A Poor Case Against Christians

Delivered May 23, 1999 by Dr. Ronald W. Scates

Sermon Text:
Deuteronomy 15:7-11
7 If there is a poor man among your brothers in any of the towns of
the land that the LORD your God is giving you, do not be hardhearted
or tightfisted toward your poor brother.
8 Rather be openhanded and freely lend him whatever he needs.
9 Be careful not to harbor this wicked thought: “The seventh year,
the year for canceling debts, is near,” so that you do not show
ill will toward your needy brother and give him nothing. He may
then appeal to the LORD against you, and you will be found guilty of sin.
10 Give generously to him and do so without a grudging heart; then
because of this the LORD your God will bless you in all your work
and in everything you put your hand to.
11 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.

The story is somewhat infamous by now. The story of the preaching class at Princeton Seminary where the professor gave the task of preparing a sermon on Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan. They were to come individually to Miller Chapel and preach the sermon to the professor and he would evaluate their work. But unknown to the students, the professor had arranged for a man to portray a needy poor person who would accost each student on the way into the chapel and ask for help. Not one student in the preaching class stopped to help that needy man. I mean, they were on their way to preach! To preach about helping the needy.

One of my favorite Methodists, Alan Walker of Australia has said “The greatest menace to the world is born-again Christians without a social conscience.” Last week we looked at God’s crazy economics of grace, how that plan was to be put into effect as the Israelites went into the promised land – that plan where after every seven years they were to cancel all debts of their fellow Israelites. And this morning we pick up where Moses left off in his sermon in the book of Deuteronomy. We pick up where that sermon challenges the Israelites and challenges you and me to live in ways that show believers to be colonies of Heaven, within a pagan world. Last week we talked about how God hates poverty. How poverty is always a product of sin. Not necessarily the sin of the poor person, sometimes it is sin that is perpetrated upon them by other individuals, or by the surrounding systemic evil that infects institutions and the culture in general. But God hates poverty; and this morning we pick up Moses’ sermon, once again challenging you and me in terms of how we relate to the poor and needy in our land. I would encourage you to turn to Deuteronomy the 15th chapter, and keep your Bibles open during the sermon as this morning we look at verses seven through eleven. This is the Word of God.

If there is a poor man among your brothers in any of the towns in the land that the Lord your God has given you, do not be hard hearted or tight fisted toward your poor brother. Rather, be open handed and freely lend him whatever he needs. Be careful not to harbor this wicked thought. Seventh year, the year for canceling debts is near, so that you do not show ill will toward your needy brother and give him nothing. He may then appeal to the Lord against you, and you will be found guilty of sin. Give generously to him, and do so without a grudging heart. Then because of this, the Lord your God will bless you in all your work, and in everything that you put your hand to. There will always be poor people in the land, therefore I command you to be open handed towards your brothers and towards the poor and needy in your life.

Join me as we pray. And now, Father, as my words are true to your Word may they be taken to heart. But as my words should stray from your Word, may they be quickly forgotten, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

John Perkins tells the story of a poor black woman he met who had twelve kids that were crammed into four rooms with only corn bread in the cupboard. So, Perkins contacted a church in nearby Mendenhall, Mississippi and got them to agree to help her out with some food. Over a period of time they watched as their gifts of food did absolutely nothing towards changing this woman’s attitude toward life nor her situation. And they began to wonder as a church, “How can the love of Jesus Christ really meet this woman’s needs?”

That summer, a really hot, humid, torrid summer, the answer began to come to the surface, as they observed this woman and her children beginning to tear wood off the sides of their house to use as kindling for their cooking stove. I mean, you could see all the way through the house! And it seemed to those Christians to be a pretty stupid thing to do! I mean, winter was only a few months away. So they began to stop giving her food. They began to blame this woman for most of her problems, and certainly she was to blame for some of them.

But as the summer went on, there were some in that church who began to come to reality. They began to fathom the realization that this woman was trapped. She was trapped in a cycle of poverty. Not only had poverty impacted her physical condition, but now it had claimed her mind! She could only think for the moment. An inability to look down the line to the future because survival under the pressures of the present was overwhelming for her. Trapped. Trapped in poverty. All of the money, all of the food they had given her, really couldn’t change anything. Why? Because change comes when you and I have hope – hope for the future.

When it comes to poverty, God is nothing less than a realist. Last week in verse four, we saw that God’s plan for this new nation of Israel that he was forming, was that there not be poverty as part of the social fabric. He says, “I don’t want poor people among you.” And he institutes this economics of grace which looks pretty crazy from our perspective. From a business sense it is foolish to cancel debts every seven years. But then we jump down to verse 11 in the text that we just read this morning, and we find God through Moses saying, “But you know what, you are always going to have the poor in the land.” What’s going on here? Does God want poverty or not want poverty? Well both things are true. As I said before, God hates poverty. Poverty is always a product of sin, not necessarily the poor person’s sin, but it is sin that creates these cycles of poverty. But God is a realist. He knows that no matter how faithful the children of Israel are, no matter how faithful you and I are as Christians, we are no different from those Israelites, we are still sinners. And wherever there is sin, cycles of poverty are going to be created and re-created. But God seeks to institute his economics of grace on the nation of Israel in order to diffuse, or derail, those cycles of poverty.

In verse eleven, God says through Moses, “There is always going to be poor in your land.” And there is no doubt that verse influenced Jesus’ comment that we find in three out of the four gospels, we read it in the gospel of John, where he said, “The poor you will always have with you.” I’ve had Christians, so called Bible-believing Christians actually say, “Hey, look at what God’s promising – there is always going to be poverty, there will always be poor people. Poverty will never be eradicated until eternity, therefore, why deal with it?” My friends, that is misuse of the Scriptures. That is putting into God’s mouth and into God’s mind words and ideas that God has never had, and that is nothing less than blasphemy. Let’s talk a little bit about attitudes and actions toward the poor, because that’s what God lays out through Moses’ sermon here. Attitude. God through Moses tells the children of Israel, “do not be hard hearted toward those in need.” Do you know what the opposite of faith is? It is not unbelief. The opposite of faith is cynicism. And sometimes it is hard for you and me isn’t it, to not get cynical about needy people. If we see them getting dropped off by somebody driving a Cadillac. If we go in their neighborhood to help them and we see satellite dishes on the roofs. Sometimes it is hard not to be cynical. But it is cynicism which creates hard hearts. Can this Scripture be any more clear as to how you and I are to view the poor? That we are to have a spirit of generosity toward them? That we are not to have hard hearts, but to have open hearts towards them.

And what about actions? In the text, the Israelites are told “don’t act in a tight fisted way toward the poor.” So often you and I are tempted to be closed fisted because we want to cling to all of those things that we have – we are afraid of losing what we have. But you know what? When we are tight fisted, not only do the poor not receive from us, but we don’t receive either. We don’t receive from God! We don’t receive all of those blessings that God wants to richly poor out upon us that we can’t receive because you have to be open handed to receive God’s blessings. And when you are tight fisted, the blessings just go on by.

Don’t have a hard hearted attitude. Don’t be tight fisted toward the poor. And in verse 8 of the text, we come across a word that I believe is the key to how you and I as believers are to relate to the poor and those in need. And it is the word “lend.” Lend. Nowhere in this text that we read this morning does God say that we are to give anything to the poor. Oh the word give is used twice in the text in verses 9 and 10, but always in the context of giving a loan to that person in need. Why do you think God is telling the children of Israel to lend and not give? Well I think that there are at least four reasons why when you and I lend to the needy they are better off than when we give to them. The first reason is this: because when you lend to someone it creates the opportunity for a relationship. When you give to somebody it’s kind of a wham-bam, slam dunk thing once for all gift and they are on their way and you are on your way. But when you lend to someone you’ve got to sit down with them and talk with them about the terms, the conditions for the loan! Right there you see a relationship beginning. When you lend to someone, there is at least the door opening of an expectation of encountering them again, either positively or negatively, because they are going to be paying back that loan. The supreme center of the Christian faith is relationship. And I think that God wants us to lend rather than to give because the opportunity is there to create a relationship, and relationships are what the needy need as much as anything else.

A second reason that I think it is better for us to lend rather than to give is because when you lend to someone it heightens their self image. When you give, give, always give to someone, they begin to really feel like they really can’t do anything on their own. That they are on the dole, that they can’t get by without a hand out from someone. But when you lend to them, what are you saying to them? You are saying I am willing to place in your trust my money, my resources, whatever it is that you are lending to them. When you lend to someone, the message they are getting is that “hey, that person really thinks that I have the capability to make good on the loan.” It heightens their self-image, it builds their self confidence. That’s why it is better to lend than to give.

A third reason why I think God is asking them and us to lend rather than to give is that it puts into play the Biblical principles of responsibility and accountability. Life works much better when you and I are responsible and accountable. Life is much more fulfilling and meaningful when we carry out our responsibilities and when we are accountable to someone else and not just lone rangers out there on our own. You and I need responsibility and accountability and so do the poor. Again, when we hold them responsible in a relationship and when we are moving toward them in an accountability relationship, actually their self-image is heightened and they are receiving a hand up rather than a hand out.

And then lastly, when God commands the people to lend, what he is asking them to do, what he is commanding them to do is to invest in what God through Scripture says is one of his most precious commodities, and that is the poor. And it is a commodity to invest in, it is people to invest in where you really can’t lose. Why? Look at verse 10 of your text. God guarantees the loan. He says in some way he will bless those that are open hearted and open handed toward his precious poor.

So we are to loan rather than to give. ” Oh yeah, right, Ron, let’s get real. What are the chances that any of those loans are ever going to get repaid?” You know what? You are right, they probably won’t be repaid. My experience personally is that a tiny percentage of folks that I have ever lent to in this kind of situation have ever paid me back. And so the temptation is to get cynical and hard hearted and tight fisted with the next person I meet. Except look at verse 9 of your text. Here in the crazy economics of God’s grace, God is saying to the Israelites, “hey if somebody comes to you on year number six and is in need, God understands us, he knows the person is going to be saying “I’m not going to loan this person any money, there’s no chance I am going to be paid back, it’s going to be canceled in one year! Well what does God say? He says “be open hearted, open handed toward them, be generous, give them what they need.” I think the eternal underlying principle here for you and me today is that we should never lend to the needy based upon the probability of getting it paid back. In fact, mentally, you probably should just write off the loan. But it still is engaging them in a relationship, holding them accountable and responsible, elevating their self image, it is investing in God’s precious commodity. And so you and I are called, commanded by God to lend to the poor, and when we don’t, what does the text say? It says the poor have a slam dunk legal case against us in the court of God’s justice. Mmm. Pretty heavy words.

And so we are to lend rather than to give. And so if someone comes up to you and says they need money for food, boy the easy thing, the non-relational thing, the non-Biblical thing is to give them some money. That gets rid of them. The quick fix, the conscience reliever. But it really leaves that person the same way. The harder thing to do, the more faithful thing, the Biblical thing is maybe to say, “hey, come with me and I will take you out to lunch and you can pay me back later” and invest time and money and relationship in that person.

And in God’s crazy economics of grace, you know what you might find? You might find the tables turned. You might just find yourself engaged in a relationship with a poor believer whose depth of faith, whose tenacity of faith in tough times might just be such a witness to you that you come out of that lunch believing in Jesus a whole lot more than when you went in there. And what happens is God’s blessing begins to work in both of your lives in ways that you never expected.

Ron Sider tells a story of traveling in India and he met this poor woman Mrs. Kamur who lived in a one room thatch roof house and she was dirt poor. But he saw how a few years earlier, The Bridge Foundation, a Christian micro loan corporation funded by Opportunity International, loaned Mrs. Kamur and her husband $219. And with that money they were able to buy a cheap sound system and a bicycle. And what they did is they went around to the surrounding poor villages and they were able to provide sound for weddings and funerals and other celebrations for the poor who could not afford to bring in the big time sound systems. And over a period of time they did so well that they were able to buy three more sound systems and three more bicycles, and actually begin to hire employees. Now their one room thatch roof house still doesn’t have any plumbing, but there have been a whole lot of improvements, and their standard of living and the standard of living of a few others in their village has gone up. These micro loans are just one way that affluent Christians throughout the world are able to invest in the poor in the name of Christ. The loans must be repaid with interest. But studies show that a five-person family’s income is increased 50% within one year of these loans. The poor will always be in the land. So what is that to you? Are you tempted to see them just as a problem that you hope will go away? Or do we put on the spectacles of the Holy Spirit, begin to see them through the eyes of Christ as people made in the image of God that God loves, has thought of before the foundation of the world and who has brought across our path as a privileged opportunity that we might invest in their lives in the name of Jesus? Case closed.

Join me as we pray.
Lord God, we are faced with a world full of need. We get overwhelmed. Sometimes we suffer a compassion burn out. Lord help us to wrestle with this text, not just today but throughout our lives. Help us to see the poor and needy as you would have us see them and to love them as you would have us love them, that we might make real to them, the love of Jesus Christ, the providence, your providence that they might move toward Christ and come to Christ, and maybe move us further toward Christ. For we ask it in Jesus’ name, amen.