Deuteronomy 15: 1-18
‘Living generously’ is a theme that underlies both our passage from Deuteronomy today and our gospel reading (Matthew 81: 21-35). I will focus on the Deuteronomy reading. The passage in Deuteronomy that gives us instructions on three issues: poverty, debt and slavery – pretty big issues I think you will agree. It can be summarised as: ‘If you are rich: live generously’.
But, before turning to see what the passage has to say about that there are two things the passage might also be: a set of instructions for politicians about the way that society should be run and advice for people in poverty, debt or slavery about how to cope with their situation or get themselves out of it.
So does the passage give politicians any instructions about poverty, debt and slavery? Firstly the passage does suggest that poverty and slavery (if not debt) are bad things; that in an ideal world there would be no poverty and slavery. But it also accepts that debt, poverty and slavery are inevitable, at least in the here and now.
Poverty is clearly a bad thing and verse 4 promises that at some point ‘There will be no more among you for the Lord your God will bless you in the land which the Lord your God gives you for an inheritance to possess.’ But only seven verses later (verse 11) it says ‘the poor will never cease out of the land’. Jesus says something similar to this when he says to Judas after Mary has poured a bottle of perfume over his feet, ‘You will always have the poor among you, but you will not always have me.’
Perhaps we should note that Jesus, in his first sermon as reported by Luke, says that he has come to preach good news to the poor; but he doesn’t say he has come to abolish poverty. In his sermon on the plain he proclaims ‘Blessed are the poor’ implying that, if poverty is a bad thing, it has some compensations.
Now you might think that debt, like poverty, is a bad thing and that therefore all debts should be cancelled. But of course if you did that there would be chaos. Today’s society depends on debt but that is not all bad. There is good lending and bad lending. Think mortgages here. Mortgages are debts and in today’s society mortgages provide people with housing which is under their control and not that of private landlords. There is surely some value in mortgages.
In this passage we hear (verse 6) that God will bless the Israelites by giving them the capacity to ‘lend money to many’ and at verse 8 the rich are commanded to ‘open your hand to your poor brother and lend him sufficient for his need’. The surprising thing here is that the instruction is to lend to the poor not give them stuff. Incidentally here is a lesson relevant to the rapid growth of Church-run food banks. The authors of Deuteronomy clearly don’t think debt per se is a bad thing. If some people are lending some people will be borrowing.
And you also might think that slavery, like poverty and debt, is a bad thing and we should abolish all forms of it. Well it’s easy to say that now but for much of the time that the books of the Bible refer to slavery was a given. This passage in Deuteronomy is about slavery that was a consequence of debt that could not be paid. This sort of slavery gave slaves some security that that their basic needs of food, water, clothes and shelter would be met.
The writers of the Bible clearly do not think slavery is particularly bad. Paul’s famous verse in his letter to the Galatians: ‘There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus’, doesn’t mean that he condemns slavery per se. In fact when he writes to his friend Philemon about Philemon’s slave Onesimus he does not tell his friend to release Onesimus: quite the contrary Paul gives a strong hint or two that he would very much like to have Philemon as his slave. Our page in Deuteronomy also takes slavery for granted.
Now in saying all this I am not saying that the writers of Deuteronomy (and indeed Jesus and Paul) are entirely accepting of the status quo. Far from it!. I would suggest, for example, that this passage proposes that society should be organised in quite a different way from the way it is today. But still this passage is not primarily addressed to politicians.
The second thing this passage is not, and even more obviously, is that it’s not a set of instructions about what to do when you yourself are poor, in debt or a slave.
Nowhere in the passage does it say: ‘You must not get into poverty.’ That would have been as absurd then as it is now nowadays to talk about the undeserving poor. No-one deliberately makes themselves poor. In a passing reference the passage does say that when God blesses the Israelites they ‘shall not borrow’. But this isn’t saying you must not borrow – like you shall not kill, steal, lie, etc.
The passage doesn’t even say you must not make yourself a slave. Slavery – in this case selling oneself into the ownership of someone with more land and/or livestock - was a rational economic decision which many people took when facing, say, the failure of their crops.
It is also I think noteworthy that this passage does not tell the poor, debtors or slaves whether they are just to accept their lot or resist their condition. Other passages in the scriptures bear upon that issue.
So if this passage is not primarily a set of instructions to politicians about what to do about poverty, debt or slavery or what to do when you are poor, a debtor or a slave, who is it addressed to and what is it about? Well I think it’s mainly about what to do when you when you have people owing money to you, when you see poor people around about you and when you are a slave owner. You can see it a set of instructions for those who enough money to give away or lend or to buy slaves. These instructions can be summarised as ‘Be generous!’.
Now you might think you don’t have enough money to lend people any or give much of it away, and certainly you might think you don’t have slaves. Or you might think that the problems of poverty, debt and slavery cannot simply be solved by people just being generous but I think it is worth investigating how this principle of living generously might apply to us and where it could take us.
Take slave-owning to start with. Now it is easy I think to think that slavery has been abolished. That no one in today’s society is a slave – we are all free. So instructions about slave owning are surely irrelevant?
But is this really the case? Many of us do have economic power over other people’s lives. The most obvious case being that many of us are bosses where we work – with power to dictate (at least to some extent) what those people who work for us do. This power is generally given to us by the organisation we work for but sometimes through the wealth we have accrued. Be generous is something worth thinking about if you employ people. Be generous in how much you pay them and how much time off you give them.
Even if we are not direct employers – most of rely on lots of other people to do some basic things for us – cleaning (where we live and work and the places in between), removing our rubbish, growing and cooking (nowadays called processing) our food, repairing our cars, our bikes, our clothes, our houses, etc. Some of these things are often very skilled and the people who do these things for us may be paid for rather than coerced into doing so but these verses surely tell us how to treat those people we depend on for our basic needs. Be generous next time that shop assistant short changes you. Be generous when the cleaner accidentally breaks your favourite ornament.
Our passage in Deuteronomy (verse 14) says we should be generous to our slaves: ‘Supply them liberally from your threshing floor; i.e. grain for making bread. So you should give them the means to live. But more than that ‘Supply them liberally from your wine press’ i.e. you should give them more than just the basics but also the means of celebration. We should remember this verse in particular when we come to share bread and wine at our Communion today.
But it’s not just slaves or people who work for us, and are therefore most likely to be poorer than us, that we are to be generous to: we are also to be generous to everyone who is poor.
Next debt. We might think we don’t have the capacity to lend people money so, like the instructions about slavery, these instructions about being generous to debtors surely cannot be relevant to us? We know, for sure, that debt is a problem in modern society but surely we are not the problem; we are not lending people money?
Firstly some of us do lend money to others at times and the instruction here to lend ungrudgingly, as if you are not likely to get the money back, is surely worth considering. Secondly we are caught up in a society which, as I said earlier, depends on borrowing and lending for its existence. If we have a bank account that is in credit we are in effect lending money to our neighbour who has an overdraft. In as much as we benefit from that society we collude in all this borrowing and lending. Bankers have got a bad name recently because they seem to have mismanaged this borrowing and lending done on our behalf and incidentally we might think of being more generous in our attitude to them.
We might also be thinking that the system proposed in this passage– of releasing people from their debts every seven years – could not possibly work in modern society. In fact I am dubious that it could have worked in the society to which the writers Deuteronomy were writing.
I don’t really know where this principle of being more generous to those we lend money to would take us – certainly to the relief of the debts of developing countries as in the successful Jubilee 2000 campaign – but I am certain that it is an important principle. Jesus in the parable that we heard as our gospel reading today underlines this. Perhaps Jesus is saying here that since God forgives our big debts so we should be forgive the little debts of others.
And finally poverty. The writers of Deuteronomy are surely being ironic when they say (verse 7): ‘If there is among you a poor man, one of your brethren, in any of your towns within your land which the Lord your God gives you then..’. Those who first heard these words would surely have said ‘‘If there is a poor man’, well of course there are poor people amongst us, but so what?’ The authors’ response is to say ‘You shall open your hand to him and lend him sufficient to his need, whatever it might be’. And moreover to ‘Give to him freely and your heart should not be grudging’.
The emphasis here is on the responsibility and attitude of the giver (or rather the lender) not the plight of the person given to. The passage is not saying: first identify the really poor around you – the deserving poor – and give them enough to live on. It’s saying, be generous in your giving/lending to those in need whatever their needs. It is, of course, easier for us to give people things that we think that they need but here we are enjoined to give to people in relation to their need not what we think of as their need.
So to summarise: be generous to those who work for you, both directly and indirectly, to those who you lend money (both directly and indirectly) and to those who are poor and not just the deserving poor. But why? Our passage from Deuteronomy makes this clear: because the Lord our God has been and will be generous to us. We remember this in the Communion meal we are about to share. We will remember that God has generously given us his son and Jesus has generously given of himself – his body and his blood in which we all share. If God is generous then clearly we, who are made in his image, should be generous as well.