Some passages of Deuteronomy are hard to apply today because they seem to belong to a bygone age, the Old Covenant of the Law of Moses.
Other passages are hard to apply today because in them God demands from his chosen people more than we are ready to give Him! What on earth are we supposed to do with passages like Deuteronomy 15: At the end of every seven years you must cancel debts.???
Literally cancelling debts
15 At the end of every seven years you must cancel debts. 2 This is how it is to be done: Every creditor shall cancel the loan he has made to his fellow Israelite. He shall not require payment from his fellow Israelite or brother, because the LORD’s time for cancelling debts has been proclaimed. 3 You may require payment from a foreigner, but you must cancel any debt your brother owes you. 4 However, there should be no poor among you, for in the land the LORD your God is giving you to possess as your inheritance, he will richly bless you, 5 if only you fully obey the LORD your God and are careful to follow all these commands I am giving you today. 6 For the LORD your God will bless you as he has promised, and you will lend to many nations but will borrow from none. You will rule over many nations but none will rule over you.
Here is a fascinating text in these days of a Credit Crunch caused by sub-prime lending and toxic debt. A novel solution which in certain respects many governments are adopting. Cancel the debt! Write it off! Clear the decks and give everyone a clean start!
At the personal level the same principle is available to individuals who find their finances in a real mess. When somebody owes more than they can possibly ever pay back there are the options of complete Bankruptcy, or else of an Individual Voluntary Agreements. Most or all the debts are written off and the person can start again afresh.
And these arrangements are so important in order to give people HOPE. Rather than being trapped in debt forever, there is always the possibility of starting over again. The God of hope had this idea first. The year of cancelling debts. The generosity of the Lender who is expected to give up money he has loaned to others is meant as a reflection of the immense generosity of God Himself.
there should be no poor among you, for in the land the LORD your God is giving you to possess as your inheritance, he will richly bless you,
God has blessed his chosen people so much – we are commanded to be extravagantly generous in return.
But surely this is a recipe for economic ruin! If a man writes off all the loans he has made every seven years! Economic ruin – except for the gift of God. In fact it is a recipe for faith. It is a plan to make sure the Lender continues to trust in God’s grace and God’s provision. If your savings are diminished because you have lent them to others and then written those loans off, you can’t rest on your laurels and trust in your savings. You have to trust God for the next seven years once again. The people who follow God’s command by cancelling debts are the people who God will then bless richly once again! Because they trusted God and obeyed God and put their lives and their fortune once again into God’s hands!
Giving generously to the poor and needy
7 If there is a poor man among your brothers in any of the towns of the land that the LORD your God is giving you, do not be hard-hearted or tight-fisted towards your poor brother. 8 Rather be open-handed and freely lend him whatever he needs…. 10 Give generously to him and do so without a grudging heart; then because of this the LORD your God will bless you in all your work and in everything you put your hand to. 11 There will always be poor people in the land. Therefore I command you to be open-handed towards your brothers and towards the poor and needy in your land.
God calls his chosen people to be generous to the poor and needy. Notice – this is not the kind of giving in proportion to what you have received which we talked about a while ago. Here the Bible makes clear that our generosity must not be defined by how much we have, but by how much is needed!
do not be hard-hearted or tight-fisted towards your poor brother. 8 Rather be open-handed and freely lend him whatever he needs. WHATEVER HE NEEDS
I command you to be open-handed towards your brothers and towards the poor and needy in your land.
Whatever He needs. We are to be open-handed not closed-fisted. And our attitude has to be right! 10 Give generously to him and do so without a grudging heart;
In the face of the migrant and refugee crisis, here is a challenging text. Again, surely this is a recipe for financial ruin! If you give to everybody WHATEVER HE NEEDS you will end up with nothing! Surely there must be limits on how much we have to give? We might hope that the New Testament will show some common sense in this – some get-out clause, some small print somewhere which would excuse us from giving all our money away! Luke’s Gospel records more than the others of Jesus’s teaching on money wealth and possessions – but listen to these words of Jesus in Luke 6.
Luke 6: 30 Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back. 31 Do to others as you would have them do to you. 32 “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even `sinners’ love those who love them. 33 And if you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? Even `sinners’ do that. 34 And if you lend to those from whom you expect repayment, what credit is that to you? Even `sinners’ lend to `sinners’, expecting to be repaid in full.
35 But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked. 36 Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.
v.30 Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back.
v. 35 But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back.
Just the same recipe for economic catastrophe! Give to EVERYONE who asks you?? What kind of a life would Christians live if we actually obeyed that command! When people learned they could ask us for anything and we would have to give it to them! If anyone takes anything, do not demand it back – isn’t this just a thieves’ charter!
Lend to your ENEMIES without expecting anything back. Crazy!! If we did live by these rules we would end up with nothing! We would be less than poor – we would be destitute! But perhaps for some people that would be better than the state they are in where treasures on earth count for more than treasures in heaven. Perhaps the vows of poverty taken by monks and nuns through the ages do have something to say to us today.
When a missionary called Henry Richards took the gospel to the people of Banza Mateke in the Congo, each day he would translate and explain 10 verses from the book of Luke. When he came to the 6th chapter, he hesitated because most of his followers were very poor, and might misunderstand the 30th verse. He said that Jesus’ words illustrate a principle and had to be interpreted in the light of other Scriptures. But they took them literally and quickly asked for almost everything Richards owned. Without hesitation he gave them what they requested. Soon, his most cherished possessions were in their hands. After talking among themselves, the people concluded that Mr. Richards was truly a man of God, for they had never seen anyone so self-sacrificing. One by one they came and returned what he had given them. Because of his willingness to give up everything, the missionary’s work bore much fruit.
Jesus’s teaching is clear: when anyone has a genuine need, we who are His followers must be generous and never allow greed or a love for things to keep us from giving assistance.
This teaching in the Old Testament is not just for the Old Testament. Jesus Himself puts it even more strongly. Listen again to these words which we conveniently forget about:
15 At the end of every seven years you must cancel debts …
do not be hard-hearted or tight-fisted towards your poor brother. 8 Rather be open-handed and freely lend him whatever he needs. …
Give to everyone who asks you, … and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back.
35 But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked.
Each one of us needs to think very hard about how we put these commands into practice in our own finances. And we must consider how we as a church respond to these words. Do we really trust God enough to cancel debts, to give to everyone who asks us and lend without expecting to get anything back?
But this teaching in Deuteronomy 15 has a spiritual as well as a material dimension.
Showing God’s kind of forgiveness
The old Testament speaks about cancelling debts. In at least two places Jesus uses financial debt as a picture for spiritual debts. The most familiar of those places may surprise you – it is in the Lord’s prayer.
MATTHEW 6:11 Give us today our daily bread. 12 Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. 14 For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. 15 But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.
There in the Lord’s prayer the word recorded is not trespasses or sins, but “debts”. The underlying Aramaic word Jesus used undoubtedly meant debt, “that which is owed”.
Our sins put us in debt to God, just as those who sin against us owe us a debt. God cancels all our debts – but commands us to cancel the debts of other people too.
Matthew 18:21 Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me? Up to seven times?”
22 Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times. 23 “Therefore, the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. 24 As he began the settlement, a man who owed him ten thousand talents (millions of pounds) was brought to him. 25 Since he was not able to pay, the master ordered that he and his wife and his children and all that he had be sold to repay the debt.
26 “The servant fell on his knees before him. ‘Be patient with me,’ he begged, ‘and I will pay back everything.’ 27 The servant’s master took pity on him, cancelled the debt and let him go.
28 “But when that servant went out, he found one of his fellow-servants who owed him a hundred denarii. (a few hundred pounds) He grabbed him and began to choke him. ‘Pay back what you owe me!’ he demanded.
29 “His fellow-servant fell to his knees and begged him, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay you back.’
30 “But he refused. Instead, he went off and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt. 31 When the other servants saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed and went and told their master everything that had happened.
32 “Then the master called the servant in. ‘You wicked servant,’ he said, ‘I cancelled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. 33 Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow-servant just as I had on you?’ 34 In anger his master turned him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed.
35 “This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother from your heart.”
This parable talks about literal debts. But that is a picture for us of the kind of forgiveness God has shown to us, the pretty amazing grace He has lavished on us. Our debts worth millions of pounds have been cancelled. The debt of our sins so great none of us could ever repay it has been cancelled. Since God has forgiven us so very much, we also should forgive others from our hearts when they sin against us.
Here is an interesting question to think about. Which is easier? To forgive sins? Or to cancel monetary debts? Both cost us. If it is a debt of money, we have to let go of that money. We may have worked hard for it – saved it over a long time. But now that money is in somebody else’s hands and if we cancel the debt the money will never be ours again. On the other hand, if we forgive somebody for some sin they have committed against us, we are letting go of our right to justice. They may have caused us sadness or pain – we have to let that go. So which would be easier? To forgive somebody for something. Or to cancel their financial debt?
Which of these we would find easier tells us something important about ourselves. And about where we are storing up our treasures. Treasures on earth or treasures on heaven. Because I have a sneaky suspicion that many people would actually find it easier to forgive somebody else’s sins than they would to cancel their debt. Letting them keep the money would actually be harder. And I also suspect that is not the way round things are meant to be.
I read an inspiring story. Many years ago two young men were working their way through Stanford University. At one point their money was almost gone, so they decided to engage the great pianist Paderewski for a concert and use the profits for board and tuition. Paderweski’s manager asked for a guarantee of $2000. The students worked hard to promote the concert, but they came up $400 short. After the performance, they went to the musician, gave him all the money they had raised, and promised to pay the $400 as soon as they could. It appeared that their college days were over. “No, boys, that won’t do,” said the pianist. “Take out of this $1600 all your expenses, and keep for each of you 10 percent of the balance for your work. Let me have the rest.”
Years passed. Paderewski became premier of Poland following World War I. Thousands of his countrymen were starving. Only one man could help – the head of the U.S. Food and Relief Bureau. Paderewski’s appeal to him brought thousands of tons of food. Later he met the American statesman to thank him. “That’s all right,” replied Herbert Hoover. “Besides, you don’t remember, but you helped me once when I was a student in college.”
Literally cancelling debts
Giving generously to the poor and needy
Showing God’s kind of forgiveness
What does God expect YOU to do about these things?