Lesson 3: Sabbath and Wealth

Thumb on the Scales of JusticeIf you had any doubts about the Sabbath commands being more than setting aside a special day for worship, take a look at how the commandment is explicated in other parts of the Torah. Exodus 23: 10-12 expands it to include the land, wild beasts, and the poor. “For six years you shall sow your land and gather in its yield; but the seventh year you shall let it rest and lie fallow, so that the poor of your people may eat; and what they leave the wild animals may eat. You shall do the same with your vineyard, and with your olive orchard. For six days you shall do your work, but on the seventh day you shall rest, so that your ox and your donkey may have relief, and your home-born slave and the resident alien may be refreshed.”

Deuteronomy 15: 1-18 shows how far this goes when it calls for canceling debts and releasing slaves every 7th year. God’s people are cautioned about being reluctant to lend money in the 6th year, knowing it will be forgiven in the next. The command’s purpose is very clear. “There will be no one in need among you…If there is among you anyone in need, do not be hard-hearted or tight-fisted towards your needy neighbor. You should rather open your hand, willingly lending enough to meet the need, whatever it may be.”

The passage ends with the statement, “The poor you have with you always,” that Jesus cited to silence critics who said the costly perfume used to anoint him should have been sold and the money given to the poor. Today, many turn his words upside down by using them to justify not wasting time trying to care for the poor when we can never eradicate the problem. Jesus’ point was just the opposite. He was not canceling the need to help the poor but simply acknowledging this ongoing project did not rule out celebrating the Messiah who would bring complete plenty in the future.

The complete statement is in no way a kind of “goody-goody ,” “rosy glasses,” or “pie in the sky” thinking. It recognizes there will always be a need for some kind of almsgiving. “Since there will never cease to be some in need on the earth, I therefore command you, ‘Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land.”

It seems to me this teaching is far more realistic than what we are hearing today. It recognizes there will always be a need, because there will always be inequality. In any society, some rise to the top for a variety of reasons including talent, family, luck, hard work, crime, and other fair and unfair advantages. The command compensates for this by first calling on us to make sure those on the bottom have enough for life’s necessities, and second, regularly leveling the field, so all have opportunity to improve their situation.

Americans do well to ponder this ancient wisdom. We boast the American Dream provides opportunity for all, remembering our rebellion was a reaction to the aristocracy who stifled opportunity by insuring privilege for their own kind. Today, the American Dream faces another threat that tries to preserve the stasis quo for those who have profited from corporate wealth. It promotes legislation that removes risk, so that they can bet both sides in a transaction and ensure wealth will always beget more wealth. It pushes back against a minimum wage that would provide the basic necessities. It talks against any kind of redistribution of wealth, such as canceling loans for college students or poor nations. It pretends there is no need for regulation, because the market will take care of itself. And it promises technology will eventually enable everyone to be as wealthy as the 1 percent.

Talk about fantasy and denial, this is it. The Old Testament prophets saw right through this kind of thinking. A great deal of their message was directed against businessmen who felt they fulfilled Sabbath law by worshiping. The prophets warned God was not satisfied, because he could read their hearts that craved the “Amen,” so they return to their businesses that too often included placing their fingers on the scales to cheat the needy. (Amos 8:4-6) Jesus echoes them when he warns we cannot serve both God and Mammon.

A Sabbath lifestyle demands we seek realistic ways to make sure those on the bottom have enough for life’s necessities and that we are willing to level the field fairly so all can have the opportunity to better themselves.

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  1. John Myers says:

    We in America have been blessed in many ways unimaginable – even to just our grandparents. The wealth we experience is embarrassing. Yet we always want more and find excuses not to give it away or find some reason why our less fortunate are not worthy. We must pray for strength and wisdom that we do not (as individuals) fall into this trap.

    Understanding this, I think it is wrong to also fall into the trap of letting government do this job for us as a society. First, government really doesn’t do a very good job in being fair, equitable, or efficient. I think the scriptures are also fairly clear on the subject – it is up to us to make the difference from our own heart. As an example, the samaritan did not leave the address of a government agency or notify a government official to take care of the half dead man beset upon by robbers – he took it upon himself to do it and paid from his own pocket. He did not rely upon his government to take from one and give to another. Should he have done so, I fear the man would have died waiting for someone to fill out the forms.

    So, let’s not assuage our guilt and become the Rabbi or the Levite – looking the other way assuming someone else will do something and hoping our hapless employees in government do it for us. WE must do it. In a culture that celebrates wealth, we must understand money does not solve problems and good intentions do not solve problems – individuals solve problems. A collectivist political answer from a government will not solve it. America’s government has been trying to erase poverty in our society for over 50 years and yet those in poverty remain at higher levels than when these programs began – after spending trillions. It is a mistake to call for more of this misguided answer.

    We must love our neighbor as ourselves – individuals who have been granted free will from Him who created us must act in faith and love, and find opportunities in our lives to become that Good Samaritan.

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