companies, and banks for a stay in their rents and mortgages. Millions of Americans are having to decide do I pay bills or put food on the table. Many of these are single-parent households. While people’s health is on much on our hearts and in our prayers, so now is their financial burdens. What does this mean for the church? How is the church to respond, especially towards those in their fellowship?
God addresses this and reveals to His new community, the Israelites, as one of the ways He expects His people to love Him by loving one another. In this passage (as well as others) we see the heart and compassion of God towards those who cannot help themselves. Below I cite several thoughts concerning this subject that the church must address today and beyond.
First, Be Prepared to Help the Poor: “If there is a poor man with you, one of your brothers…” It would be great if we lived in a world and society where the poor never existed. I believe in such an affluent society we are surprised that there are many in America, and in our churches who live under the poverty level. In 2018, 38.1 million people lived in poverty in America. The poverty rate was 11.8 percent (povertyuse.org). Some of these worship with us in our churches. They are members of your congregation. They are in your Bible studies. They worship and praise the same God as you do. The question then, is the church prepared to minister to the poor among them? Do you have a plan? Especially in times like these what is the church’s response to the poor? Church leaders need to look beyond their ministry programs and take a good look at how they are truly loving God by how they are prepared to love their neighbors in the body, especially the poor.
Another new community of God lived this out early on in its existence. The church in Acts. “And all those had believed were together and had all things in common; and they began selling their property and possessions and were sharing them with all, as anyone might have need.” – Acts 2.44-45 This new congregation of God’s people, under the enablement of the Holy Spirit demonstrated God’s love for one another by being the kind of disciple the young rich ruler could never be (Matthew 19.16-30; Mark 10.17-31; Luke 18.18-30). The problem sometimes in the church is that we get so focused on the rules of God that we neglect the heart of God.
Second, Be Prepared to Help the Poor Abroad: “…if any of your towns in your land which the Lord your God is giving you…” A good example of how this was demonstrated is witnessed by the church in Macedonia, even amid “a great ordeal of affliction” sent their offerings to the church in Jerusalem, who was amid a great famine at the time. The Macedonian church was not wealthy, but what they did have they gave joyfully, liberally, and beyond their ability to assist their brothers in Jerusalem. Paul even states that they were “begging us with much urging for the favor of participation in the support of the saints.” – 2 Corinthians 8.1-6
One of the key points missed in the Deuteronomy passage is found in the phrase, “in your land the Lord your God is GIVING you…” It would do us well to keep in mind always that “every good thing given and every perfect gift is from above, come down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shifting shadow” – James 1.17
God warns His people to be aware of hardened hearts towards the poor. It is so easy to turn our hearts away from the poor. To turn our heads as if in denial that they exist. But, they do. So the Lord commands us not to close our hands towards them, but instead, “but when you give to the poor, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing…” Matthew 6.3ff
The lesson learned here by the church in Macedonia, miles, and cultures away from Jerusalem, being one in faith, living in their own crisis of poverty, had the urgent desire to help the saints abroad. They were living testaments of God’s community who truly loved the Lord by loving their distant neighbors in Jerusalem. Is your church prepared to help with an urgent desire saints abroad? What would your church need to change in order to demonstrate this kind of love towards others?
Third, Be Prepared to Obey God’s Command: “For the poor will never cease to be in the land; therefore I command you, saying, ‘You shall freely open your hand to your brother, to your needy and poor in your land.'” It is safe to say that God has a heart for the poor among us. So much so, that He commands us to open our hands freely to help one another. John, the Apostle, reminds us that if we are not willing to help the poor or have no pity on them, “how can the love of God be in that person?” – 1 John 3.17 Or as James reminds us that the kind of religion the church should practice is this…“to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.” – James 1.27 We are also reminded in Proverbs that “whoever oppresses the poor shows contempt for their Maker, but whoever is kind to the needy honors God.” – Proverb 14.31
Outside of the gross idolatry that the Northern Kingdom and the Southern Kingdom practiced in the Old Testament, one the other great offenses towards God practiced by His people was their oppressive attitude and heart towards the poor. In Amos we find, Hear this word, you cows of Bashan (speaking of the fat-rich women of the day) who are on the mountain of Samaria, who oppress the poor, who crush the needy, who say to your husbands, ‘bring now, that we may drink!'”…”Behold, the days are coming upon you when they will take you away with meat hooks, and the last of you with fish hooks.” – Amos 4.1-2
Amos saw how the rich even took from the poor for their own pleasure. This displeased the Lord greatly in that He was willing that a foreign entity come and carry them all away into exile for this oppressive negligence towards the poor.
I write all this to say:
1. Whether in times of plenty or crisis, we will always have the poor among us in the church and community.
2. The church should be prepared to assist freely those in need.
3. The church should look upon the poor with the same love and compassion as the Lord.
4. The church should take seriously God’s command, especially in times like these.
5. The church should give as the Lord has given. To demonstrate His goodness that He has so demonstrated upon us all.
6. The church demonstrates to the world the loving gospel of Christ, in that we do this not to earn grace, but we demonstrate grace because grace was freely given to us.
Is your church prepared to help the poor among us? What are you willing to do to honor God by loving others? Pray through this carefully. Speak to your church leaders. Set aside money or what can you sell to assist those in need, especially in times like these. Let’s be the church who demonstrate the love and grace of God so that those on the outside might show favor and praise the Lord for the kindness we demonstrate towards one another.
Grace and Peace to you all – GT