When I came back to the church, I became involved in a church influenced by the holiness movement. The holiness movement emphasized personal holiness, which is good, but sometimes went beyond what the Bible commanded. So if you asked people what holiness looked like, they would say things like not listening to rock music, not going to movies, not drinking even in moderation, not playing cards and so on.The focus was completely on what you were not supposed to do. That is okay as holiness includes the “Thou shalt nots” but we need to be careful not to make human traditions equal to biblical commands. Not going to the movies is not on the same level as not lying.
But in all the discussions I heard about holiness, I never heard any talk of holiness including caring for the poor. In fact, there was some concern shown if you seemed too interested in the poor. That was something that the “liberal” churches did. True Bible-believing churches only preached spiritual salvation. If God wanted the poor help, he could do it. It wasn’t our job and might even be a distraction from what was our job.
Here is the problem with that attitude. A Bible-believing church means that we should believe the Bible. And the Bible says we should care for the poor. Not only should we do this, it is part of being a holy people.
Old Testament Law
Previously, we looked at how God called Moses to free his people from slavery in Egypt. We will fast forward by saying that Moses achieved this goal and brought them out. Moses then went up Mount Sinai and received the Torah or the Law, a collection of laws that include the Ten Commandments. There are many different laws found in this collection and it is difficult to know what to make of some of them. That is not to say that some were not really revealed but they may only be mentioned once and may have a limited context. Others appear over and over and it is obvious that this is close to God’s heart. This includes caring for the poor.
In the passage that we are looking at, we find the motivation for following these laws. Israel was called to be holy because of the holiness of God. There is a theme found throughout the Bible of family resemblance. If we are children of God, we should look in some way like our Father. If God is holy, then his children should be holy.
Then we find a number of miscellaneous laws. I would like to focus on the last section, which we might not think of as being about holiness. Israel was an agricultural society. Most people made their living by growing something. Modern sensibilities would be to be as efficient as possible, make maximum profit and leave no waste. God commands the opposite. Those who who own a vineyard are to purposely leave some of their fruit on the vines. The purpose is not for them to rot but that they would be available for those in need. The law specifies that it would be the poor and the foreigners or immigrants.
Why would God command such a thing? Why limit the potential profit? For one reason, God has love for all people and not just those gifted with wealth or land. Caring for those in need is part of the Father’s heart. But it is also a reminder to Israel of their own experience. At the point the law was given, the Israelites had not yet entered the land. But within fifty years, they would be in the land and they would be the poor and the foreigners. Eventually they would get settled and many of them would achieve a comfortable lifestyle. It would be easy for them to forget their past and focus on their own present wealth. The law reminds them of where they have come from.
While this is a specific form of caring for the poor, this is part of many commands for Israel to care for the needs. Some of the harshest statements in the Old Testament take place when they forget the poor and other needy. God was holy and Israel was holy and that meant they must care for the poor, even if that meant they limited their own profits.
New Testament Grace
I once had a conversation with one of those Christians who were concerned about focusing too much on the poor. They saw it as part of the “liberal agenda” and something to be avoid. I pointed out this passage in Leviticus and he responded with, “That’s in the Old Testament, we don’t have to do that anymore.”
There are certain Old Testament laws that we don’t follow as Christians. Many of us eat pork and shellfish and do not try and avoid work on a Saturday. So does that mean that our obligation to help the poor has also ended?
Helping the poor and needy is not something limited to the Old Testament. Jesus spent much of his time, not only helping such people but commanding his followers to do the same thing. In the parable of the sheep and the goats, the criteria for this division is based on how we treat those in need. It is actually rather frightening. As I have read through the Gospels, there is no way that I can understand helping the poor as optional.
This brings us to the Apostle Paul. What were his thoughts. Paul records his meeting with the other apostles and this is what he shares, “All they asked was that we should continue to remember the poor, the very thing I had been eager to do all along.” (Galatians 2:10)
If you read through Paul’s letters, you will find repeated mention of a collection for Jerusalem. This was a collection for the poor, specifically Jewish Christians in Jerusalem. Here is what is interesting. It was Jewish Christians in Jerusalem that were continually causing problems for Paul. This collection was not an attempt to buy off the Jerusalem crowd as Paul knew they would never accept his style of ministry. He did it because it was the right thing to do.
It is clear that we are all supposed to help the poor and needy. But what does that look like. I think it looks different for everyone. Some people are gifted with money and they can be generous in that way. The principle we find in Leviticus is that those who had grain fields were generous in that way and those with vineyards were generous in that way. The first step that we need to take is to look at what we have been given. Is it money or time or relationships or connections or food? It may be that all we have are our prayers. The point is to give from what we have been given.
God is a holy God and we have been called to be a holy people. Of course holiness includes avoiding certain sins. But it is also about doing what is right, specifically taking care of those in need. God takes care of us in our need. The least we can do is to take care of those that God brings into our life.