In the first post of this series, I looked at the dueling moral cultures of the conservative South and the more liberal Pacific Northwest, based on observations during the significant time I lived in both. I’ve noted from living in two starkly different cultures how easy it is for Christians to assume their preferred culture more closely aligns with Scripture. Instead, there is power in getting out of our comfort zone in order to understand our own personal blindspots. I have experienced culturally accepted immorality in both cultures, but I’ve seen God’s common grace in each as well.
Today, I want to look specifically at social justices issues, particularly the care of the poor and marginalized, that I have seen divergent cultural attitudes between the South and Pacific Northwest.
After the election, I posted what I called 30 Days of Social Justice on the Practical Theology for Women Facebook page. I did it so I could sit for a while simply in God’s Word, meditating on what He thought about the poor and marginalized, the disabled and immigrant. An interesting thing came from my efforts to find 30 different quotes from Scripture or respected Bible teachers on the subject. First, though I was generally familiar with the laws from Deuteronomy and Leviticus on the care of the poor, I was struck by their clarity and specificity. Second, I found an essay entitled The Duty of Charity to the Poor by Jonathan Edwards, famed reformed puritan who wrote Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.
I don’t always agree with the old guys. Jonathan Edwards had his own cultural blindspots around slavery, so there are certainly things to challenge on his understanding of the image-bearing dignity of all humanity. Yet, it is noteworthy that this puritan that you could never accuse of being a cheap-grace softy saw a Biblical case for government involvement in the care of the poor. His writing on the subject has solidified my conviction. Sadly, sometimes I need an old guy to convince me that what I’m reading in Scripture says what it seems to say, but I also believe this is a function of the historical church that modern Christians often overlook. There is much new thinking of the last 40 years in some hallways of Christianity whose disastrous results could have been avoided by respecting the old guys.
Concerning the Christian duty toward the poor, let’s first look at the most specific Scripture passages which come from the Old Testament Law, Deuteronomy 15. Here is a summary:
v. 1-3 Every 7 years, you must cancel all the debts of your neighbor or brother.
v. 4-5 If you obey these laws carefully, the Lord is certain to bless you and there will no longer be any poor among you.
v. 7-8 You must not be hardhearted or tightfisted against any of your neighbors or brothers who have a need.
Note particularly the wording of verses 9-11.
9 Be careful that there isn’t this wicked thought in your heart, ‘The seventh year, the year of canceling debts, is near,’ and you are stingy toward your poor brother and give him nothing. He will cry out to the Lord against you, and you will be guilty. 10 Give to him, and don’t have a stingy heart when you give, and because of this the Lord your God will bless you in all your work and in everything you do. 11 For there will never cease to be poor people in the land; that is why I am commanding you, ‘You must willingly open your hand to your afflicted and poor brother in your land.’
Here is Jonathan Edward’s conclusion from this passage.
It is not merely a commendable thing for a man to be kind and bountiful to the poor, but our bounden duty, as much a duty as it is to pray, or to attend public worship, or anything else whatever.
Then from Leviticus 25
5 “If your brother becomes destitute and cannot sustain himself among you, you are to support him as a foreigner or temporary resident, so that he can continue to live among you. 36 Do not profit or take interest from him, but fear your God and let your brother live among you. 37 You are not to lend him your silver with interest or sell him your food for profit. 38 I am Yahweh your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt to give you the land of Canaan and to be your God.
“When a foreigner lives with you in your land, you must not oppress him. You must regard the foreigner who lives with you as the native-born among you. You are to love him as yourself, for you were foreigners in the land of Egypt; I am Yahweh your God.”
I grew up in a religious affiliation that did not value the Old Testament Law, and when I point out such requirements in the Law, I still hear from some a simple dismissal of it since we are no longer under the Law. However, that understanding misses how Jesus talks of the Law. Remember that He didn’t come to “abolish the Law but to fulfill it.” In particular, He fulfilled it’s requirement of punishment, which is why there is now “no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1). The Law was our tutor on both the character of God and all the ways we fall short of it. Note how both Leviticus 19 and 25 use the phrase, “I am Yahweh your God.” These passages are about the character of God and how we as His image-bearers are supposed to live among each other.
Thankfully, the New Testament continues these instructions so that we are protected from the temptation to write them off with the fulfillment of the Law.
Luke 6:35 Do good and lend, hoping for nothing in return, for then you are like your Father in heaven who causes the sun to shine on the just and the unjust.
2 Cor. 9:5-7 Give, not begrudgingly or because you are forced, for God loves a cheerful giver.
Mt 23:23 You have forgotten the weightier matters of the Law like justice, mercy, and faith.
Galatians 6:2 Bear one another’s burdens and so fulfill the law of Christ.
That last instruction from Paul in Galatians is key to understanding the elemental way God speaks throughout Scripture of the duty of charity to the poor. Most Christians agree that the Bible teaches the care of the poor, widow, and immigrant. I submit that it is not just the poor, widow, and immigrant Christian, otherwise the parable of the Good Samaritan has no meaning. But though most agree on the general need for Christian charity, our divergent opinion by culture is around the question of the government’s involvement.
Most Christians agree that the government’s roll is to generally restrain sin against others. But what constraints on sin should government regulate? We don’t legislate general morality, and I don’t believe government’s role is to restrain my personal sin. But when my sin affects others, government is right to step in and protect. Generally, we accept government restraint of those that harm others without consent. We prosecute murder, not suicide and rape, not adultery.
Consider Romans 13.
3 For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Do you want to be unafraid of the authority? Do what is good, and you will have its approval. 4 For government is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, because it does not carry the sword for no reason. For government is God’s servant, an avenger that brings wrath on the one who does wrong. 5 Therefore, you must submit, not only because of wrath, but also because of your conscience. 6 And for this reason you pay taxes, since the authorities are God’s public servants, continually attending to these tasks. 7 Pay your obligations to everyone: taxes to those you owe taxes, tolls to those you owe tolls, respect to those you owe respect, and honor to those you owe honor.
To bring this full circle, a lack of charity, as the Bible presents it, is a sin against the poor, and it has victims. That’s really the sobering thing that Jonathan Edward’s essay helped me to see. This is why God speaks through the Bible of hearing the “cry of the poor” …
Prov. 21:13 The one who shuts his ears to the cry of the poor will himself also call out and not be answered.
And defending the rights of the destitute.
The Bible challenges the popular American view that my money is my own, and I have absolute rights over it. Charity to the poor was not an over-and-above-the-call-of-duty kind of moral act. It was a baseline moral requirement in God’s society, similar to commands against fornication or murder, and it is linked to theft.
Isaiah 10:1-3 Woe to those enacting crooked statutes
and writing oppressive laws
to keep the poor from getting a fair trial
and to deprive the afflicted among my people of justice,
so that widows can be their spoil
and they can plunder the fatherless.
What will you do on the day of punishment
when devastation comes from far away?
This led Jonathan Edwards to conclude
“It is fit that the law should make provision for those that have no estates of their own. It is not fit that persons who are reduced to that extremity should be left to so precarious a source of supply as a voluntary charity. They are in extreme necessity of relief, and therefore it is fit that there should be something sure for them to depend on. But a voluntary charity in this corrupt world is an uncertain thing. Therefore the wisdom of the legislature did not think fit to leave those who are so reduced upon such a precarious foundation for subsistence. But I suppose not that it was ever the design of the law to make such provision for all that are in want, as to leave no room for Christian charity.”
The Bible also challenges us when we ask, “Who deserves such charity or justice?” Who is an image bearer of God? Who gets to be a recipient of mercy? When I ask this question, I am reflecting a lack of understanding of mercy and justice as Jesus presented it in the gospels. Jesus’ parable of the good Samaritan reflects the summary of Old Testament law on justice and mercy – treat others the way you want to be treated. Love your neighbor as yourself. Well, then, who is my neighbor? It is even the unconscious guy on the side of the road, overlooked by his own, with whom you do not share nationality or religion. Treat THAT person the way you want to be treated. Love THAT neighbor as yourself. And in so doing, you have fulfilled all the Law and the Prophets.
Beyond these basics, there are a great many things to debate concerning government care of the poor, particularly the best way to curb government’s notorious bureaucracy and inefficiency. And based on your views of dispensationalism and end times, you may remain unconvinced that the Old Testament Law has any bearing on the NT church. In my experience, that theological/doctrinal difference strongly influences how believers react to arguments for government care of the poor in Scripture. Whatever negative reaction you have to this post, I simply encourage you to consider the Scripture I’ve referenced and, if all Scripture is given by inspiration of God and is profitable for training us in righteousness, consider what that might mean for your views of both your and your government’s duty of charity to the poor.