There should be no poor among you
by Jack Wald | November 16th, 2014

Deuteronomy 15:1-11

I am glad that this sermon series on social justice is generating discussion. It is important that we think about how our faith applies to all areas of life. One of the questions that has been asked is: What is it the poor are supposed to do to change their situation? There are some people who hear me saying that the poor should not worry about improving their situation and instead, focus on their spiritual life since that is most important. That is not what I think.

When the disciples saw perfume worth a year’s wages being poured out on the feet of Jesus, they were disturbed by this waste. What did Jesus tell them? (Mark 14:7)
The poor you will always have with you, and you can help them any time you want. But you will not always have me.

Does this mean Jesus didn’t really care about the poor? If someone is poor, are they supposed to go through the rest of their life being poor? Jesus warns over and over again about the danger of wealth. Is it better for people to remain poor and be protected from the dangers of wealth?

In his book on social justice, Generous Justice, Tim Keller discusses the intent of the Law of Moses about poverty. (I will quote freely from this book without citations.) He takes us to Deuteronomy 15 where we read in verse 11
There will always be poor people in the land.

This seems to be in agreement with what Jesus said. But just seven verses earlier, in Deuteronomy 15:4, we read this:
However, there should be no poor among you,

This seems to be a contradiction but it is not. Deuteronomy 15 tells us what we ought to do to help the poor but also realizes that with our human nature, poverty is inevitable. What Deuteronomy 15 teaches is a way to combat poverty, a way to lift people out of poverty.

So this morning we will focus on some of what the Bible has to say about poverty.

What causes poverty?

Tim Keller points out that the blame for poverty in the Bible is remarkably balanced. The Bible gives us a variety of causes. One factor is oppression, which includes a judicial system weighted in favor of the powerful. Another is loans that are given with unfairly high interest. And a third is unjustly low wages that are paid. There are structural systems that work against those without power and influence.

But when the prophets speak out about poverty, they blame the rich when extremes of wealth and poverty appear.

Ezekiel 22:29
29 The people of the land practice extortion and commit robbery; they oppress the poor and needy and mistreat the alien, denying them justice.

Amos 5:11–12
11 You trample on the poor
and force him to give you grain.
Therefore, though you have built stone mansions,
you will not live in them;
though you have planted lush vineyards,
you will not drink their wine.
12 For I know how many are your offenses
and how great your sins.
You oppress the righteous and take bribes
and you deprive the poor of justice in the courts.

The Bible warns again and again about the dangers of wealth and it has strong judgments against the wealthy who ignore and abuse the poor. But the responsibility for poverty cannot be laid only on the backs of the wealthy. There are many other factors that cause poverty.

Natural disasters such as famines, floods, and fires create poverty. Disabling injuries create poverty. And personal moral failures create poverty. Some people are lazy and unmotivated to work.
Proverbs 6:6–11
6 Go to the ant, you sluggard;
consider its ways and be wise!
7 It has no commander,
no overseer or ruler,
8 yet it stores its provisions in summer
and gathers its food at harvest.
9 How long will you lie there, you sluggard?
When will you get up from your sleep?
10 A little sleep, a little slumber,
a little folding of the hands to rest—
11 and poverty will come on you like a bandit
and scarcity like an armed man.

Some people lack self-discipline
Proverbs 23:20–21
20 Do not join those who drink too much wine
or gorge themselves on meat,
21 for drunkards and gluttons become poor,
and drowsiness clothes them in rags.

Some people lack the wisdom needed to make good decisions. Others live in a fantasy world, always looking for the lucky break that will propel them to fame and fortune.

The Bible does not have a liberal or a conservative view of poverty; it has a balanced view of the causes of poverty. There are institutional systems that work against the poor. There is the greed of the rich and powerful that keep the poor in poverty. And there are personal moral failings that lead to poverty. We are sinners who live in a sinful world and this is why Deuteronomy 15 can say both, There should be no poor among you and There will always be poor people in the land.

With this understanding of the complexity of poverty, Deuteronomy lays out a solution of how to deal with poverty.

We live in a world of sin where people take advantage of each other, abuse each other, ignore each other. Into this unjust world God gave the law to Moses and in Deuteronomy 15 we see that God’s intent was to give those who are poor a chance to create wealth.

At the end of every seven years you must cancel debts. 2 This is how it is to be done: Every creditor shall cancel the loan he has made to his fellow Israelite. He shall not require payment from his fellow Israelite or brother, because the Lord’s time for canceling debts has been proclaimed.

Debt is the prison cell of the poor. People borrow to spend more than they earn and get trapped in long-term debt by paying large amounts of interest each month without paying down the principle of the loan. This prevents them from using their money to improve their lives. Month by month the banks get richer and the poor remain poor. This instruction from God is really quite radical. Every seven years the prison doors opened up and people were set free from debt. Every seven years people were able to make a fresh start.

If I was in the position to lend money, I would be less willing to lend to someone who I thought would not repay the debt but simply wait for the seven years to roll around. Good judgment had to be exercised to decide how wise it was to loan money to someone. But the law encouraged people to err on the side of being generous.

7 If there is a poor man among your brothers in any of the towns of the land that the Lord your God is giving you, do not be hardhearted or tightfisted toward your poor brother. 8 Rather be openhanded and freely lend him whatever he needs.

The intent was to help those who were poor to overcome the obstacles to their poverty and begin to earn their daily bread. The intent was not to keep people in a dependent relationship but to become contributors to the welfare of the society. Someone who was consistently foolish and clearly taking advantage of the system would be left behind, but every seven years people had a chance to get it right, to have a new start.

In addition to this, the law encouraged the practice of gleaning. When the harvest was gathered, landowners were supposed to leave some of it behind for the poor. As grapes were collected, they were not supposed to go through a second time to get the grapes that were missed. The corners of the fields of wheat were left uncut.

There were also laws of tithing. Every third year the tithe was to be given to widows, orphans, and aliens.

And then after seven cycles of seven, every fiftieth year was declared to be the Year of Jubilee in which debts were once again cancelled, but in addition, all land was to be returned to the original landowners. Over the course of fifty years some families were more successful than others and accumulated more land. But this Year of Jubilee gave families a fresh chance to be successful.

It’s not certain that this law was applied, but it reveals the heart of God toward poverty. God does not like poverty. God does not want people to stay in poverty.

I read an article this week that I highly recommend you read: The Puritans and Money by Leland Ryken. In this article Ryken summarizes the Puritan attitude toward money.

The Puritans were a group of 16th and 17th century English Protestants who grew discontent in the Church of England and worked towards religious, moral and societal reforms. They came to North America with the intention of creating a society that reflected God’s designs for mankind. Being sinful humans, they had failures and successes but there is much to be admired about them.

Let me very briefly summarize some of the points of this article.

1. The Puritans understood that money in itself is good. Richard Baxter wrote, “All love of the creature, the world, or riches is not sin. For the works of God are all good, as such.” The Puritans believed money was a good thing because they believed that money and wealth were gifts from God.

2. The Puritans viewed prosperity as a gift from God and because it was a gift, they could not claim credit for it. Cotton Mather wrote, “in our occupation we spread our nets; but it is God that brings unto our nets all that comes to them.” God gives us the talents we use to work and become prosperous.

3. The Puritans understood that poverty was not a bad or shameful thing. Success was not a sign of godliness so it was possible to be godly and poor.

4. The Puritans claimed that poverty may well be God’s way of spiritually blessing or teaching a person. Thomas Watson wrote, “Poverty works for good to God’s children. It starves their lusts. It increases their graces. ‘Poor in the world, rich in faith’ (James 2:5). Poverty tends to prayer. When God has clipped his children’s wings by poverty, they fly swiftest to the throne of grace.”

5. Unlike the ascetics in the Catholic Church, the Puritans did not idealize poverty as something to be sought. They understood that poverty was not a way of escaping temptation; poverty also has its own temptations.

6. The Puritans rejected the idea that it was ok to let the poor remain poor. Thomas Lever preached, “The rich man by liberality must dispose and comfort the poor.”

7. The Puritans saw prosperity as a temptation and realized that as wealth increased, godliness decreased. Richard Sibbes wrote that “where the world hath got possession of the heart, it makes us false to God, and false to man, it makes us unfaithful in our callings, and false to religion itself.”

8. The Puritans understood that money is dangerous because it tends to replace God as the object of ultimate devotion. Money is dangerous because it lead us to rely on ourselves rather than on God. Cotton Mather famously said, “Religion begat prosperity and the daughter devoured the mother.”

9. The Puritan attitude toward wealth was one of moderation. Greed for wealth was to be avoided. Luxury was discouraged. Life was enjoyed. The pleasures of the world were celebrated, but in moderation.

10. The Puritans viewed money as a tool that allowed them to help the needy and promote good works for church and state. William Perkins wrote, “We must so use and possess the goods we have, that the use and possession of them may tend to God’s glory, and the salvation of our souls … Our riches must be employed to necessary uses. These are first, the maintenance of our own good estate and condition. Secondly, the good of others, specially those that are of our family or kindred… Thirdly, the relief of the poor… Fourthly, the maintenance of the church of God, and true religion… Fifth, the maintenance of the Commonwealth.”

This is a very healthy, Biblical view of money, prosperity, and poverty. What was the consequence? Leland Ryken writes: “One of the ironies in the history of the Puritans is that their very industriousness and plain living tended to make them relatively affluent.”

God does not like poverty. God does not want people to stay in poverty. And a second major truth is that prosperity is a blessing that comes with the gospel. The Puritans, because of their faith, because of their desire to live out their faith in daily living, because of their Biblical view of money – became prosperous.

This is an unspoken secret among development organizations: that a consequence of Christian revival is prosperity. Where the gospel roots itself in a society, prosperity results.

John Wesley, an 18th century Anglican who founded the evangelical movement that led to the Methodist Church, wrote at the end of his life of his fears for the piety of the people in the movement he led. Wesley wrote that “When a man becomes a Christian, he becomes industrious, trustworthy and prosperous.” Piety leads to productivity which leads to prosperity. And then, he wrote of his fear that the prosperity would work against the piety of the church. This reflects the Cotton Mather quote I mentioned earlier. “Religion begat prosperity and the daughter devoured the mother.”

This helps me to understand the cyclical nature of Christian faith.  A generation responds to the gospel and the churches are full. Men no longer gamble, no longer use the money they earn to drink at bars. They bring the money they earn to their homes. They are more productive in their work and rise to higher levels of responsibility. They bring more money home. Some start their own businesses. The children are educated and have better opportunities than their parents had. Families live better. They have better prospects. A true Christian revival produces a wealthier society.

But then the prosperity leads to a more casual, cultural attachment to Christ. We trust in God shifts to We trust in our ability to solve problems ourselves with our wealth and influence. The gospel becomes institutionalized, the population drifts away from devotion to Christ, and the society values drift away from Biblical values. This leads to moral laxness that weakens the family, weakens society, and the culture is once again in desperate need of renewal. This is why the Bible warns us so often about the dangers of wealth.

But, it is important to remember that wealth itself is not evil. It is the blessing of God, as the Puritans pointed out. Wealth is one of God’s gifts. Parents like to give gifts to their children to help them live better lives. God wants to see us live well. A society that turns to Jesus in a genuine revival will become more prosperous as people are transformed into followers of Jesus.

This truth is twisted by the Health and Wealth Gospel, the Prosperity Gospel. While prosperity is a consequence of the gospel, it is not the goal. What the Health and Wealth Gospel teaches is that we do religious things so that we can become wealthy.

In August 2010 I attended the annual conference of a Nigerian, empire-building denomination. There were three to four million people in a building two kilometers long and half a kilometer wide. As we took communion, the overseer had us think of a personal financial goal we had. He told us to pray for this financial goal and then, as we ate the bread, the body of Jesus whose body was broken for us, he proclaimed, “In Jesus’ name you have it!” I was stunned and appalled. This trivializes and dishonors the sacrifice Jesus made for us. In Prosperity Gospel denominations, Jesus is transformed from our Lord and Savior to a tool we use to get what we want.

The Prosperity Gospel is not the gospel, it is heresy. The Prosperity Gospel is not the gospel, it is a disease that weakens the church and works against the social welfare of the people under its influence. The Prosperity Gospel takes money from the poor and transfers it to the rich, the leaders of the church, who live ostentatious lives with mansions, jets, helicopters, expensive cars, expensive clothes. The preachers and teachers of the Prosperity Gospel are creating the injustice that God hates.

The Puritans rightly taught that luxurious living is not consistent with godly living. And when it is the preachers and leaders of churches who are living this luxurious life, it is especially insulting to God. These are the robbers Jesus spoke about in John 10 who fleece the flock they have been given. These are the “super-apostles” Paul criticized in II Corinthians 11&12 who were leading the Corinthians away from the grace of the gospel Paul had taught and were elevating themselves to an exalted status in the church.

The reason I speak so strongly against the Prosperity Gospel is because I have talked about the prosperity that follows a genuine revival. I don’t want anyone to misunderstand what I am saying and think I am promoting the Prosperity Gospel with what I say.

The Prosperity Gospel is an American export that found fertile ground in sub-Saharan Africa. Many who write about the world-wide church are excited about the growth of the church in Africa but I am not so excited. I know some wonderful African pastors and organizations, but unfortunately, when I look at the church in Africa, what I see is a church dominated by the Prosperity Gospel that works against the prosperity it promises. The church is weakened, not strengthened, by the Prosperity Gospel. When the church in sub-Saharan Africa throws off the Prosperity Gospel and begins to worship Jesus as Lord and Savior, not using Jesus as a tool to get rich, then African societies will begin to be transformed and the wealth of the continent will begin to benefit the people of Africa, not just the elite leaders. The gospel will lead to the blessing of prosperity for all the people, not just the leaders.

It has been said of the church in the US that it is 3,000 miles wide and a half an inch deep. The church in the US needs to be revived. The same could be said of the church in Africa. Prosperity teaching and preaching has limited the impact of the church to just a superficial skimming over the culture.

True religious revival always benefits society because those affected by the revival are motivated to work against the injustice that exists. Those without power and influence benefit from genuine revival. Structural injustice is weakened. I am praying for genuine revival for Africa and for all the world.

God does not want us to live in poverty. God wants us to work to help people in our community of faith be lifted out of poverty. God wants to bless us with his gifts. There should be no poor among you.

How do we at RIC respond to what the Bible teaches us to do about poverty?

Tim Keller writes in his book about a church in the inner city in Baltimore, Maryland – which is just northeast of Washington D.C. Because the pastor cared for the whole needs of his community and not just the spiritual needs, the church set up a community development corporation next to the church. They build homes for people in the community. They help people find jobs. They have a family health center, a pre-school and after-school program. They are working to lift people out of poverty, not just helping people stuck in poverty.

What we are able to do at RIC is much more limited. We are a transitional church with a rapidly rotating membership. We are a church in a country that has less than 1% of its population who share our faith in Jesus. We are foreigners in Morocco and do not have the resources we would have in a church in our own home country. Jobs are difficult to find for any foreigner in Morocco.

We are limited in what we can do but we are still responsible to help those we can in our community of faith.

I don’t know all the ways we could be working to help those in need in our community of faith, but here are a few things we have done and could be doing.

We can encourage each other to keep our eyes fixed on Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith. In our worship, preaching, teaching, small groups, conversations over a cup or coffee or tea, in our prayers, in all we do we can make our worship of Jesus our first concern. We want to be a community of faith that is becoming more and more passionately in love with Jesus.

Elliot shared at the SAGM last week that AUSF, the student ministry, in addition to Bible Study and prayer meetings, retreats and small groups, helps students in their studies. They offer help with French for the first year students. They offer math classes to help students get caught up to the math they will need for their studies. The students come from many different economic backgrounds, but an education is a valuable asset that will lift those who come from poor backgrounds out of poverty.

When we were meeting in the building used by Assemblée Chrétienne, their congregation had a food distribution program that we were able to use for people we recommended to them. It would be good for us to begin a program like that here at Villa 91 that would make a monthly distribution of food to those who qualified. Talk to me if you are interested in establishing a program like that here at RIC.

We have funds budgeted for people who have special needs. We do not help with rent and monthly needs, but are able to help when medical needs arise or other special needs. If someone has a need, let Patrick, Elliot, or me know about it.

I spoke last week about why we do not encourage those who are trying to make their way illegally into Spain. But we have raised funds to help people make their way back home.

We have raised funds to help train someone to learn a trade that would allow him to make a living.

To help someone in poverty is easy. To help someone get out of poverty is more difficult. To help someone out of poverty involves sitting down and listening to their story. It takes time to build confidence and discover how it is they can be helped.

I regularly receive phone calls and email messages from people who get my information from the church website and I hear many complicated stories. It takes time to discover if the story is true or what is not being told. And I enter into a relationship that has complex problems and no easy solutions.

It would be far easier for us to simply have a policy of giving out fifty dirhams to anyone who came and asked for help. If they came again, we could say, “Sorry, but we already helped you.” It is far easier to give someone bread than to help them earn money for the bread themselves. But God calls us to do more than just hand out some food. We are brothers and sisters in Christ and we need to take time to listen to our stories and see how we can share what God has given to us.

Let’s talk about this and pray so we can discover what we are able to do to care for each other as Jesus wants us to do. And in the meantime, we will continue to preach and teach that Jesus is Savior and we need to grow in our faith and make him Lord of all of our lives.