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Always the Poor

by Tim O'Hearn

You go into a car dealership to look at new cars. The salesperson says, “Have I got a deal for you.” The deal is that you pick any car you want. You go through all the financing paperwork and drive away. The deal is that if, by the time you finish paying for the car in five years, the “oil change” reminder light never comes on, the dealer will refund the purchase price of the car with whatever interest you had paid. Sounds like a great deal, right. You agree to the deal and drive off. You check the manual and it says you should get your oil changed every six months. So just before six months comes up, you take it in for an oil change, and get the sensor reset. Six months later you do the same thing. This goes on ever (almost) six month for four years, but then you get called away on an unexpected business trip. On your way home the reminder comes on. Your hopes of a free car go behind you on the highway. You won’t get any money refunded.

The Jewish people were offered a similar deal. If anybody made a loan of any sort, be it land or goods or money, the debt would be forgiven every seventh year. If the loan was made one year before the sabbath year, you made out. If the loan was just after the sabbath year the borrower made out. Of course, repayment must be made if possible, but if by the sabbath year the loan is not repaid it is forgiven. There was to be one exception. The loan is forgiven, “Save when there shall be no poor among you; for the LORD shall greatly bless thee.” (Deut 15:4) If they trusted in God and when the year of release arrived there could be found not a single poor person in the land, then they could demand repayment of the debts.

Just a little later, though, Moses warns them not to withhold from giving on the theory that it is so close to the year of release that they might lose on the deal. He adds, “For the poor shall never cease out of the land: therefore I command thee, saying, Thou shalt open thine hand wide unto thy brother, to thy poor, and to thy needy, in thy land.” (Deut 15:11) There was less chance of not having to release the debt than there was of getting the free car in the first example. “The poor shall never cease out of the land.” It is a given. God gives a condition under which the release need not happen, but then says the condition will never be met.

By the time Jesus walked on this earth, some of the Jewish lawyers had figured out ways to get around this. The example Jesus gave went this way. “Oh, you have a poor widowed mother you are supposed to support. But you say that whatever should have gone to her you have dedicated to God, so she can’t have it.” (Mk 7:9-13 paraphrased) Never mind that you kept an equal amount for yourself and spent it on the latest sports camel. Somehow a specific portion of your income, say the second ten percent, was what you figured should have gone to your parents.

One day Jesus was reclining at the table and his friend Mary (Lazarus’ sister) came and anointed his feet with some very expensive perfume. Some of the apostles, most notably Judas Iscariot, suggested that the perfume would have been better sold and the profits donated to the poor. Judas led in the discussion, planning to pilfer the profits from the money bags which he held. Jesus replied, “For ye have the poor with you always, and whensoever ye will ye may do them good: but me ye have not always.” (Mk 14:7)

Don’t pretend to care for the poor, but only when you want to save some expensive gift. Don’t say that what you would have given to the poor you decided to put into the church treasury.

Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, or athirst, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and did not minister unto thee? Then shall he answer them, saying, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye did it not to one of the least of these, ye did it not to me. (Matt 25:44-45)

The poor you have always. But that simply means that you always have the opportunity to give to God by giving to the poor. The condition that would free you from your obligation will never come to pass.