Deuteronomy 15: 7-11
Rebecca McLeod Hutto
When we think of generosity and giving to others, we often put it in the context of “that’s just what good people do.” Teaching our children to share is how we teach kindness and help them learn how to be grateful. But today’s passage reminds us that giving to those in need is not just a nice thing to do…it is God’s law. How does it shift your perspective to know that extending our hand to those most in need is a part of the law in the Old Testament? In this section of Deuteronomy, Moses literally commands God’s people to be open-hearted, rather than tight-fisted, towards their neighbors in need.
One of my favorite authors, Daniel Erlander, refers to this time in Israel’s history as the “Wilderness School.” In other words, God uses these 40 years to literally school God’s people about the kind of community they are to be. The Hebrews not only have the laws, but they receive lesson after lesson on how God wants them to live. Therefore, when they leave the wilderness and move into the Promised Land, after much schooling, God’s people will have become the people God intends.
Think back to the gift of the manna as one of these “schoolings.” When the Hebrews complained of hunger in the wilderness God sent manna raining down from heaven each day. But there were instructions for this manna. God provided enough for everyone, so you were not able to take more than your share. When you collected just what you needed, there was enough for everyone. But if you hoarded the manna, working harder to store some up for the future, refusing to share or to trust that God would always provide, the manna that you hoarded would spoil. Therefore, manna was just one of the ways in which God taught the people the importance of sharing and of trusting that God will always provide enough. Manna schooled the Hebrews on how to care for each other. Makes me think of the current “only take two of each item” signs all over the store at Harris Teeter. So whether it’s manna in the wilderness or reminder signs for grocery shoppers, God’s lesson is that there is enough to go around; there is no need to hoard. And after eating manna for 40 years, one would hope that the schooling took effect—God was forming a community where everyone would have enough.
Well, today’s passage reminds us that God actually had to spell the concept of generosity out for the people, that it took more than manna to get the point across. In chapter 15, just before today’s passage, God teaches the people about the dangers of accruing debts and the continuous burden placed on those indebted to others. Therefore, every seven years, debts were to be forgiven. This debt forgiveness, by the way, is where our language in the Lord’s Prayer comes from—forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors. Debt forgiveness is language of reconciliation. Debts were forgiven in Israel—not haphazardly, but purposefully—every 7 years, so that no one suffered in debt and poverty.
After this teaching, we have our passage for today. God commands an open hand, an open heart, and a nonjudgmental attitude when we find someone in need. The reality exists that God’s ways are not the ways of the world, so there will always be those poor and in need in our communities. But God’s people have a particular way to respond to this need…with compassion. When the seventh year comes up, lenders should not forgive debts resentfully, but instead with reverence for what God commands, and with respect for the kind of people God calls us to be. Giving to others is not just a way to be nice. Sharing with those in need is not just what good people do. In order to be the unique community God calls us to be, our hands and hearts are commanded to be open and ready to share with those in need.
Old Testament scholar Thomas Mann recalls visiting the exhibit “Field to Factory” at the National Museum of American History in Washington D.C.. It’s an exhibit about the migration of African Americans from the agricultural fields of the South to the industrial factories of the North from the end of the Civil War to the middle of the 20th century. Mann was struck by the images of the typical sharecropper in the south—pitiful shacks for homes, barefoot children in rags, and vast fields that they worked to earn their keep. The reality was obvious to Mann, “the sharecroppers remained virtual slaves to the wealthy white landowners, long after the Emancipation Proclamation.” In the exhibit one man shared his story of continual debt, never able to get ahead or provide for his family, even going so far as to say, “What the hell could you do? You living on his place, you couldn’t walk off.”
Friends, the quote “I’m living on his place” is antithetical to the law found in Deuteronomy 15. There is no “his place,” “my place,” “your place” in God’s kingdom because everybody lives “on the Lord’s Place.” God never intends for folks to go without, to be burdened by the weight of poverty. The law we hear today in Deuteronomy 15 was a precaution against this kind of inequality. In God’s kingdom, the land is the Lord’s, all we have is the Lord’s, and in caring for what God has given us, we look out for each other, making sure that all of our neighbors have enough.
Two weeks ago, several of us got an email from Lynda Opdyke about the current needs from the Urban Ministries Center in the midst of this pandemic. Lynda sparked the idea of gathering volunteers to help with the lunchtime ministry of bagged lunches. Well, it didn’t take long before folks starting replying, eager to help and get involved. Word spread outside of Trinity to our neighbors, and this past Thursday Tricia Sistrunk delivered over 400 sandwiches for the lunch program at Urban Ministries.
I share this incredible story because, yes, the outpouring of support is amazing, but I’m not sharing it so that we at Trinity can pat ourselves on the back. Instead, I share this as an example of what it means, as children of God, to extend an open hand to our neighbors in need. Moreover, I want to share what Tricia experienced when she arrived at the Urban Ministries Center. In her own words, she says, “The tent camps surrounding the area are shocking and heartbreaking. Tent camps are nothing new in Charlotte, but tent camps out in the open are new. It is partially to do with the fact that they are not able to house as many people in the shelters as they enforce social distancing. It is also due to the CDC’s recommendation that encampments not be removed during the pandemic and…great economic disruption. So, the Urban Ministries Center and the city are allowing people to put tents up where they normally would not be allowed.” It started with an email, and a desire to help; 400 lunches later, all of our eyes are open to just how great the need is here in Charlotte. Now, more than ever, is the time to literally open our hands to others, and to follow God’s law to care for those most in need.
In addition to the work of Urban Ministries Center, on Friday I read an article from the Presbyterian Outlook highlighting what churches and synagogues are doing in Durham, NC to combat this growing food insecurity. The author writes, “To do so safely has meant that people of faith are called to help in new, collaborative ways. And in some places, separation is becoming a force for bringing people together.” One such event In Durham brought together Jewish synagogues, Presbyterians, Missionary Baptists, American Baptists and other volunteers who gathered to distribute food resources donated from the Mormons. Presbyterian Minister Katie Crowe says “The COVID-19 pandemic has built an incredible awareness of the power of contagion. We see how fast a virus can be transmitted because of our interconnectedness as people. Well, hope can spread that fast too, and good news can spread that fast too,” she says.
When we read sections of the law like what we hear today in Deuteronomy 15, I’m taken all the way back to the ancient story, also in the fields, of Cain and Abel in Genesis 4. Jealous of his brother’s favor with God, Cain rises up against Abel and kills him. Then when God comes looking for Abel, Cain still refuses to acknowledge his sin. Therefore when God asks where Abel is, Cain infamously responds with: “What? Am I my brother’s keeper?” To which the obvious answer is… YES. YES. The law in Deuteronomy reminds us, that yes, indeed, we are our brother’s, our sister’s, our neighbor’s keeper. In the New Testament, the letter of I John presses this point even further: “How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need…and yet refuses help?” Furthermore, John says, “let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.” The law in Deuteronomy is not a law about being nice, about giving charity; it’s a law reminding us that we belong to each other; this theme exists all through the Bible: we are CONNECTED to each other. When someone is in need, God’s love within us moves us to make sure our neighbors have what they need. As God’s people, we are called to care for one another, trusting that God has created enough, enough, for everyone.
So far in our Connect TPC sermon series we began in John’s Gospel learning how the love of God has been poured into us so that we may show that love to one another. Then last week we saw how that love motivated four friends to lower their friend through the roof of a house so he could be healed by Jesus. Now, we see, going all the way back to the law in the Torah, that God’s love is given to us so that we may look out for all, for everyone, especially those whose needs are desperate. The law of the Lord is not just a set of rules, but a way to remind us that faith is about connecting upward with God and also outward with one another. As we deepen our faith in God, we also connect with each other, opening our hands to each other, and especially to those neighbors of ours who are most in need. We open our hands, because God’s love is limitless, God’s love has no boundaries. God’s love compels us to realize that there is enough, more than enough…if only we are willing to share. Friends, when we follow God’s love we open our hearts and hands to those who need it the most.
So, the question remains all around us—are we our neighbor’s keeper? Yes…the answer is always yes. Therefore, let us open our hands, extending the love that God has given us.
In the name of our God, whose love for us knows no limit. Amen.