For the Love of God, Volume 1/June 10
From Gospel Translations
Deuteronomy 15; Psalm 102; Isaiah 42: Revelation 12
ONE OF THE STRIKING features of the many passages in Deuteronomy that describe what life should be like once the people enter the Promised Land is a tension between what is held out as the ideal and what will in fact prove the reality.
Thus, on the one hand, the people are told that “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, if only you fully obey the LORD your God and are careful to follow all these commands I am giving you today” (Deut. 15:4-5). On the other hand, the same chapter frankly acknowledges, “There will always be poor people in the land. Therefore I command you to be openhanded toward your brothers and toward the poor and needy in your land” (15:11).
The former passage, that “there should be no poor among you,” is grounded in two things: the sheer abundance of the land (a sign of covenantal blessing), and the civil laws God wants imposed so as to avoid any form of the wretched “poverty trap.” The latter include the canceling of debts every seven years—a shocking proposal to our ears (15:1-11). There is even a warning about harboring the “wicked thought,” once the seventh year was impending, of planning stinginess (15:8-10).
The extent to which these idealistic statutes were ever enacted is disputed. There is very little evidence that they became widely observed public law in the Promised Land. Thus the second passage, that “there will always be poor people in the land,” is inevitable. It reflects the grim reality that no economic system can guarantee the abolition of poverty, because human beings operate it, human beings are greedy, human beings will keep tweaking and eventually perverting the system for personal advantage. This is not to suggest that all economic systems are equally good or equally bad: transparently, that is not so. Nor is it to suggest that legislators should not constantly work to correct a system and fill loopholes that encourage corruption. But it is to suggest that the Bible is painfully realistic about the impossibility of any utopia, economic or otherwise, in this fallen world. Moreover, on occasion the Israelites would become so corrupt, both within the economic arena and beyond it, that God would withhold his blessing from the land; for instance, the rain might be withheld (as in the days of Elijah). And then the land itself would not be able to support all the people living there.
Thus the insistence that there will always be poor people (a point Jesus reiterates, Matt. 26:11) is not a surreptitious fatalism, but an appeal for openhanded generosity.