Remember the Poor and Needy (Deuteronomy 24:17-25:4)

Harvest in Provence by Vincent Van Gogh, 1888

Do not deprive the foreigner or the fatherless of justice or take the cloak of the widow as a pledge. Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and the Lord your God redeemed you from there. That is why I command you to do this.

When you are harvesting in your field and you overlook a sheaf, do not go back to get it. Leave it for the foreigner, the fatherless and the widow, so that the Lord your God may bless you in all the work of your hands. When you beat the olives from your trees, do not go over the branches a second time. Leave what remains for the foreigner, the fatherless and the widow. When you harvest the grapes in your vineyard, do not go over the vines again. Leave what remains for the foreigner, the fatherless and the widow. Remember that you were slaves in Egypt. That is why I command you to do this.

When people have a dispute, they are to take it to court and the judges will decide the case, acquitting the innocent and condemning the guilty. If the guilty person deserves to be beaten, the judge shall make them lie down and have them flogged in his presence with the number of lashes the crime deserves, but the judge must not impose more than forty lashes. If the guilty party is flogged more than that, your fellow Israelite will be degraded in your eyes.

Do not muzzle an ox while it is treading out the grain. (New International Version)

In an ideal world, we would all use our common inner sense of justice, fairness, and kindness; we would pay attention to our conscience. Yet, as you and I know all too well, we are far from living in an idyllic setting.

Instead, we live in a fundamentally broken world – complete with injustice, disagreements, disputes, petty squabbles, and blatant insensitivity to others.

It seems we shouldn’t have to be told how to concern ourselves for the common good of all persons; yet that’s exactly what needs to happen. So, the Lord made it plain what the expectations are for meeting societal needs. And it’s already inside of us; we just need to recognize it’s there, tap into it, and obey our better angels.

The Lord expects:

  • No favoritism, cronyism, and isolationism. Immigrants, foreigners, and folks different from us are to be treated with equal justice and sensitivity. Cliques which are hawkish about keeping certain persons out of their group is mostly selfish and sometimes mean-spirited; and it’s always a sort of discrimination which God expects us to avoid.
  • Attention to the poor among us. In the ancient world, and still is some parts of our world today, when the crops are harvested, the needy would tag behind the harvesters in order to pick up what was left behind. Basic human kindness tells us that not only do we let them do this, but we also purposely leave a bit for them to get for themselves and their families. In our modern era, practices of exorbitant interest and unfair housing need to be replaced with concern for the less fortunate. Wealth is meant to be shared, not hoarded. To not do so is to steal from the poor.
  • Punishments which fit the crime. Inequitable societies are rife with kangaroo courts and unjust laws which favor a particular group of persons. It’s humiliating for a minority prisoner to serve a much longer sentence than a person who is in the majority of society… and we wonder why some folks are so angry sometimes. Good grief.
  • Inclusion. Concern for the common good of society doesn’t exclude folks we don’t like or don’t understand. The reason we are not to “muzzle an ox while its treading out the grain” is that they’re doing a job and they don’t need any hindrances to their work. Placing restrictions or extra rules on one group over another just because of race, ethnicity, religion, gender, or class is sinfully exclusionary.

The bottom line is that God cares about persons trapped in poverty. 

In the Old Testament, there are seven different words for the “poor.” The range of meanings includes those who are poor because of laziness, those born into poverty, those who are poor because of inhuman oppression or slavery, simple beggars, and the pious humble poor – who have no choice but to put their trust in God because of their grinding poverty.

The Law was quite clear about how to treat the poor:

Since there will never cease to be some in need on the earth, I therefore command you, “Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land.” (Deuteronomy 15:11, NRSV) 

The mistreatment, exploitation, and just plain inattention to the poor and needy were a chief reason God sent the prophets to Israel: 

Listen to me, you who walk on helpless people,
    you who are trying to destroy the poor people of this country, saying,
“When will the New Moon festival be over
    so we can sell grain?
When will the Sabbath be over
    so we can bring out wheat to sell?
We can charge them more
    and give them less,
    and we can change the scales to cheat the people.

We will buy poor people for silver,
    and needy people for the price of a pair of sandals.
    We will even sell the wheat that was swept up from the floor.”

The Lord has sworn by his name, the Pride of Jacob, “I will never forget everything that these people did. (Amos 8:4-7, NCV) 

The major theme of Deuteronomy is remembering. Don’t ever forget where you came from so that the memory of your past helps shape what kind of person you are in the present.

We must be reminded that it is the poor in spirit who enter the kingdom of heaven, not the proud spirit who forgets the poor. 

The humble person offers grace to people who cannot offer her something in return. It’s one thing to be merciful to people who will turn around later and scratch our backs. But it’s an altogether different thing to show mercy, regardless of whether they can pay you back. 

We are to speak and act with mercy to all persons, without prejudice. 

Eventually, an idyllic world will come. Until that time, we are to speed its coming by showing basic human kindness and compassion to the least among us.

Lord God, you give honor to the least, those who are forgotten, overlooked and misjudged. You came to give first place to the last, those left behind, misunderstood and undervalued. You came to give a warm welcome to the lost, those who are orphaned, abandoned and destitute. Help us to be your ears to listen to their cries; your voice speaking out love and acceptance; your feet walking beside those in need; and your hands to clothe, feed and shelter them. Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayer. Amen.

How, Then, Shall We Live? (Luke 16:19-31)

The Rich Man and the Poor Man by Laura Jeanne Grimes, 2005

“There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury every day. At his gate was laid a beggar named Lazarus, covered with sores and longing to eat what fell from the rich man’s table. Even the dogs came and licked his sores.

 “The time came when the beggar died, and the angels carried him to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried.In Hades, where he was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side. So, he called to him, ‘Father Abraham, have pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this fire.’

 “But Abraham replied, ‘Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, while Lazarus received bad things, but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony. And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been set in place, so that those who want to go from here to you cannot, nor can anyone cross over from there to us.’

 “He answered, ‘Then I beg you, father, send Lazarus to my family, for I have five brothers. Let him warn them, so that they will not also come to this place of torment.’

 “Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them listen to them.’

 “‘No, Father Abraham,’ he said, ‘but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.’

 “He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’” (New International Version)

Many people look for a miracle at some point in life, especially for family. Whenever we see relatives walking far from God or siblings living without much thought to the words and ways of Jesus, it can be disconcerting. We may reason that if they could just experience or see some great miracle, then they will surely believe and embrace Jesus as Savior and Lord. 

Yet, Christ’s parable to us of the rich man and Lazarus graphically depicts an important message: God has already revealed divinity to humanity through Moses and the Prophets (the Old Testament). 

If people are not convinced by what already exists and what has existed for a long time, they likely will not respond when the miraculous slaps them in the face.

Maybe we too often look for the dramatic because the mundane typically rules the day. Perhaps what we are really looking for is already present in God’s revelation to us. It could be that the greatest task we have is not to beg for a miracle (even though there is nothing wrong with that!) but first to be quiet and listen to the Spirit of God speak through the Word of God so that our prayers to God arise in God’s way and God’s time.

Today’s Gospel story gets at the heart of where we immediately and reflexively turn when in dire straits. There is nothing wrong with turning to others, consulting trusted resources, or even Google. Yet, Holy Scripture is timeless. It contains everything we need for life and godliness in this present age. And I believe it has the answers to life’s most pressing questions.

Everyone has their trusted sources, as well as sources we don’t trust. If a person has a pattern of not consulting or investigating Holy Scripture, then it doesn’t matter who encourages them, even if it is a trusted person who shows up from the grave, to look into the Bible’s contents and believe it’s message.

If we look closely at the story, we are told the poor man’s name: Lazarus. And we are not told the rich man’s name. You see, the poor man, Lazarus, had his name written in the Book of Life. The rich man’s name cannot be spoken because it is not found there.

There are two choices in life, two opposing paths we can take. One is to choose pleasure and overlook the great needs of the earth. Like old Jacob Marley in the Christmas Carol, it is to forge a chain, link by link, day after day, which will eventually leave one in bondage and regret.

The other choice is hope. To look ahead by faith and see the eternal things which are coming, then shaping our existence to act in sync with permanent values, is to choose life. Although this may bring deprivation, even suffering, in this present existence, the decision to forego temporary pleasure for eternal glory shall be rewarded. It is to live for future prosperity through present affliction.

So, how shall we then live?

  • Will we anchor our souls in the good bosom of bettering our fellow humanity?
  • Is there an acknowledgment that the measure we give to others shall eventually be given to us?
  • Do we seek to hold faith with a neighbor in their poverty?
  • Are we trusting so much in our five senses – sight, smell, taste, hearing, touch – that we either cannot or will not trust in the sixth sense of the spirit which tells us to believe Moses and the prophets?

Christ has risen. Christ is coming again. If we align our lives with spiritual truth, we shall find our names written in the Book of Life. Let us actively look for Lazarus in our lives, so that we don’t carelessly step over him day after day while selfishly indulging in the good things of this life.

Mighty God, you have done miraculous things. Help me see what you have already done and teach me to listen so that your revelation becomes alive to me. Holy Spirit, impress the redemptive event of Christ’s resurrection on the hearts of all who do not know you so that they might know your amazing grace. Amen.

Luke 14:1, 7-14 – How Can I Be Blessed?

Jesus eating with “sinners.”

One Sabbath, when Jesus went to eat in the house of a prominent Pharisee, he was being carefully watched….

When he noticed how the guests picked the places of honor at the table, he told them this parable:“When someone invites you to a wedding feast, do not take the place of honor, for a person more distinguished than you may have been invited. If so, the host who invited both of you will come and say to you, ‘Give this person your seat.’ Then, humiliated, you will have to take the least important place. But when you are invited, take the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he will say to you, ‘Friend, move up to a better place.’ Then you will be honored in the presence of all the other guests. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

Then Jesus said to his host, “When you give a luncheon or dinner, do not invite your friends, your brothers or sisters, your relatives, or your rich neighbors; if you do, they may invite you back and so you will be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed. Although they cannot repay you, you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.” (New International Version)

A lot of people live by the old adage, “You scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours.” It’s a phrase referring to reciprocity. In other words, if you give me something I want, I will then respond by giving you something you want.

That old adage works fine, that is, unless you have no ability to give or give back to another. If we only operate by the principle of reciprocity, a large chunk of people automatically get left out. And this situation is untenable and unacceptable to Jesus.

Christ observed that the religious insiders of his day were keeping entire groups of people on the outside through their practice of scratching one another’s backs.

We need to get ahold of the reality that God loves us, as well as everyone else – even the people we may not give the time of day to. God so loved the world that he sent his Son. Jesus has come to feed us all, not just some.

Jesus eats with sinners by Sieger Köder (1925-2015)

The kingdom of God is about food. The food given by Jesus is to feed the hungry by staging a banquet. It is a feast of God’s abundance. Yet, many seem to hoard the resources they have, only thinking about their friends, family, and people just like them. They act as if there is no need to invite outsiders, consumed as they are with their own daily lives.

We have an incredible abundant feast contained in Scripture – in fact, Jesus said that his food and drink was to do the Father’s will, that Scripture was his bread. (Matthew 4:4; John 4:34) 

It’s much too easy to take our blessings of food for granted. After all, when we are well-fed, it’s easy to assume that everyone else is, too. Feeling healthy, it’s easy to forget that others are hurting. Making money, it’s easy to think there are not many poor people around. Living in a community with plenty of churches and more bibles than people, it’s natural to assume that everyone knows the gospel of Jesus – but they don’t!

Then, whenever we get around to acknowledging there are people who need Jesus, we keep devising ways to reach them without having to change or accommodate our own lives to do it.

Christ’s call to faithful discipleship requires people to change from having a narrow focus on our small circle of friends, to including those who have no means to pay us back.

Table fellowship by Sieger Köder 

The gospel of Jesus Christ is open to outcasts and failures, to problem people and unimpressive persons. People with needs and flaws are especially dear to Jesus. It’s the people who outwardly have it all together who are being replaced wholesale with those who admit their need. 

We must not be picky about who we invite to participate in the largess of abundance we possess. We are to avoid the spiritual snobbery of looking down our noses at the needy and less fortunate, who have nothing to offer us in return.

Those who give need to do so without prejudice or favoritism. Even the lazy, the fool, and the sinner still need basic resources to live. By opening our hearts in almsgiving, we open ourselves to Christ, who is present in the least of those among us.

Refusing mercy to people deemed as unworthy, givers then actually shut themselves off from the very mercy God desires for them. There is no reward from God when there is only reward from others.

“If we are going to examine lives, we will never have mercy upon any human being; rather, hindered by this inopportune meddlesomeness, we will remain fruitless and destitute of all help ourselves.”

St. John Chrysostom, On Repentance and Almsgiving

It’s not only the poor who suffer when the rich fail to give. In judging whether or not a particular person is worthy of love and aid, the wealthy person rejects the spiritual fruit that he would have received by giving with humility.

Giving to the poor, simply to relieve our own conscience, is not real charity; it doesn’t consider the other. We attend fully to the other by observing their spiritual and holistic needs for community, purpose, respect, and dignity. Dispassionate giving from a distance, without relationship, refuses to acknowledge the whole person. It exploits the poor for the mental comfort of the rich.

We need to be involved in people’s lives, and that takes a lot of blood, sweat, and tears. There are too many lost people who need Jesus – and, I may add, too many Christians who are the walking wounded and need the healing touch of Jesus – for us to pay scant attention to the call of Jesus to invite the needy into our lives. 

Seeing people come into God’s great banquet, and into a joyous and vital relationship with Christ, will likely take ten times more work than what you are thinking it does right now. Yet, this is the pathway of true blessing – to having God’s stamp of approval on our lives.

How can I be blessed? Not by posturing for the best place in the room but by being a blessing to the most vulnerable and needy amongst us.

Merciful God, thank you for the abundance of life, relationships, health, comfort, and wealth you have provided to so many. Thank you that, even in times of need, despair, and brokenness, you are there. Please, put your arms around children and families in  poverty and disability so that they feel your comfort and hope. Meet their needs both physically and spiritually. And guide me so I can be your hands and feet pursuing justice for the poor and upholding the cause of the needy, in the way of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Isaiah 5:1-7 – A Parable of the Vineyard

I will sing for the one I love
    a song about his vineyard:
My loved one had a vineyard
    on a fertile hillside.
He dug it up and cleared it of stones
    and planted it with the choicest vines.
He built a watchtower in it
    and cut out a winepress as well.
Then he looked for a crop of good grapes,
    but it yielded only bad fruit.

“Now you dwellers in Jerusalem and people of Judah,
    judge between me and my vineyard.
What more could have been done for my vineyard
    than I have done for it?
When I looked for good grapes,
    why did it yield only bad?

Now I will tell you
    what I am going to do to my vineyard:
I will take away its hedge,
    and it will be destroyed;
I will break down its wall,
    and it will be trampled.

 I will make it a wasteland,
    neither pruned nor cultivated,
    and briers and thorns will grow there.
I will command the clouds
    not to rain on it.”

The vineyard of the Lord Almighty
    is the nation of Israel,
and the people of Judah
    are the vines he delighted in.
And he looked for justice, but saw bloodshed;
    for righteousness, but heard cries of distress. (New International Version)

God is the owner of the vineyard. Israel and Judah are the beloved. The Lord graciously chose them, gave them divine promises, and set his steadfast love upon them. God sang over them with affection and took care of them.

The Lord God put time, effort, and love into the relationship. God anticipated good things, looked forward to a bright future, and expected a flowering of justice and righteousness from the people.

It didn’t happen. The relationship went sour. Nothing but rotten grapes.

God builds. God gives. God sustains…. And God destructs. God takes away. God ends what he begins.

The Lord didn’t put all that work into the people to have them perpetuate injustice toward the poor and disadvantaged. God didn’t choose Israel so that they would then neglect God’s law by mistreating others and ignoring the right.

The bloodshed of the people was that they squeezed and bled the poor to death. The cries and anguished responses of the needy were ignored. There was no mercy. So, God was not about to idly stand by and let such rotten grapes abuse and ruin the good, the just, and the right.

The relationship between and God and God’s people was an ancient love song that went off key and struck a minor chord. The Lord has extreme love and patience… until he doesn’t. There’s no way the just and right God is going to put up with abusive, ignorant, and bad folks forever.

Jesus had this allegorical image of Isaiah in mind when he spoke in parables about the impossibility of good fruit coming from bad vines and trees, and the necessity of removing dead branches. (Luke 6:43-45; John 15:1-17)

If the grapes are bad, the vine is bad. If the words are hateful, sarcastic, passive-aggressive, manipulative, conniving, racist, hurtful, mean, foolish, and either subtly or overtly abusive, then the person has a dark heart and is need of redemption, not excuses.

Every tree that does not bear good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire. The wicked heart will not be able to speak ill of others and act hatefully with impunity forever. They will be called to account for their abusive words and actions, whether overtly violent, or subtly undermining.

The righteous heart, however, shall experience divine pleasure and reward, as if the careful construction of helpful and building up words with loving deeds wins first-prize at the great heavenly fair.

The good person loves and does not hate. They are so far from harming anyone that they even pray and wish well for their enemies. They pray for blessings on those who curse them. There is an honest striving to speak good words to everyone, regardless of who they are.

The upright heart thinks the best of everyone and holds nothing over someone else’s head. Such a good heart condemns no one, leaving all judgment to God alone. It is patient with the most exasperating of people, praying they might come to their senses and become spiritually healthy.

The righteous are able to use their speech to admonish their neighbor with care and affection. They freely forgive, happily give, liberally encourage, and use their tongue to speak words of life. Indeed, their speech is wise, humble, full of grace, and above all, loving.

The just and right person uses their hands and feet to build good things for others, especially the most vulnerable and needy among us. They willingly meet needs without bitterness or with a begrudging heart.

If there is a problem with words, it will not do to simply change the speech. That’s because it is a heart issue. And the heart must be willing to change and be transformed by sheer mercy.

If there is an issue with actions, it will not do to merely enforce a change in behavior. That’s because it’s a heart problem. And the heart desperately needs to acknowledge sin and repent from evil.

Fortunately, God is the expert on renovating dilapidated hearts and performing effective heart transplants.

Oftentimes something needs to be destroyed for a building to be erected. There always needs to be a death before there can be a resurrection. New life cannot occur without forsaking an old life.

Believers in Jesus are mindful that our life of faith, hope, and love comes from a death. So, we journey with Jesus along the road of suffering, up Calvary, and are crucified with him so that we might rise with him.

This is the way.

It is the way of repentance, of genuine change, of new habits, of Christianity. So now, let’s go to him outside the camp, bearing his shame. We don’t have a permanent city here, but rather we are looking for the city that is still to come. (Hebrews 13:13-14)

May justice, righteousness, and peace be yours in abundance through him who gave himself for us and for our salvation.

Merciful Father, we pray that violence will be overcome by the power of love; that opposition and division give way to reconciliation; and that the desire for power and control be transformed into the desire for forgiveness, justice, and peace.

May peace be in our hearts so that they are open to the action of your divine grace.

May all humanity – especially the poor, the needy, the least among us, and the lost – feel the warmth of your steadfast love and the love of your people toward them.

May the fruit of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control be our breakfast, lunch, and dinner; and may your divine abundance of mercy and justice be scattered throughout our city, our nation, and our world, through Jesus Christ our Lord, in the strength of your Holy Spirit.

Amen.