Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Deuteronomy 15:1–11

Deuteronomy 15:1–11: Cancelling debts


In this chapter, Moses reminds the Israelites about cancelling debts. In a nutshell: Every seven years, all debts between Israelites are to be cancelled. If an Israelite has a debt to another Israelite, at the end of the seven years, that debt is to be cancelled. (Debts to foreigners are not included in this, so if a foreigner owes an Israelite, that debt will not be cancelled at the end of the seven years.)

After Moses gives the basics of the rule, he stops to tell the Israelites that if they follow God properly, this law will never be needed, because nobody should be poor:

However, there should be no poor among you, for in the land the LORD your God is giving you to possess as your inheritance, he will richly bless you, if only you fully obey the LORD your God and are careful to follow all these commands I am giving you today. For the LORD your God will bless you as he has promised, and you will lend to many nations but will borrow from none. You will rule over many nations but none will rule over you. (verses 4–6)

If there are no poor, then nobody should need a loan, right? However, knowing that the Israelites will not obey God fully, and that there will be poor among them, he continues…

Moses instructs the Israelites not to be “hardhearted or tightfisted” (verse 7) toward their poor brothers; if someone needs a loan, and they are able, they are to “be openhanded and freely lend him whatever he needs” (verse 8), even if the seven years is almost up, and they’re afraid that the loan will be cancelled. They are to give generously to their fellow Israelites, and, when they do, God will bless them.

This passage ends with the following verse, the first half of which is very familiar to us:

There will always be poor people in the land. Therefore I command you to be openhanded toward your brothers and toward the poor and needy in your land. (verse 11).

Jesus also said, in the New Testament, that we would always have poor people; see the Thoughts section for… well, for my thoughts.


Note that debts to foreigners are not included in this law. Among other things, this law is about the Israelites being a separate people, under God. They are to treat each other differently than they treat people in other nations.

It almost makes you want to laugh bitterly when Moses stops the flow of this law, to say, “this law really shouldn’t be needed, because you shouldn’t have any poor, but if you do, this is how it will work.” In fact, much of the laws in the Old Testament have that effect; or, even when the laws don’t, it does when God tells the Israelites, “if you follow Me, you’ll get these blessings, but if you fail to, you’ll get these curses.” It just points out how sinful we are, as humans.

When it comes to this “you’ll always have poor people” thing, Jesus said something very similar in the New Testament; it’s quoted in three of the gospels, so I’ll quote all three:

The poor you will always have with you, but you will not always have me. (Matthew 26:11)

The poor you will always have with you, and you can help them any time you want. But you will not always have me. (Mark 14:7)

You will always have the poor among you, but you will not always have me. (John 12:8)

It’s easy to see quotes like this, especially out of context—which is peoples’ favourite way of quoting Jesus on this matter—and think, “Wow, Jesus doesn’t care about the poor! And, therefore, we don’t need to either!” (In fact, this is what small-c conservatives often do think.) (Actually, it’s what capital-C Conservatives think, too…) However, this was not Jesus’ point. (It’s not even what Jesus said, but people find it easy to misread, when they want to read something in a text.) Jesus was very focused on helping the poor. He was just saying, in this instance, that worshipping him is even more important than helping the poor. And verse 11 in this passage makes that point clear, too; there will always be poor people, therefore you need to be generous to them.

When the Bible tells us that we’ll always have poor people, it’s not to make us lackadaisical about the situation; it’s to tell us to get ourselves in gear: We have work to do. There are people who are not as well off as we are, so, therefore, we need to help them.


Anonymous said...

Dubious. I am in the process of reading the bible for the first time and this passage shocked me. It seemed very out of character. I would expect Jesus to say something more like: "Forget my feet, give it to the poor." It just seems very odd.

Anonymous said...

But I guess it's unfair to choose just one phrase he said and use it to somehow color all of the other very "pro-" poor-people things he expressed in his teachings.