I have a question for you this morning. Take out your bulletin or a sheet of paper.
How do we end poverty in our society?
This is a hard question, isn’t it?! Maybe we need a more basic question:
Can we end poverty? Can we create a society where no one is poor?
What do you think? Better yet, what does Jesus think? What did Jesus say?
There’s that verse from the gospels (Matthew, Mark, and John) that inevitable comes up when we turn our focus to poverty, to people who are poor, to helping them, and ending poverty. What is it?
The poor you will always have with you, (but you will not always have me.) Matthew 26:11, Mark 14:7, John 12:8
Scripture talks over and over about helping those who are poor from Genesis to Revelation. Jesus proclaims he has come to bring good news, healing and liberation to the poor. He puts the poor at the very center of God’s kingdom commanding us to give to the poor. By the end of the Bible, we have a clear enough picture to know that there is no poverty in God’s kingdom. And we understand that praying “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven” is a prayer for poverty to end.
And yet when we think about poverty and ending it, our focus too often turns to Matthew 26, Mark 14, and John 12. Well, that’s interesting, isn’t it?
In fact, it is incredibly interesting that when we read this verse our focus is on rationalizing the existence of poverty. We can struggle in reading the entire bible as it calls us to help and give to the poor. Then we get to this one verse and we take a sigh of relief. “Ah, ok. Good. This one let’s us off the hook! I knew it couldn’t be as hard as the rest of the Bible made it out to be!” It is as if our attention is focused on justifying the immense and growing number of poor people in the world.
Well, our focus may just be in the wrong place. Let’s look a little deeper at Jesus words, where they come from, and what they mean.
Jesus isn’t just saying something new for the first time. When Jesus says “The poor you will always have with you,” he is actually quoting scripture. In fact, he is quoting the book of Deuteronomy when he says the poor will always be with you. So, let’s turn to Deuteronomy 15:11 and see exactly what Jesus is quoting.
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.” (Deut 15:11)
The passage Jesus is quoting is not a complacent description, but a conditional statement. “Since …, therefore …” Jesus quotes only the since part of the statement – since you’ll always have poor among you.
And by quoting the since, Jesus knew that his disciples would immediately recall the rest of that verse: “I therefore command you, ‘Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land.’” By quoting the first part, the rest is implied. And the rest of this verse is absolutely in line with everything Jesus taught in his ministry about giving to the poor.
So, one thing we can know for sure is that Matthew 26, Mark 14, and John 12 are NOT about letting us off the hook from helping and giving to those who are poor. In fact, when you understand (like the disciples) what Jesus is quoting, then you realize that this verse is actually a further command to open your hand to the poor and needy in your land! This verse calls us to do more, not less.
But wait, there’s more! Just look at what Deuteronomy 15 is all about. Let’s go back to verse 1:
At the end of every seven years you must cancel debts. This is how it is to be done: Every creditor shall cancel any loan they have made to a fellow Israelite. They shall not require payment from anyone among their own people, because the Lord’s time for canceling debts has been proclaimed. You may require payment from a foreigner, but you must cancel any debt your fellow Israelite owes you. However, there need be no poor people among you… (Deut 15:1-4)
Wait…what? There need be no poor people among you! Yeah, that’s right. It just said that. Does it sound like the opposite of what you always thought Matthew 26 was about? Well, it might sound that way, but I hope you are beginning to see what we have always focused on in this passage is actually not what it says at all! Let’s keep going thought, because there is even more!
there need be no poor people 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. (Deut 15:4-5)
Did you catch that? Blessing from God in this passage is tied to you helping the poor! And helping the poor is specifically called a command. And Jesus is quoting this command in the gospels of Matthew, Mark, and John.
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.
If anyone is poor among your fellow Israelites in any of the towns of the land the Lord your God is giving you, do not be hardhearted or tightfisted toward them. Rather, be openhanded and freely lend them whatever they need. 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 the needy among your fellow Israelites and give them nothing. They may then appeal to the Lord against you, and you will be found guilty of sin. (Deut 15:6-9)
So, not giving to the poor is a sin! And the poor can cry out to God against you if you do not help! Wow!! Yes, this is Deuteronomy, and Jesus is quoting it!
Give generously to them 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. There will always be poor people in the land. Therefore I command you to be openhanded toward your fellow Israelites who are poor and needy in your land. (Deut 15:10-11)
Now let me help out a few things together here. Jesus quotes this verse about the poor being with us. As I said earlier, because he quotes the first part (since) , we naturally should hear the second part (THEREFORE). And Jesus intends this. The second part says to open your hand. And you hear open your hand several times at the end of the passage I have just read. It is repeated over and over.
So what does it mean to open your hand? Maybe some of you are concerned because you are not in favor of handouts. Are we talking about handouts here? Well, probably so. I mean opening your hand certainly implies giving, right? The passage says be generous. It says to give and lend.
And, right at the outset, it says that if you follow this command – if you open your hand – then there will be no poor people among you!
We know from the end of this passage that the command has to do with opening your hand, but this chapter starts out with something that on the surface sounds different. Remember the first verse? At the end of every seven years, you must cancel all debts. That is the specific and direct command that is tied to ending poverty.
But look at this: the word for canceling debt is amazing. It’s shimtah.It literally means in Hebrew to let go, to drop. The idea here for canceling debts is that you are holding onto something, holding onto something over someone. And we are being commanded to let go of what we are holding on to.
The word for canceling debts (shimtah) is literally about opening your hand. But think about this. It is not simply a handout. In Deut 15:1 opening your hand is about letting go of the debt you are holding over the poor. So opening your hand is not simply giving a handout, it is not only giving a handout. It is more than that. It is about letting go which is held over the poor.
Putting all this together, Jesus is saying to us:
“Look, selling and giving to the poor is great and you can and should do it. But since the poor are around, you’ve got something even bigger to do. You’ve got to open your hand and let go of what is keeping people poor.”
Jesus is calling us to look deeper at what is keeping poor people poor. What are some people holding over other people. Maybe it’s debt – financial or otherwise. Maybe it’s the cost of quality education. Maybe it’s the way society values some skills more than other skills. Maybe it’s a corporate model that sees people as commodities to be used rather than children of God to be supported. Maybe it’s systems and ideologies that advantage some people and disadvantage others.
We have work to do to understand the forces at work keeping poor people poor in our day and our time. But one thing is clear from Jesus: figure it out and let go of it.
And we miss this command because our focus is in the wrong place. We too often come to scripture looking for an out to justify our discomfort with the call of scripture. “Give, give, give,” scripture says. “Take care of the needy and widow and orphan,” scripture says. Yet, we look for an out. We try to justify the immense poverty of our day by pointing to Jesus’ words about the poor always being with us. But those very words do exactly the opposite of what we think on the surface Jesus is saying. The truth is that Jesus points us to Deuteronomy and gives us the plan for ending poverty, not justifying it.
Now, I think this is some really good news for the entire world. This is gospel truth! But I also want to step back from the issue of poverty today in this season of Lent to realize something else very important: We too often lose focus, whether it’s reading scripture like we have done today, or whether it is in our work or relationships or faith or whatever. We lose focus. And we have to look deeper….deeper into scripture, deeper into our lives, deeper into our relationship with God. For looking deeper just like we have done with scripture today, looking more intentionally to God can help us focus on what is truly right in front on us.
Focus matters. Are you focused on your self? On justifying what is already inside you? On making yourself more comfortable with an uncomfortable gospel message from Jesus? Or are you willing to look more deeply in the Bible, in your relationship with God and examine your life to really focus in on what God is saying to you?
This Lent as we lead up to Easter, I pray we will un-busy our lives by finding focus…by focusing our heart mind and soul on God through Jesus and this good book we call the Bible to begin to see more clearly the call of God for our life. A lack of focus will keep us busy chasing any number of paths that are not what God is calling us to. But finding focus will set us on God’s path, and God’s path is just right – not too busy, not too idle – but just right for us all.