20. Taking Interest in Your Neighbor (Leviticus 25:35-55)
When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, precipitating war with the United States, a group of foreigners was stranded in China, which was under Japanese control. Eventually, the Japanese interned these foreigners “for their safety and comfort” in the badly run down remains of a Presbyterian mission station in the northern Chinese province of Shantung. At this encampment there were 1450 persons, of various nationalities and of virtually every age and social level. Two hundred of the interned residents were Americans.
As time went on, shortages grew worse and rations diminished. The result was a great concern for the future. Also, winters were bitterly cold and as clothing wore out there was concern about warm clothing as well. On a bitterly cold January day, the gates to the camp opened and let in donkey carts, loaded with care packages from the American Red Cross. Each package was about three feet long, a foot wide, and 18 inches high. The parcels included, among other things, cigarettes, butter, Spam or Prem, cheese, chocolate, sugar, coffee and dried fruit.
Eventually it was learned that there were 1550 of these packages. Since there were 1450 residents, this would seem to have meant that each person would receive at least one parcel. So it would seem. The problem was that a few Americans protested that since these parcels had come from the American Red Cross, only the Americans should get the packages, something over seven parcels each. The author of the book, Shantung Compound, Langdon Gilkey, tells us that he and others were certain that the protest was held only by a small minority. Further inquiry proved otherwise. For the most lofty sounding reasons, most Americans felt that the packages belonged to them, and not to the rest of the camp. As you could expect, this proved to be the cause of much dissention and strife in the camp.
Gilkey found this incident to be explained only by the biblical doctrine of “the fall of man” and of “original sin.” He concludes that this incident reveals the very general tendency of Americans not to share their wealth with the impoverished people of the world. He writes,
Had this food simply been used for the good of the whole community, it would have been an unmitigated blessing in the life of every one of us. But the moment it threatened to become the hoarded property of a select few, it became at once destructive rather than creative, dividing us from one another and destroying every vestige of communal unity and morale.
I realized that this was no mere matter of angry words and irate looks. It was just the kind of issue which men were willing to fight over. Seeing the guards now patrolling the streets, I was glad they were there. Had there been no Japanese guns guaranteeing order in the camp, we might easily have faced real civil strife. Thus might our community have destroyed itself over this issue.
I suddenly saw, as never so clearly before, the really dynamic factors in social conflict: how wealth compounded with greed and injustice leads inevitably to strife, and how such strife can threaten to kill the social organism. Correspondingly, it became evident that the only answer was not less wealth or material goods, but the development of moral character that might lead to sharing and so provide the sole foundation for social peace. It is the moral and immoral use of wealth, not its mere accumulation, it seemed to me, that determines whether it will play a creative or destructive role in any society.158
In our culture, selfishness has become a way of life. The needs and weaknesses of others is viewed as an opportunity for the strong to get stronger, at the expense of the weak. Criminals prey upon the weak. It is the elderly whose social security checks are stolen, because they are too weak to fight back, and too frightened to inform the police. It is the runaway children or the illegal aliens who are victimized, because they either cannot or will not cry for help. The con artist takes advantage of the gullibility of the naive.
It is not just the criminal who takes advantage of the weak, however. Capitalism can easily be corrupted to “capitalize” on the weaknesses of others. Ideally, capitalism causes everyone to benefit when money and man hours are invested in such a way as to produce something. At its worst, capitalism can be abused so that the rich use their power to gain further wealth at the expense of the poor. The poor are those who are charged usurious interest. The businesses which are failing and the economic disaster which many individuals are facing causes some to “lick their lips” as they use “vulture funds” to gain at the expense of another. The difference between this and crime is that one activity is legal and the other is not; both prey upon the weak.
On a personal level, we are often tempted and fail in the same way. Let’s face it, most of us like to get a good deal, and the best deals seem to come up when we find ourselves in a position of advantage, while at the same time the other party is at a disadvantage. The advertisements which get our attention are those which hint that the seller is in distress. “Fire sale,” “lost our lease,” “going out of business,” and “getting a divorce” are just a few of the captions which quickly get our attention. The distress of another is not seen as a chance to serve, and certainly not as a chance to give, but rather as our “golden opportunity” to get ahead.
If you are honest enough to admit that you are especially attracted to opportunities arising from the distress of others, than you are ready to listen to the Word of God as it addresses this issue. Leviticus chapter 25 deals with the poverty of God’s people, the Israelites, and with the responsibility of fellow-Israelites to come to the aid of the distressed. While this is an Old Testament text, the principles which we will find here are relevant to the 20th century Christian. They are principles which we can see being taught and practiced in the New Testament. Let us listen carefully to what God has to tell us about “taking interest in our neighbor.”
An Overview of the Text
There are three levels of poverty which are dealt with in the last half of Leviticus chapter 25. The three sections of this passage deal with each level of poverty, prescribe certain obligations with regard to the poor, inform the reader of God’s purpose for requiring these obligations, and give a reason which should motivate the Israelite to obey. We can summarize the last part of chapter 25 in this way:
Cash flow shortage
Slave of Israelite
Slave of Stranger
No interest to be charged
No harsh treatment
A day laborer
Right of Redemption
Not deal harshly
So he can dwell in the land
So he can dwell in the land
So he can dwell in the land (implied)
God’s deliverance from Egypt
They are God’s servants
They are God’s servants
We will begin by making some observations about each of the three types of poverty, and the duties of God’s people with regard to each. Then we will make some overall observations about the text as a whole. We will take note of later revelation given in the Book of Deuteronomy, and then consider the application of God’s commands by His people throughout the history of Israel. After this, we will look at the teaching and practice of the New Testament, and then seek to discern the eternal principles and their application to 20th century Christianity.
Temporary Poverty and Its Obligations
The first type of poverty, addressed in verses 35-38, is a temporary and less serious one. Today we would call this a “cash flow problem.” In farming terms, it would be the result of a bad year, or at least of a bad crop. The Israelite is short of funds and may not have the means to provide for his family, to “tide them over” until the next crop can be harvested. Also, he may not have the means to purchase seed so that he can sow his fields. A pound of prevention will enable this farmer to handle his short-term problem, as well as to become prosperous again in the future.
What is needed, then, is enough food and provisions to get by until the next crop or the next season, and perhaps the capital to plant the next season’s crop. God’s solution is a “no-interest loan.” This solves the present shortfall, provides for future income, and does so in a way that does not penalize the individual.
An interest bearing loan is considerably undesirable, and for good reason. First, it is not good for the recipient of the loan. To charge him interest159 in his hour of need is to further handicap him. It tends to create a greater gap between the needy and the affluent, between the poor and the rich. Interest, in such a case, tends to promote and perpetuate poverty, not solve it. Secondly, loaning money at interest is not good for the lender, either. Loaning money to a brother in distress is not showing him compassion, but is taking advantage of his weakness and vulnerability. It is not an act of charity, but a business activity. And, the lender does not manifest the grace of God, of which he is the recipient. For these reasons, interest cannot be charged on a loan made to a brother in distress.
There are other factors which assure that this no-interest loan is an act of charity, rather than a business loan. Elsewhere (cf. Deut. 15:1-2), God instructed the Israelites that they must cancel all unpaid debts on the seventh year. Further, when loaning a brother money, no consideration was to be made as to how soon the cancellation year was (Deut. 15:9-10). Thus, not only was the generous Israelite not able to make money on the loan, he was not even assured that he would be paid back. This kind of loan was an act of charity, not a business venture.
For these reasons, the temporarily distressed Israelite brother should be aided toward recovery and the possession of his land by being given a no-interest loan, which enables him to get back on his feet, and avoids placing him in greater bondage.
On Being Your Brother’s (Slave) Keeper
The next two categories of poverty are much more serious and long-term. Rather than the temporary “cash flow” problem of the first category, this is a matter of real financial disaster. To put the matter in farming terms, if the first category is the result of a bad crop, the second two categories are the result of several disastrous years. The result was that the debtor would be forced to sell himself, either to a fellow-Israelite (vv. 39-46) or to a stranger (vv. 47-55).
We see a few instances in the Old Testament where this kind of slavery occurred or was threatened. One is found in the Book of 2 Kings, where we read, “Now a certain woman of the wives of the sons of the prophets cried out to Elisha, ‘Your servant my husband is dead, and you know that your servant feared the LORD; and the creditor has come to take my two children to be his slaves’” (2 Ki. 4:1). This sad story ends well, for Elisha had the woman and her sons gather vessels, into which he had her pour from her little jar of oil. These filled containers of oil paid her debt and provided means for income(cf. vv. 2-7).
In verses 39-46, God gave instructions to the Israelites as to how they should deal with an Israelite brother who became their slave due to dire poverty. It would seem that this man had no relatives who were willing to redeem him, since redemption by a family member is not mentioned. After all, if his family would have come to his rescue, his slavery would not have been necessary.
God’s instruction to the Israelite who would have attained such a “slave” was that his brother should not be treated as a slave. The assumption is that a slave would be dealt with more severely than a hired employee. Other texts bear this out. For example, we read: “A slave will not be instructed by words alone; For though he understands, there will be no response” (Prov. 29:19). The Israelites of Moses’ day did not need to be told how a slave was (mis)treated, they had ample experience at the hand of Pharaoh and the Egyptians, who were harsh taskmasters (cf. Exod. 1:8-14).
Instead, the Hebrew “slave” was to be treated with the dignity and respect of a “hired man,” who could have left his employment if he were not treated with dignity and fairness. Other biblical texts make it clear that this included being paid at the end of each day (Deut. 24:15). That kindness was to be genuine, full-measured, and continual is evidenced by the fact that provisions were made for the slave to continue as such for his lifetime (Exod. 21:5-6; Deut. 15:16-17).
When the year of Jubilee arrived (or, more commonly, the sabbath year, cf. Exod. 21:2-4), the slave was to be released, so that he could return to the property of his forefathers (Lev. 25:41). The reason for this is that the Israelites (including the distressed one who became the slave of his brother) became God’s servants (slaves) at the exodus, and no slave160 can have two masters. Revering God required obedience to this command (Lev. 25:43).
To further clarify the commandment of verses 39-43, God indicated that this did not prohibit slavery altogether (vv. 44-46). An Israelite could not be made a slave since he already was God’s slave (vv. 39-43), but since non-Israelites were not God’s slaves, they could become the possession of the Israelites. Later on, in Deuteronomy, God will specifically say that even non-Israelite slaves cannot be harshly161 treated (Deut. 24:14-15).
Treatment of Israelite Slaves by Strangers
These are interesting verses because they assume that a foreigner who is sojourning among them could prosper, just as they assume that an Israelite living in the land can become impoverished. This certainly informs us that the sojourner was given considerable freedom and opportunity in the land of Israel. For those of us who live in the United States this may not seem so unusual, but in other parts of the world and in other periods of history it is far from the norm. How many Israelites prospered in Egypt, for example, after the time of Joseph?
To my knowledge, this is the only place where the possibility of an Israelite becoming the slave of a sojourner is mentioned. While a fellow Israelite did not redeem this slave, the nation is responsible to see to it that their brother is dealt with as God’s servant. He is not to be dealt with harshly (v. 53), and in the year of Jubilee he is to be released (v. 54). Beyond this, he has the guarantee of the right of redemption at any time, either by a relative or by himself (vv. 47-52). The basis for this command is the same as it was in the previous circumstance (vv. 42-43): the sons of Israel became God’s servants, and thus they cannot become the slave of any man (v. 55).
When we look at this section as a whole we note several observations. First, we find that there is great continuity in the teaching of Leviticus and that of Exodus and Deuteronomy. All three books (of Moses) deal with the subject of the Israelite overtaken by poverty. There is further development and clarification, just as we would expect, consistent with the concept of progressive revelation.
Second, Israel is to show compassion to the poor and the oppressed in order to imitate God. The instructions given to the Israelites concerning the poor among them is to assure that God’s people imitate Him, both in attitude and action. God had mercy on His people, who were impoverished, enslaved, and not living in the land which was promised them. The Israelites were thus to show mercy on their brethren, seek to deliver them from their bondage and poverty, and to bring them back to their own land. Each instance of mercy shown to an impoverished Israelite was a reenactment, on a small scale, of the exodus.
It is interesting to note that the basis for obedience shifts somewhat. In Exodus and Leviticus, the strongest incentive for obeying God’s instructions concerning the poor is the kindness and grace of God in delivering His oppressed people, who were slaves of Pharaoh (cf. Lev. 25:38, 42, 55). In Deuteronomy, the emphasis shifts, and (especially to be noted in Deut. 15) the basis for obedience is the blessing of God in the land (cf. Dt. 15:4, 6, 10, 14). Both “because” God has blessed His people and “in order to be blessed” in the future, Israel should show kindness to their poor brethren. I believe that we can safely say that God always seeks to motivate His people on the basis of their own experience of His grace, not just that of their predecessors.
Third, the poor who are primarily in view here are Israelites. The law of Moses contains provisions for the poor in general, including the alien and the sojourner (cf. Lev. 25:6), but the Israelite is primarily in view in our text. The Israelites have a primary obligation to their brethren, who are distressed by poverty.
Fourth, the poverty of a fellow Israelite is presented as something which is to be expected, even though God had promised to prosper His people. No legislation is needed concerning the treatment of the poor unless it is certain that there will be poor. Leviticus 25 implies that there will be those with short-term and longer-term poverty, which will result in Israelites borrowing from their neighbors, and in selling themselves as servants, both to fellow-Israelites and to strangers.
This becomes very clear in Deuteronomy chapter 15. This statement may initially seem to indicate otherwise:
“However, there shall be no poor among you, since the LORD will surely bless you in the land which the LORD your God is giving you as an inheritance to possess, if only you listen obediently to the voice of the LORD your God, to observe carefully all this commandment which I am commanding you today. For the LORD your God shall bless you as He has promised you, and you will lend to many nations, but you will not borrow; and you will rule over many nations, but they will not rule over you” (Deut. 15:4-6, emphasis mine).
We must not jump to any hasty conclusions before we read the entire text, in which we find the following statements:
“If there is a poor man with you, one of your brothers, in any of your towns in your land which the LORD you God is giving you, you shall not harden your heart, nor close your hand from your poor brother; but you shall freely open your hand to him, and shall generously lend him sufficient for his need in whatever he lacks” (Deut. 15:7-8).
“You shall generously give to him, and your heart shall not be grieved when you give to him, because for this thing the LORD your God will bless you in all your work and in all your undertakings. For the poor will never cease to be in the land; therefore I command you, saying. ‘You shall freely open your hand to your brother, to your needy and poor in your land’” (Deut. 15:10-11, emphasis mine).
From the entire text of Deuteronomy chapter 15 we can draw the following conclusions:
- There will always be poor among God’s people in the land (v. 11).
- God blesses His people so that they can help the poor (v. 10).
- Verse 4 is a command to care for the poor, not a promise that there will be no poor. There are to “be no poor” in the sense that the Israelites refuse to allow their impoverished brethren to live in poverty.
Fifth, while sin and sluggardliness is elsewhere identified as one cause of poverty, this is not viewed as the cause of poverty here. Nowhere in Exodus, Leviticus, or Deuteronomy is a brother Israelite’s poverty viewed as the result of his sin or laziness. Certainly this was a factor, which is plainly dealt with in the Old Testament (cf. Prov. 24:30-34), but it is not stated here. I emphasize this point because sin and laziness is often the first thing we think of when we hear of the distress of a fellow believer. This provides us with a ready excuse for not helping the needy, while feeling smug for doing so. “After all,” we reason, “if a man won’t work, neither should he eat.” This, of course, is true, but it is not the case here. The law gives the Israelite the benefit of the doubt.
Sixth, grace is both the motive and the manifestation when it comes to the care of the poor in the Pentateuch. I must stress this because some wrongly view grace as a New Covenant principle, and think of the Old Testament law as being opposed to grace. The grace of God in delivering the Israelites from bondage and in blessing them in the land of Canaan is the basis for the grace which the Israelites show to the poor.
Seventh, one of the reasons why the poor must be generously helped is to enable him to be able to dwell with his fellow-Israelites. It is certainly viewed as important that each Israelite dwell in the land of promise, on his own inheritance (cf. Lev. 25:41), yet it is emphasized that the Israelite should dwell “with you” (Lev. 25:35, 36).
Care of the Poor in Israel’s History
The care of the poor as required by God in the Pentateuch is unfortunately a high, but unrealized, ideal in Israel’s history. The story of Boaz and Ruth is by far the exception, giving a glimmer of hope, but mostly serving as a prototype of the coming Messiah. It is apparent that the biblical ideal was seldom practiced. It was the exception rather than the rule.
Standards of house-building have led archeologists to conclude that early Israel was a relatively egalitarian society, but that by the later monarchy period the gap between rich and poor had widened. “The rich houses are bigger and better built and in a different quarter from that where the poor houses are huddled together.”162
Thus, the prophets are frequently found condemning the way in which the Israelites not only failed to help the poor, but actually took advantage of their poverty to gain at the expense of the poor:
‘At the end of seven years each of you shall set free his Hebrew brother, who has been sold to you and has served you six years, you shall send him out free from you; but your forefathers did not obey Me, or incline their ear to Me. Although recently you had turned and done what is right in My sight, each man proclaiming release to his neighbor, and you had made a covenant before Me in the house which is called by My name. Yet you turned and profaned My name, and each man took back his male servant and each man his female servant, whom you had set free according to their desire, and you brought them into subjection to be your male servants and female servants.’ Therefore thus says the LORD, ‘You have not obeyed Me in proclaiming release each man to his brother, and each man to his neighbor. Behold, I am proclaiming a release to you,’ declares the LORD, ‘to the sword, to the pestilence, and to the famine; and I will make you a terror to all the kingdoms of the earth’ (Jer. 34:14-17).
“In you they have taken bribes to shed blood; you have taken interest and profits, and you have injured your neighbors for gain by oppression, and you have forgotten Me,” declares the Lord GOD. “Behold, then, I smite My hand at your dishonest gain which you have acquired and at the bloodshed which is among you” (Ezek. 22:12-13).
Even after returning to the land of promise after their captivity the people of God failed miserably to live up to the standards of the law concerning the compassion which was to be shown to them in their distress.
Now there was a great outcry of the people and of their wives against their Jewish brothers. For there were those who said, “We, our sons and our daughters, are many; therefore let us get grain that we may eat and live.” And there were others who said, “We are mortgaging our fields, our vineyards, and our houses that we might get grain because of the famine.” Also there were those who said, “We have borrowed money for the king’s tax on our fields and our vineyards. And now our flesh is like the flesh of our brothers, our children like their children. Yet behold, we are forcing our sons and our daughters to be slaves, and some of our daughters are forced into bondage already, and we are helpless because our fields and vineyards belong to others” (Neh. 5:1-5).
Only after a strong rebuke and exhortation from Nehemiah did the nobles and the rulers of the Israelites, who were the offenders, agree to live according to the requirements laid down by the law (Neh. 5:6-14).
Throughout Israel’s history, by ignoring God’s law, the rich became richer and the poor, poorer. It was the Messiah, the “Good Shepherd,” who was coming who would live up to the law and would deliver the poor.
Then the word of the LORD came to me saying, “Son of man, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel. Prophesy and say to those shepherds, ‘Thus says the Lord GOD, “Woe, shepherds of Israel who have been feeding themselves! Should not the shepherds feed the flock. Those who are sickly you have not strengthened, the diseased you have not healed, the broken you have not bound up, the scattered you have not brought back, nor have you sought for the lost; but with force and severity you have dominated them.”’” … For thus says the Lord GOD, “Behold, I Myself will search for My sheep and seek them out. As a shepherd cares for his herd in the day when he is among his scattered sheep, so I will care for My sheep and will deliver them from all the places to which they were scattered on a cloudy and gloomy day. And I will bring them out from the peoples and gather them from the countries and bring them to their own land; and I will feed them on the mountains of Israel, by the streams, and in all the inhabited places of the land. I will feed them in a good pasture, and their grazing ground will be on the mountain heights of Israel. There they will lie down in good grazing ground, and they will feed in rich pasture on the mountains of Israel. I will feed My flock and I will lead them to rest,” declares the Lord GOD. “I will seek the lost, bring back the scattered, bind up the broken, and strengthen the sick; but the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them with judgment” (Ezek. 34:1-4, 11-16).
The Messiah and the Deliverance of the Poor
How significant it must have been to the Israelites of Jesus’ day when He presented Himself to the nation as the “Good Shepherd” as recorded in the 10th chapter of John’s gospel. In the context of the prophecy of Ezekiel chapter 34, the “Good Shepherd” was opposed to the “shepherds of Israel,” who oppressed the poor, who dominated and slaughtered the flock, rather than to look after them, especially the weak and the afflicted. When Jesus introduced Himself by reading from Isaiah chapter 61 (Luke 4:16-21), He was using the terminology of the year of jubilee. No wonder He could also say to the people, “Blessed are the poor, for yours is the kingdom of God” (Luke 6:20).
While the scribes and Pharisees “devour widows’ houses” (Matt. 23:14), oppressing the poor, Jesus came with the good news that He had come to deliver the poor, to usher in the kingdom of God. Little wonder that it was the poor who gladly received the Lord Jesus, while the rich and influential were mainly jealous of Him. The ideal of the Old Testament law was finally and fully realized in the Messiah, the Lord Jesus Christ.
When the Lord Jesus sat at the table with “tax-gatherers and sinners,” the Pharisees were deeply offended. They asked His disciples, “Why does your Teacher eat with the tax-gatherers and sinners?” (Matt. 9:11). Jesus’ response was not surprising, in the light of the Old Testament law and the prophets: “It is not those who are healthy who need a physician, but those who are ill. But go and learn what this means, ‘I desire compassion, and not sacrifice,’ for I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners” (Matt. 9:12b-13).
This same response is found again in Matthew’s gospel, and I think that it provides us with great insight into the heart of the law. This time the Pharisees are offended by the fact that our Lord’s disciples have picked heads of grain to eat on the Sabbath (Matt. 12:1). The Pharisees objected. This, to them, was a violation of the Sabbath law.
We know that in reality it only violated their interpretation of the law, but Jesus did not quibble over interpretation, per se. Jesus first responded by reminding His critics that David and his men partook of the showbread, and then reminded them that the priests in the temple technically break the law by working. Then, in verse 7 Jesus refers once again to Hosea’s words, “I desire compassion, and not sacrifice.” It is my contention that Jesus is telling His critics that God’s principle concern is mercy and compassion, and that whenever technically complying with the letter of the law prohibits showing compassion, the letter of the law must be overruled by the primary purpose of the law, and that is to promote mercy and compassion.
Thus we see that mercy and compassion are a very high priority to God. In fact, we can see that it was the mercy and compassion of God which sent the Savior to the earth in human flesh, to die in the sinner’s place, so that a redemption far greater than that of Israel from Egyptian bondage might be achieved. The coming of the Christ can largely be summed up by these two terms, mercy and compassion. That which God required of the Old Testament saint toward their brethren, Jesus Christ accomplished, once for all, for His brethren. “Therefore, He had to be made like His brethren in all things, that He might become a merciful and faithful high priest in things pertaining to God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people” (Heb. 2:17).
The Christian Interpretation
and Contemporary Application of Leviticus 25
When we seek to interpret and apply the 25th chapter of Leviticus to 20th century Christianity, we must reckon with the many differences between the Israelite of Moses’ day and the contemporary Christian. Think, for a moment, of some of the differences:
(1) Israel was a theocracy, where God ruled over His people, either directly or through a king. We live in a day when government is that of men, very often unbelieving men (cf. Rom. 13:1ff.).
(2) The Israelite lived under the Old Covenant, we live under the New Covenant.
(3) The Israelites lived, by and large, in the land of promise, and their economy was primarily an agricultural one. In our day, few are farmers, and we live in an urban, industrial environment. By helping a needy Israelite to stay on his land or to return to it, he was able to work the land and to prosper. Helping an individual to recover from a condition of need to one of prosperity is not so easily accomplished today.
(4) Israel’s society was a stable one; ours is high mobile. An Israelite knew his neighbors, and thus was able to respond quickly and knowledgeably to his needs. In our society, people drive into the church parking lot and ask for help whom we have never seen before, and who we will likely not see again. It is very difficult to determine genuine needs from the many “sob stories” which are a way of life for the slothful, who live off of the sentimentality of Christians.
We must therefore be careful not to attempt to practice in a wholesale fashion these commands which are given to the Israelite. On the other hand, there are striking similarities in the principles which underlie the Old Testament commands and those which we find taught and practiced in the New Testament. Let me conclude this message by highlighting some of the most critical timeless principles which underlie both the law and the New Testament teachings and practices.
(1) The duty of God’s people is to imitate God, so as to manifest His character to men by our actions. One of the principle motives given for the care of the poor in our text (and elsewhere) is that showing mercy to an Israelite brother who is poor imitates God, who had compassion on the Israelites in their distress while in Egypt as the slaves of Pharaoh.
Our Lord, as we have already seen above, showed mercy toward the poor. Christians are to be imitators of our Lord, and thus we, too, must have compassion on the poor. We are to begin with the attitude of our Lord Himself, the attitude of a servant, which places the interest of others above self-interest:
Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind let each of you regard one another as more important than himself; do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others. Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross (Phil. 2:3-8).
In encouraging the Macedonian Christians to fulfill that which they had committed to do, Paul used our Lord’s example as a motivation for giving to the poor:
I am not speaking this as a command, but as proving through the earnestness of others the sincerity of your love also. For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though He was rich, yet for your sake He became poor, that you through His poverty might become rich (2 Cor. 8:8-9).
The practice of the early church and the precepts laid down by our Lord’s apostles make this abundantly clear:
For there was not a needy person among them, for all who were owners of land or houses would sell them and bring the proceeds of the sales, and lay them at the apostles’ feet … (Acts 4:34-35a; cf. 6:1-7).
And one of them named Agabus stood up and began to indicate by the Spirit that there would certainly be a great famine all over the world. And this took place in the reign of Claudius. And in proportion that any of the disciples had means, each of them determined to send a contribution for the relief of the brethren, living in Judea (Acts 11:28-29).
“In every thing I showed you that by working hard in this manner you must help the weak and remember the words of the Lord Jesus, that He Himself said, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive’” (Acts 20:35).
… contributing to the needs of the saints … (Rom. 12:13a).
And recognizing the grace that had been given to me, James and Cephas and John, who were reputed to be pillars, gave to me and Barnabas the right hand of fellowship, that we might go to the Gentiles, and they to the circumcised. They only asked us to remember the poor—the very thing we were eager to do (Gal. 2:9-10).
Let him who steals steal no longer; but rather let him labor, performing with his own hands what is good, in order that he may have something to share with him who has need (Eph. 4:28).
Instruct those who are rich in this present world not to be conceited or to fix their hope on the uncertainty of riches, but on God, who richly supplies us with all things to enjoy. Instruct them to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share, storing up for themselves the treasure of a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of that which is life indeed (1 Tim. 6:17-19).
And do not neglect doing good and sharing; for with such sacrifices God is pleased (Heb. 13:16).
Listen, my beloved brethren: did not God choose the poor of this world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom which He promised to those who love Him? But you have dishonored the poor man. Is it not the rich who oppress you and personally drag you into court? Do they not blaspheme the fair name by which you have been called? If, however, you are fulfilling the royal law, according to the Scripture, “YOU SHALL LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR AS YOURSELF,” you are doing well … If a brother or sister is without clothing and in need of daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” and yet you do not give them what is necessary for their body, what use is that? (James 2:5-8, 15-16).
We know love by this, that He laid down His life for us; and we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren. But whoever has the world’s goods, and beholds his brother in need and closes his heart against him, how does the love of God abide in him? Little children, let us not love with word or with tongue, but in deed and truth (1 John 3:16-18).
It is readily apparent that the collection which was taken in the early church was not primarily for the pastor’s salary, nor for the physical facilities of the church, nor for the program of the church, but for the care of the poor. Also, the poor “brethren” included those of another race and culture, and of another country. Today, on the other hand, we find it hard to help the poor among us, whom we can see, and we hardly think of helping our brothers and sisters in the third world who are “dirt poor.” We have much improvement to make in the care of the poor.
The New Testament does not restrict our obligation to merely the sharing of money or material goods. Those who are “strong” are repeatedly instructed to help the “weak”:
Now we who are strong ought to bear the weaknesses of those without strength and not just please ourselves. Let each of us please his neighbor for his good, to his edification. For even Christ did not please Himself; but as it is written, “The reproaches of those who reproached You fell on Me.” (Rom. 15:1-3).
And we urge you, brethren, admonish the unruly, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with all men (1 Thes. 5:14).
In addition to viewing “giving” as the imitation of Christ, we should, I believe, include as well the matter of “forgiving,” which I think is often more difficult. Old Testament charity often involved the forgiving of debts, but charity (especially, but not exclusively in the New Testament) includes forgiving other “debts,” which are referred to in our Lord’s prayer, “‘And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors’” (Matt. 6:12).
One can hardly avoid the obligation which we have to imitate God by caring for the poor and helping the weak. Nevertheless, what is so clear in principle is very rare in practice. Satan has devised a number of hindrances, which greatly reduce our desire and our ability to help the weak. First, most of us, who are incredibly wealthy by the standards of the third world, are so indebted that we have little or no cash with which we can minister to others. Installment buying and credit has virtually paralyzed most Christians so far as helping the poor is concerned.
Second, many Christians have concerned themselves with “having their own needs met” that they have little or no time to minister to others. Before many Christians feel ready and able to minister to the needs of others, they feel that all of their emotional, physical, and spiritual needs must be met. I believe that we are to minister to others, and in so doing find that our own needs are met. You remember, for example, the story of the widow whose oil and flour were almost gone. She was to first serve Elijah, and then she found sufficient food for herself and her son as well (1 Ki. 17:8-16).
(2) The duty of the Christian is to love his neighbor as himself, and thus to minister to him in time of need. Not only are we instructed to meet the needs of the weak because in so doing we are imitating God and obeying His commandments; we are also to help our poor brethren because they are our brothers. In Old Testament terms, we are our brother’s keeper. In the New Testament, the word “fellowship” (and its related terms) sums up the obligation which the saints have toward one another.163
(3) The key to obeying our obligation to God and to our neighbor by ministering out of our strength to the weakness of others is to be properly motivated. Proper motivation is probably the most important single factor in our obedience to God. It is my experience that those who sincerely desire to obey God and to help others in need will find a way of doing so. Look, for example, at the Macedonians, who gave out of their poverty, not out of wealth (cf. 2 Cor. 8:1-5). On the other hand, those who are selfish will find a way not to share, even though they have an abundance.
Returning for a moment to the book, Shantung Province, Langdon Gilkey came to the painful conclusion that selfish people will contrive compelling reasons for seeking to promote their self-interest, even at the expense of others:
My ideas as to what people were like and as to what motivated their actions were undergoing a radical revision. People generally—and I knew I could not exclude myself—seemed to be much less rational and much more selfish than I had ever guessed, not at all the ‘nice fold’ I had always thought them to be. They did not decide to do things because it would be reasonable and moral to act in that way; but because that course of action suited their self-interest. Afterward, they would find rational and moral reasons for what they had already determined to do.164
No wonder our Lord speaks so often about our motivation.
There are several critical elements which should create and facilitate a motivation to minister to the needs of others. The first element is that of gratitude to God for His great mercy and compassion on us. If we have experienced the saving grace of God we have much to be grateful for, and gratitude begets generosity. Secondly, we need the attitude of a servant, the attitude of Christ, which puts the needs of others ahead of our own. It enables us to serve others, rather than to take advantage of them. Finally, we must be motivated by faith. Obedience to God required faith of the Israelite. From a business point of view, the Israelite was foolish to loan to the poor with no interest and with no assurance of being fully repaid. The Israelite’s obedience rested squarely on his faith in God, who promised to prosper him for his obedience, and also to enable him to give to those in need. These same elements of motivation must be ours if we are to obey God in fulfilling our obligation to the weak.
May I ask you, my friend, how is your heart with regard to the poor and to the weak? Do you see such people as a stepping stone, as a ready opportunity to get ahead, or as an opportunity to serve and to obey? These matters about which Leviticus 25 speaks are pertinent and they are contrary to our instincts and inclinations. May God enable us to obey them.
(4) Finally, redemption is the goal of charity. Ministering to the needs of the poor Israelite was seeking the best interest of the individual in need. In a physical sense, it was redemptive, it delivered him from bondage and got him back on his feet. It was intended to free him from debt, from slavery, and to return him to possess his property and to prosper on it.
This is, of course, a prototype of the redemption which was to be achieved by Messiah, Jesus Christ, who came to fulfill the year of Jubilee. It is, in the final analysis, our ultimate goal as well. While we must be concerned with the poverty of our brother, we must be even more intent upon the spiritual deliverance of men and women from their debt of sin and from their bondage to Satan. The goal of New Testament ministry is redemptive, just as was the goal of helping the poor in the Old Testament.
158 Langdon Gilkey, Shantung Compound (New York: Harper and Row, 1966), pp. 105-106. I highly recommend reading this book. Chapters 5 (“A Place of One’s Own”) and 6 (“A Mixed Blessing”) are especially pertinent to our study in the Book of Leviticus.
159 Walter Kaiser informs us that according to some scholars one of the two Hebrew terms used for interest seems to be related to a word meaning “bite”: “Hence, scholars … urgue that … refers to those loans that had the interest ‘bitten off’ or deducted before the loan was made, thus a debtor might get only 80 shekels on a 100 shekel loan as parallels in Alalakh or Nuzi tablets show.” After pointing out some of the problems with such views, he concludes, “For our purposes, it is only significant to note that both words are dealing with some type of compensation for a loan, and that neither word can be shown to mean an exorbitant or excessive increase beyond some commonly received fixed rate.” Walter C. Kaiser, Jr., Toward Old Testament Ethics (Grand Rapids: Academie Books, 1983), pp. 214-215.
160 “Verse 42 states the reason for these requirements with unmistakable clarity. Every Israelite was the Lord’s ebed and could therefore never become the ebed of a fellow Israelite, since the latter was himself an ebed of the Lord. In this verse, the first occurrence of ebed is translated as “servant” and the second as “slave” (but cf. NEB), but this is done only because the notion of being the Lord’s “slave” is somewhat offensive to our way of thinking. For us, God is “our Father,” whereas for Israel He was “the Lord” (adon). Since the Israelite was a slave only in name, he could not be treated as a slave and ruled over “ruthlessly” (vv. 43, 46) as the Egyptians had done (Exod. 1:13-14). The fear of God at all times had to restrain a master from dealing with his Israelite servant in this fashion.” A. Noordtzij, Leviticus, trans. by Raymond Togtman (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1992), p. 259.
161 “These laws are designed to make the slavery as humane as possible. Do not boss him around harshly (vv. 43, 46, 53). Boss around (lit. “rule”; see Ps. 72:8) sometimes has a bad sense (e.g. Neh. 9:28). Harshness characterized slavery in Egypt (Exod. 1:13-14).” Gordon J. Wenham, The Book of Leviticus (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1979), p. 322.
162 Roland de Vaux, Ancient Israel, 2 vols. (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1965), vol. 1, p. 71, as quoted by Wenham, p. 317.
163 Wright deals with the matter of fellowship and its relationship to Leviticus most extensively: “Now this oneness of believers in Christ and their shared experience of Christ through the Holy Spirit is no mere abstract ‘spiritual’ concept. On the contrary, it has far-reaching practical implications in both the social and economic realms. Both realms are included in the New Testament understanding and practice of ‘fellowship,’ and both have deep roots in the soil of Old Testament land ethics.
“Fellowship is the usual translation of the Greek koinonia, which is itself part of a rich complex of words. A study of the root koinon in the New Testament reveals that a substantial number of the occurrences of words formed or compounded from it either signify, or are in contexts which relate to, actual social and economic relationships between Christians. They denote a practical, often costly, sharing, which is a far cry from that watery ‘togetherness’ which commonly passes as ‘fellowship.’
“Some examples will make the point. The first consequences of the outpouring of the Spirit at Pentecost was a new community who, in ‘devoting themselves to … the fellowship’ (te koinonia), shared everything in common (Acts 2:42, 44) and ensured that nobody was in need (Acts 4:34). In Romans 12:13, believers are urged to share hospitality with the saints (koinonountes). In 1 Timothy 6:18, the rich are to be commanded to be ‘generous’ (koinonikous). The same duty is laid on all Christians in Hebrews 13:16. Paul refers to his financial collection among the Greek churches for the aid of the Judaean Christians as ‘an act of fellowship’ (koinonian tina, Rom. 15:26), which he justifies on the grounds that if the Gentiles have shared (ekoinonesan) spiritual blessings from the Jews, they owe it to them to share material blessings (v. 27). The same reciprocal principle applies in the relationship between the teacher and the taught in Galatians 6:6 (koinoneito). Indeed, in commending the Corinthians for their eagerness to share in the financial koinonia collection (2 Cor. 8:4; 9:13), Paul describes it as proof of their obedience to the gospel, implying that such concrete economic evidence of fellowship was of the essence of a genuine Christian profession.
“…The extent of this kind of language in the New Testament understanding of fellowship leads me to the view that it has deep roots in the socio-economic ethics of the Old Testament. There are so many similarities which show that the experience of fellowship, in its full, rich, ‘concrete,’ New Testament sense, fulfils analogous theological and ethical functions for the Christian as the possession of land did for Old Testament Israelites. Both must be seen as part of the purpose and pattern of redemption, not just as accidental or incidental to it. The explicit purpose of the exodus was the enjoyment of the rich blessing of God in his ‘good land’; the goal of redemption through Christ is ‘sincere love for your brothers’ (1 Pet. 1:22), with all its practical implications. Both are linked to the status of sonship and the related themes of inheritance and promise. Both thereby constitute a proof of an authentic relationship with God as part of his redeemed community. For fellowship, like the land, has its limits; so that the person who departs permanently from it or refuses to accept it shows that he has no real part in God’s people (cf. Mt. 18:15-17; 1 Jn. 2:19).
“Above all, both are shared experiences: the land, by the nature of the Israelite economic system as we have outlined it; fellowship, by very definition of the word koinonia. This gives to both that deeply practical mutual responsibility that pervades both Old and New Testament ethics. There is the same concern for the poor and needy (cf. 1 Jn. 3:17), the same ideal of equality among God’s people, both economically (cf. 2 Cor. 8:13-15 with its Old Testament allusion) and socially (cf. Jas. 2:1-7). There is even the same prophetic indignation at those whose sin deprives or defrauds fellow members of God’s people of their rightful share in what God has given for the enjoyment of all his people. The Old Testament prophets condemned the unjust oppressors who drove fellow Israelites off their land; compare with that Jesus’ strictures on those who refuse to forgive a brother (Mt. 18:21-35), Paul’s horror at the factionalism and lack of love at Corinth and the priority he gives in his various lists of sins to those that harm the fellowship (e.g., Eph. 4:25ff.; Phil. 2:1-4, 14; Col. 3:8ff.), and John’s refusal to accept the man who hates his brother as a child of God at all (1 Jn. 2:9-11; 4:7ff.).” Christopher J. H. Wright, An Eye for An Eye: The Place of Old Testament Ethics Today (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1983), pp. 97-99.
164 Gilkey, pp. 89-90; cf. also pp. 108-109. Gilkey’s chapters, “A Place of One’s Own,” and “A Mixed Blessing,” provide great insight into the selfishness and fallenness of men, and illustrate that self-interest can always fabricate compelling logical, moral, and even biblical reasons for getting ahead at the expense of others.