For you have been a stronghold to the poor, a stronghold to the needy in his distress, a shelter from the storm and a shade from the heat; for the breath of the ruthless is like a storm against a wall. Isaiah 25:4
“I don’t believe health care is a right. It’s a responsibility. The Democrats and Obama feel it’s a right and the federal government has a right to be involved in your health insurance. So that’s where I come from. This whole notion that the government can run a health insurance is doomed to failure in the first place.” Former House Majority Leader, Tom DeLay
We have two different messages from two different times to two different communities facing a similar problem: what to do with the poor. The prophet Isaiah spoke with the authority of seeing things the way they could be, where the whole community as a body acted as a stronghold to the poor, needy and those in distress, where the whole of society became safe shelter in contrast to the ruthless who were like a storm beating against a wall. Make no mistake. The ancient Jewish society to which he spoke had their ruthless, and the prophet was calling them to a different vision.
American leaders, like Tom DeLay, have a vision, too. They like to propose that health care is simply each individual’s personal responsibility knowing full well that the average American cannot pay for his/her health care without the power of the collective. He is ruthless, a storm blowing against a wall. In his view, there is no shelter, no stronghold
You know which is the right way.
You shall give to the poor freely, and your heart shall not be grudging when you give to him, because for this the Lord your God will bless you in all your work and in all that you undertake. For there will never cease to be poor in the land. Therefore I command you, ‘You shall open wide your hand to your brother, to the needy and to the poor, in your land. Deuteronomy 15:10-11
There may be no clearer declaration of what it means to be “God’s people” than this statement. It means an ungrudging openness of heart, mind and means to the poor. It recognizes that poverty, at least in the eyes of the writer of these words, has no foreseeable end.
Even if we might imagine ways to ultimately eradicate poverty, we are not there yet, and being tuned in to Divine Wisdom asks us for this:
Open minds. Open hearts. And the willingness to give.
To the poor.
When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. And he will place the sheep on his right, but the goats on the left. Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, … Matthew 25:31-46
The rest of the story, of course, is that the Son of Man dismisses those on his left because they did none of these things: feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, and welcome the stranger. He says to them that because they did not do these things to the very least–they also did not do it to him. He does not know them.
The meaning of a faith filled life, the meaning of the spiritual path, the meaning of salvation is really this: how do we treat people, especially those in need? If you insist that the United States is a nation founded on Judeo-Christian teachings, how is it that this one has been so severely ripped from our social and political fabric?
Whoever has a bountiful eye will be blessed, for he shares his bread with the poor.
This short wisdom teaching focuses on how we see things. The wisdom is not directed at “all ya’ll who have a lot of money” although it certainly includes them. It really asks us to consider how we see things.
Do you have a bountiful eye? Years ago, there was a knock at our door one winter night. We lived in downtown Birmingham. There stood a young man and woman. They said that they lived just down the street. They had a baby. Their food stamps had run out. Could we help? We had no cash. We almost never had cash in the child raising years. We asked them to wait a minute, and they did. We had a bag of potatoes, some canned vegetables, and a bag of diapers not yet opened. Sharing bread. If your eye is bountiful, you can find some bread to share.
That bountiful eye can be cast on how we do community and how we do government. Collectively, we all have a lot more bread to share than any one of us has alone.
In all things I have shown you that by working hard in this way we must help the weak and remember the words of the Lord Jesus, how he himself said, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’” Acts 20:35
There are several indicators of practical wisdom in this one verse from the Book of the Acts.
- Helping the weak is something that we learn to do and fashion together as community. It’s not just individual choice. Christian community first shaped itself to be in the world–helping the weak. That is revolutionary and prophetic to American culture where we shame, deplore, castigate, blame and despise anyone who appears to be weak in any way.
- Community shaping itself to help the weak is the living memory of Jesus. A direct claim. We take this posture toward the weak as a direct extension of Jesus himself. Disdain for the weak is anti-Christ.
- The terms are simple. Giving is better than receiving. No conditions like: as long as I like the people I give to; they aren’t lazy; they are “our kind;” I know they will appreciate what I give.
Help the weak. Giving is good.
Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.
If one’s religion is based on the scriptures of the Judeo-Christian bible, this is a very strong statement. Ask most Christians what items would be included in making their religion pure and undefiled as far as God is concerned. I suspect there would be a great deal of talk about beliefs. You have to believe X. You have to pray Y. You have to confess Z.
What about taking care of orphans and widows? That’s nice for those who feel called to do that sort of thing–I’ve been told.
That’s not the Word found here. The Word found here says that how one devotes oneself to those in need is the substance of pure and undefiled religion before God, the Father.
We won’t even talk about what it means to despise, neglect and abuse the poor.
If you pour yourself out for the hungry
and satisfy the desire of the afflicted,
then shall your light rise in the darkness
and your gloom be as the noonday.
Let’s talk about being “great again.” Many who cherish these scriptures have bought the notion that we are not great, that we used to be great and that we need to be great again.
Have we voted on a huge national spending program to assure that everyone has enough food and shelter, that all who live in our borders are welcome and safe, and that everyone has a good job paying a living wage?
Isn’t that what the prophet is telling us? Pour yourselves out for the hungry and the afflicted. Did you know that we have one of the highest child poverty rates in the modern world? Almost 25% of our children live in poverty, and right now 50% of all children in the US are delivered via Medicaid.
The mark of great people, and hence, a great nation, is its willingness to pour itself out for the hungry and the afflicted. It’s an easy test. We are failing.
Whoever gives to the poor will not want, but he who hides his eyes will get many a curse.
It is only a cheap religion that turns this into “give money to the poor so that you can get rich.” Anyone who buys into that perversion of wisdom really impoverishes his or her own soul. And isn’t that the point?
If I give money to the poor with the thought that this will cause God to make me rich, I am not seeing the poor. For that matter, I am not seeing God, either. I’ve turned God into a giant cosmic slot machine that pays off a big win if I give to the poor.
These Proverbs are generally one liners without context. We can imagine. Giving to the poor does not diminish me because I have opened my life to humanity. When I hide my eyes so that I refuse to see the poor, I cut myself off from humanity. The saddest, hardest souls in the world are those who have cut themselves off from “the others” in humanity. Who are they, for us? Let’s open our eyes–and hearts and hands.
He said also to the man who had invited him, “When you give a dinner or a banquet, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, lest they also invite you in return and you be repaid. But when you give a feast, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you. For you will be repaid at the resurrection of the just.
This an instruction not on dinner parties but on escaping the comfortable bubbles we live in. When someone tells me how bad Muslims, or gays are, I want to know: how many do you know? When someone complains about illegal immigrants, I want to know: how many illegal immigrants have actually done work for you?
I ask myself these same questions as a way of escaping my little bubbles. Any fool can be cordial to their own kind, and we don’t need Jesus to be a fool. So, today, listen to what makes your own heart uncomfortable. And then, get out of the bubble and get to know some folks. They need you, too.
You shall give to him freely, and your heart shall not be grudging when you give to him, because for this the Lord your God will bless you in all your work and in all that you undertake. For there will never cease to be poor in the land. Therefore I command you, ‘You shall open wide your hand to your brother, to the needy and to the poor, in your land. Deuteronomy 15:10-11
These teachings in Deuteronomy were likely the product of memory: the memory of what it was like to be the poor in the land, the stranger in the land, the needy. The Jewish people spent time as captives in Babylon, taken away from all that was sacred and home to them. Sacred, safe, sure, and secure. We do not think of anything as sacred that is not also safe and trustworthy and dependable.
God’s directive came through memory. Remember what it was like? There are poor and needy among you. Open wide your hands–because you remember. No. I didn’t ask their religion, skin color, how they smell, whether they have papers or whether you think they deserve it or not. Open wide your hands.