Second Chances for the Poor
I’m taking a graduate course called Urban Ministry this semester, and we’re reading several books about poverty. What causes poverty. What helps poverty. What doesn’t help poverty. It’s been interesting and challenging already, and I’m still in the midst of the reading, brainstorming in many directions.
There are several reasons this study is so intriguing to me. First, trying to decide what truly helps the needy is by far my biggest frustration in ministry so far. People ask churches for help all the time, and we all struggle with wanting to help people, but at the same time not wanting to build ‘dependence’ in people or help someone who is simply scamming churches to make a living. We’re all looking for a better way forward, and we’ve been asking those difficult “how best to help” questions for awhile at Great Oaks, hopefully with some slow progress.
Second, this is an issue we must get better at here at Great Oaks, because we are in Memphis, the most impoverished large city in America. Like all churches in big cities, we don’t have to travel to a third-world country to find people who need help – we can find many of them in just a short drive.
Third, following Jesus demands that we show God’s love through helping those around us. Galatians 6:10 says, “So then, while we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, and especially to those who are of the household of the faith.” So as Christians, our first responsibility is helping our fellow Christians in need, but we should also strive to do good to everyone we can.
What Is My Attitude?
Well, I’ll keep wrestling with the “how best to do it” question, both in our ministry at Great Oaks and probably on this blog as well. But one good starting point comes from simply examining our attitude toward the poor.
Our attitude toward the poor is often a fair question, since most of us consider ourselves a country in which we earn according to what we “deserve,” in a free market system. And so we are tempted to refuse help – or even refuse pity – for the poor, because many times their poverty is the result of bad decisions they have made in their lives. Whereas others, maybe us, haven’t made those decisions, so to some people it doesn’t seem ‘fair’ to help those who made bad life decisions.
So here’s the question for today: should I want to help someone who is poor even if their poverty is “their fault?”
God’s Law and the Poor
In Michael Landon’s book Sweating it Out, he gives an overview of the causes of poverty and some biblical thoughts. His chapter on Old Testament teachings of poverty prints this list of some ways the Law of Moses was tilted to help the poor (page 133):
1. A zero-interest loan will be available, and if the principal has not been repaid by the end of six years the balance will be forgiven (Ex. 22:25; Lev. 25:35-38; Dt. 15:1-11);
2. Israelites committed to slavery for debt-repayment are to be released at the end of six years (assuming the debt has not been fully repaid before then, so that release comes sooner – Lev. 25:47-53) (Ex. 25:1-11, Lev. 25:39-43, Dt. 15:12-18);
3. An Israelite forced to sell his land for debt-repayment, if the debt has not been repaid by the end of forty-eight years, will have the balance of the debt forgiven and the land returned, to him or his successors (Lev. 25:8-34);
4. Each field is to be left fallow every seventh year with the natural growth available for the poor (Ex. 23:10-11; Lev. 25:1-7);
5. The gleanings and corners of fields are to be left for the poor, and especially the widows, orphans, and sojourners (Lev. 19:9-10, 23:22, Dt. 24:19-21);
6. The third-year tithe will be available for the widows, orphans, and sojourners, in addition to the Levites (Dt. 14:28-29, 26:12).
These economic laws God put in place for the Israelites under the Law of Moses were an incredible balance between the poor bearing the consequences of their actions, and yet never being put in a position of having no hope.
For example, let’s say you lived under the Law of Moses and you acted with an incredible lack of responsibility, and gambled away your entire fortune, including even the land you inherited from your parents. Let’s say you owed so much that your fortune and land couldn’t even pay the full amount that was due. Well, you would likely have to become a full-time servant of whoever you owed money to, which would cripple you financially but would still allow you to have enough to live. That, of course, would also hurt your family. And if that happened today, putting your family into a life of servitude would probably begin a generational cycle that hindered even your children and grandchildren from prospering. Not much hope, for you or your family.
But under the Law of Moses, there was grace. After seven years, you would be released from the servitude. And the one you served was required to give to you generously when you were done from their flock and threshing floor and wine vat (Dt. 15:14). Gleanings from fields would always be available to whoever would gather them, as would a zero-interest loan if it was needed to help. And on top of that, God expected his people to give to the poor, so those charity gifts would be available. And then, every fifty years, the land that was lost (or gambled away frivolously, in our example) would be returned to each family, assuring that at some point the family at least would have a fresh start in spite of my bad decisions.
It’s an amazing set up of grace. I knew that the Old Testament had laws to help the poor, but I don’t know if I ever considered just how much those laws gave “second chances” and “fresh starts” to those who may have made bad decisions. As Landon puts it, for somewhere between 7 and 49 years, “individuals and families had to bear the economic consequences of their own actions and those of their ancestors,” but after that period of time, “the cycle of poverty was broken regularly” through those Sabbath years (every 7th year) and Jubilee years (every 50th year). Even if your own decisions landed you in poverty, God provided you or your family a second chance, eventually.
What Does it Mean For Us?
I know we aren’t under the Law of Moses today. And I know our laws do not allow for the return of land or forgiving of debts every so often. But surely these laws show us that God believes in second chances for the poor, even if their poverty is “their fault.”
And if that’s God’s attitude toward it, that settles it for me. No, I don’t want to help the poor in a way that will produce a dependence and inability to take care of themselves. And no, I don’t want to help those who are simply lying and scamming churches. But neither do I want to deny someone help just because their poverty came from their own life decision. Whether it’s their fault is simply not the issue.
So as we wrestle with trying to best help the poor, let’s keep God’s “second chance” mentality in the back of our minds. We can’t undo past decisions that may have contributed to poverty: we can’t go into the past and remove an unfinished education, or remove a life of drug abuse, or keep them from having children at a young age out of wedlock, or keep them from committing a crime that stays on their record. But surely we can find ways to help give second chances for life success in spite of those past bad decisions.
Still, many people won’t accept the second chance opportunities, I know that. And I know the issues of who to help and how are very complex. But while finding the right answers may be difficult, finding the right attitude shouldn’t be: God believes in second chances for the poor.
So for now, that’s a good starting place for Christians in regard to the poor. Let us hope for and pursue second chances for the poor, just the way God does. After all, if Christians believe in anything, surely we believe in the wonderfully amazing grace that is found in second chances.