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September 03, 2015

the poor in God's kingdom

As soon as we rounded the corner, we could see that we were in a different kind of neighbourhood. It is hard to describe what makes you instantly know that "poverty lives here". Maybe it's the rows upon rows of simple, matching apartment blocks. Maybe it's the old paint and the blackened remains around a window of a room that obviously was burned. Maybe it's the three-year-old dressed in a too-tight onesie, or the young men and children who clump so quickly around any activity in the neighbourhood, because they have nothing else to do. Maybe it's all of the above, together, or maybe it's your friend parking the car and saying, "We're here. This is the refugees' area." The living conditions in the refugee neighbourhood we visited, while not nearly as bad as in some parts of the world, were far below the Western European standard. Seeing their poverty and struggle always raises the question: how can we help the poor? 

Unless you've been living under a rock (I just wanted to use that expression sometime) you must know about the refugee crisis in Europe. We heard that at least 650,000 refugees have arrived in Germany already this year, and the prediction is that the number may rise to 750,000 refugees by the end of 2015. That's more than the current population of Frankfurt, just in refugees, just in one year. Today the nations that were once the "Christian nations" of the world are being called upon to gather up the poor escapees of wars and turbulence in other lands, and they are struggling to know how to handle the influx.

Christians have long been known for their sympathy for the poor, and Christian nations for their strong and (sometimes) benevolent middle class. When Christians speak of helping the poor, they probably reference the New Testament or Proverbs the most, but the laws of the historical kingdom that the Lord set up through Moses (given in the Pentateuch) have much wisdom to contribute to the challenge of how to help today's poor. We always face the problem of balancing handouts or generosity with hard work and fiscal responsibility. The kingdom of God on earth was set up to balance grace and truth for all, and we see this in the laws God gave to Moses.

The following thoughts were collected from Alva J. McClain's The Greatness of the Kingdom (pp. 75-81), in a section entitled "The Economic Aspect of the Historical Kingdom", which I've been reading lately. Quotations below, unless otherwise attributed, are from McClain.

When God miraculously brought Israel out of Egypt and into Canaan, He gave them a specific role on earth and as their King, and He gave the divinely-inspired Law to Moses. Upon entering Canaan, the Israelites' original wealth came from three places: their flocks and herds which they had in Egypt, the gold and silver which they plundered from Egypt while leaving, and the land that God gave them in Canaan. Every family in Israel was allotted a piece of land, which they could farm, rent out, mortgage, abandon, temporarily sell...but the only thing they were not to do was permanently sell their family's land. The land was seen as belonging to their King Jehovah, and while they had the right to private possession of it, they were to keep it for God's people, Israel.

We can see from how God structured Israelite law that his ideal world was not one where everyone earned the same wage, no matter how hard they worked. God knows that "if men are to enjoy any satisfactory measure of personal liberty in economic affairs—men being what they are, widely different in disposition and ability—some will gain and others will lose." God made provisions and gave instructions so that all could have the possibility to prosper financially, but He was also realistic enough to admit, in Deuteronomy 15:11, that "there will always be poor people in the land". God built into his kingdom a plan to help balance out some of the inequalities that would no doubt arise. 

#1: The "haves" were expected to be generous to the "have nots" in a way that maintained the dignity of the poor. Despite of the fact that all the original Israelites had land, in Deuteronomy 15 provisions were made for the poor, saying that even if they lost their land, they would always have food to eat. Some of the grapes and grain were to be left in the fields and could be gleaned by the needy (Lev. 19:9-10, Deut. 24:19-22). McClain comments that this system gave the poor some work and a way to maintain some dignity—they didn't stand outside the tabernacle and receive bags of grain already ground and bottles of wine already pressed, they had some work to do to gather their own food. This provided a way to keep body and soul together while working to better themselves economically.

Cheerful and willing generosity to the poor was taught in Deuteronomy 15, “If there is among you a poor man of your brethren, within any of the gates in your land which the Lord your God is giving you, you shall not harden your heart nor shut your hand from your poor brother, but you shall open your hand wide to him and willingly lend him sufficient for his need, whatever he shall surely give to him, and your heart should not be grieved when you give to him, because for this thing the Lord your God will bless you in all your works and in all to which you put your hand. For the poor will never cease from the land; therefore I command you, saying, ‘You shall open your hand wide to your brother, to your poor and your needy, in your land.’"

If money were loaned to a poor man, interest was not to be charged (Lev. 25:35-37). In the seventh year (Sabbatical year) the soil was given rest and whatever grew in the fields that year, the poor were free to reap and gather (Lev 25:4-5, Ex. 23:11). King Jehovah's expectation of the rich's attitude toward the poor was this: "Therefore you shall not oppress one another, but you shall fear your God; for I am the LORD your God." (Lev. 25:17).

#2: The Sabbath year (every seventh year) provided some relief for the poor. Deut. 15:1-3 describes a release from debt that was given to the debtors every seven years, in the Sabbath years. It seems that this was likely not a full debt cancellation, but a year of grace. This seemed to coincide with the year in which the land rested, too, and the debtors would have less opportunity to work and earn wages that year, so it seems that this was built in to the system to protect the poor from being asked to repay debt in a year where they had less income than ever.

#3: The year of Jubilee (every fiftieth year) provided a fresh start for the poor. The year of Jubilee protected from permanent impoverishment of families in Israel (Lev. 25). Every fiftieth year, the slaves went free, debts incurred in connection to land were cancelled, and men could reclaim their land if they had lost it due to sale or poor management. This was not a communist-style redistribution of wealth, but a restoration of real property to its real, private owners. This gracious "reset" every fifty years allowed enough time for the industrious to be rewarded for their industry and the lazy or poor managers to feel the consequences of their lack of industry, but provided a boost or a fresh start for those who had failed financially to try again. McClain notes that this ingenious idea of land redistribution once every fifty years seems to have been unique to Israel. "It allowed, on one hand, considerable room for the play of individual initiative and energy with their proper rewards. But, at the same time, it guarded against the evils of great concentrations of real wealth in the hands of a few, with the consequent hopeless impoverishment of many others."

#4: The law of redemption allowed for land to be redeemed before the Jubilee year. If a man or his near relative were financially able to buy back lost property before the year of Jubilee, provisions were made for this, so that he could use his land to produce an income for himself again.

It is important to recognize that the Biblical record is unique in its entire law code, including in the provisions it made so that wealth could be more balanced, so that what we now call a "middle class" could result.  McClain quotes T. H. Huxley: "The Bible has been the Magna Charta of the poor, and of the oppressed; down to the modern times no state has had a constitution in which the interests of the people are so largely taken into account, in which the duties, so much more than the privileges, of rulers are so insisted upon, as that drawn up for Israel in Deuteronomy and Leviticus."

How does knowing what God taught about the poor in His kingdom help us today? I do not believe that it is our duty to seek to impose the Jewish law code on our world. But as believers, we should seek to understand God's great wisdom displayed when God set up His government on earth. Our world is struggling with the widening economic gaps, and simultaneously, people are becoming less and less familiar with the Bible (even believers, who disregard the Old Testament as confusing or outdated). Perhaps there is a connection—that while God's Word collects dust, societal problems get worse? It is a Christian's duty, as salt and light, to share God's great wisdom with a world that is decaying (needing salt) and darkened (needing light). In caring for the poor, God's kingdom furnished a system of checks and balances that blessed diligence, but also showed mercy to the poor. As long as there are poor, His wisdom about the problem of poverty will be important.

"Your word, LORD, is eternal;
it stands firm in the heavens."
—Psalm 119

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