For years now our church has been working with Safe Families for Children, learning about poverty through the Chalmers Center, and like all churches, we’ve had regular walk-ins, people in need of financial help. One of the lessons that stands out in these ministries is that a person can quickly find herself or himself in profound trouble if they lack some kind of support structure. A family or church or community of people who know them. When you have that structure there’s a hundred ways you’re helped in life. Harvard sociologist Robert Putnam calls this “Social capital.”1 You have physical capital—machines and land. There’s human capital—the people you have to work with. But then there’s “Social capital.” That web of relationships that help you throughout life in a thousand ways, many you don’t even think about.
Circumstances and sins—yours or someone else’s—can take away “social capital.” When that happens life gets really challenging.
This morning we’re looking at Deuteronomy. The picture it gives of a kind of society where the most vulnerable have their needs met.
In many ways the Lord is placing each of his people in a community where they will have a huge amount of “social capital.” The ones who are most vulnerable will have “social capital” when normal means of provision aren’t there.
These most vulnerable in the Bible are what one author called “The Quartet of the Vulnerable”—the Sojourner, the Fatherless, the Widow, the Poor.
In an ancient culture these are the people that will be without land and the ability to make a good living. They are the ones that others will be tempted to exploit and ignore and overlook.
Nicholas Wolterstorff’s Justice: Rights and Wrongs:
Why the quartet of the vulnerable?....The widows, the orphans, the resident aliens, and the impoverished were the bottom ones, the low ones, the lowly. That is how Israel’s writers spoke of them. Given their position at the bottom of the social hierarchy, they were especially vulnerable to being treated with injustice. They were downtrodden, as our older English translations nicely put it. The rich and powerful put them down, tread on them, trampled them. Rendering justice to them is often described as “lifting them up.”… Injustice is not equally distributed. The low ones enjoy those goods to which they have a right—food, clothing, voice, security, whatever—far less than do the high and mighty ones….For any society whatsoever, it is likely that those at the bottom are suffering the most grievous injustice.
- Nicholas Wolterstorff, Justice: Rights and Wrongs2
God: the Center of It All. To live with God at the center means we are building the kind of community together he would want us to build.
What kind of community is God asking his people to build? It’s one where the Most Vulnerable are protected, provided for, and able to enjoy the blessings of God along with their fellow brothers and sisters. We’ll see that by looking at four things:
I should say at the start here that for every question I answer, ten more take its place. These passages take us into the realm of immigration policy, generational cyclical poverty, adoption and orphan-care, welfare reform, and probably hints at things like racism and intersectionality. Broadly the sermon is about issues of social justice.
Read 10:12–19 and pray.
The opening question in Deut 10:12 is answered in the rest of this chapter and the next one.
Moses as a good pastor over his people is clear about what’s required. But he writes to affect us and not just inform us. To affect us and shape our thinking and behavior he wants us to lift our gaze to the Lord himself. What kind of God is this that we love and worship and obey? He is a God unlike any other! Deut 10:17.
In Deut 10:14 we read that “to the LORD your God belong heaven and the heaven of heavens, the earth with all that is in it.”
In Deut 10:17 he’s “God of gods.” No other Egyptian or Canaanite god has any real claim to be called a “god.” Only “the El,” the true God of all so-called gods.
He’s “Lord of lords.” All the human leaders that rise up and declare themselves great. They’re just one in a long line of people who will bow before the true “Lord of lords.”
He’s “the great, the almighty, and the awesome God.” Supreme and transcendent in every way.
This is also a God of perfect justice, “who is not partial and takes no brige.”
But then the doxology turns in a surprising direction. We would expect a God so exalted to identify with mountains, kings, armies, angels, wealth, the powerful.
But instead this God identifies with the vulnerable, the lowly. Deuteronomy 10:18.
Chris Wright says on this, “Nothing could be more characteristic of Israel’s ‘counter-cultural’ faith” (Deuteronomy, 149).
And Tim Keller in his book Generous Justice adds to this idea:
It is striking to see how often God is introduced as the defender of these vulnerable groups. Don’t miss the significance of this… Realize how significant it is that the Biblical writers introduce God as “a father to the fatherless, a defender of widows” (Ps 68:4–5). This is one of the main things he does in the world. He identifies with the powerless, he takes up their cause…. From ancient times, the God of the Bible stood out from the gods of all other religions as a God on the side of the powerless, and of justice for the poor.
- Tim Keller, Generous Justice
Then in Deuteronomy 10:19 we see that WE are to imitate that divine concern. God “loves the sojourner” and then commands us to do th same.
The sojourner was someone from another land, another culture, another race, another culture. They had no “social capital.” For various reasons they were now in Israel. This God of gods and Lord of lords was now calling them not to despise or reject them but to “love the sojourner” (Deut 10:19).
Deuteronomy has a tension. It holds out an Ideal but it also dwells in Reality.
In this chapter the Ideal is in v. 4, “There will be no poor among you.” There’s no poor if God’s people obey his voice and walk in the LORD’s blessings (vv. 5–6). That’s the Ideal.
But the Reality is there as well in v. 11, “There will never cease to be poor in the land.”3 Moses knows—either prophetically or because he knows his people—that they simply won’t always walk in the blessing of the Lord and there will always be some who are poor.
What is God’s provision for these poor in the land? Part of his plan for their provision is the Openhearted Generosity of his people. “Social Capital” wasn’t the invention of Harvard sociologists. It’s been God’s plan from the beginning!
In chapter 15 what’s given is called the Sabbatical Year. Every 7th year there is to be a “release” for debtors toward their creditors.
This release isn’t exactly clear. There are three possibilities: (1) Release what is being held in pledge, (2) release the debtor from a 7th year of payments, or (3) cancel the debt completely.4 A reprieve for one year in seven is a huge help to a debtor trying to get back on his feet. Your pledge was often land or even yourself. Having that pledge back meant more ability to make income. All of these gave someone indebted more ability to catch up.
The release must be given between Jews. But a Jew isn’t commanded to extend this “release” to “a foreigner” (v. 3).
But this 7th year arrangement isn’t to be something that’s purely legal or contractual. It’s meant to be part of a generous heart toward your fellow Jews.
This is where it goes from an external command to Openhearted Generosity.
15:7–11 unpack for us what a generous heart looks like. He’s really presenting the whole nation as if it’s a family. As you would treat a family member, so you treat your fellow Jew. The calling is to be “softhearted and openhanded” (Block, 368).
In v. 11, the pronouns in the Hebrew are powerful. He describes those in need in the nation in very personal terms. The ESV has left out some of these pronouns. It’s easier to see in the NASB:
“For the poor will never cease to be in the land; therefore I command you, saying, ‘You shall freely open your hand to your brother, to your needy and poor in your land.’” (NASB, Deut 15:11)
When you see the poor described this way and our help, it’s clear God is describing a kind of community and no government bureacracy. It’s a community of mutual concern and mutual involvement.
The last thing we want to see here is the motivation the Lord provides. Why is it that we should be so generous to our brothers and sisters in need?
Because the Lord promises to bless you if you do! Deuteronomy 15:10.
Now we turn to what could be called “Social Justice.” The kind of “justice” described here isn’t what we typically think of. Here we’ll jump ahead to Deuteronomy 24. Start with Deuteronomy 24:17–18; 27:19.
“Justice” in these verses is both “courtroom justice” and the idea of having a right to something that you should be given. In a courtroom a judge is being commanded here to decide the case on its merits, not based on the importance of the accuser or the accused.
There’s a huge emphasis throughout the OT on judges not taking bribes and deciding cases without partiality. That’s the kind of person you want as judge. “Cursed” are all others (Deut 27:19).
But even in this verse there’s a hint that “justice” is about more than good courtroom decisions. A woman without a “garment” would be perceived as an immoral woman. To grant her this “garment” is to respect her dignity as a woman (Block, NIVAC, 571). Justice here sees her dignity as something important, not just the financial arrangement she’s in.
But then in the rest of the passage a whole other side of justice opens up. Deut 24:19–22.5
Now we see that justice isn’t only courtroom justice, but social justice is tied to providing for the Quartet of the Vulnerable.
True with God himself. Remember Deut 10:17–18.
We tend to think of justice and mercy as two very different things. But in this community of concern the Lord is presenting, they are closely connected. Justice in 24:17 is closely tied to Provision in 24:19–22.
Tim Keller, Generous Justice—note the name of the book!—he says:
The mishpat, or justness, of a society, according to the Bible, is evaluated by how it treats these groups. Any neglect shown to the needs of the members of this quartet is not called merely a lack of mercy or charity, but a violation of justice, of mishpat. God loves and defends those with the least economic and social power, and so should we. That is what it means to “do justice.”
- Tim Keller, Generous Justice
Notice HOW the Lord provides for the vulnerable ones.
He speaks of these crop gleanings as “for” these vulnerable ones. They aren’t yours but are “for” these others in your midst. Who owns these crops? Not just the farmer whose name is on the deed of the land. These crops also belong to the sojourner, the orphan, the widow.
Subtle reminder of a key OT truth. All the land belongs to the Lord. He gives it to his people for their use. But it all belongs to him. And so he can say that while most of a field is “FOR” the farmer himself and his family, some of it is “FOR” the sojourner, the orphan, the widow.6
And also, notice there’s no handouts here. You don’t harvest them and then give the harvest to the poor. You don’t give them handouts. Instead, the poor harvest these crops themselves. Leave them in the field and let them do the work. This is different than a handout. The part of the field that is “for” them is harvested by them. It is a small picture of Paul’s words in 2 Thessalonians: “If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat” (3:10).
This kind of community is “counter-cultural.” Doesn’t fit easily into our modern categories of “liberal,” “progressive,” “conservative.” Certainly not Republican or Democrat.
In helping the poor and vulnerable, there’s often two broad approaches. One way is to make it all about personal responsibility. You reap what you sow. It’s all up to you.
A second way is through income redistribution. Those with more should give to those with less. We’ll draw a line somewhere in the middle to distinguish between having more and having less.
Deuteronomy is pointing to a third way. Accountability + Generosity.
Accountability and the personal responsibility side is here. It’s here because the goal here is not TOTAL EQUALITY WITH WEALTH. The Lord is not trying to make it so that all his people make $60k a year and have a nice house and two cars. There are rich and poor even in this kind of community of mutual concern.
But the Lord is making a way so that the poor have what they need and those in debt have a way out. It’s an oppressive situation.
There’s one final point to make from Deut 24:17–22. It’s the motivation given. Why should Israel seek to build this kind of community of mutual concern? It’s in Deut 24:18.
They must remember the story of redemption they’re a part of!
Listen to Chris Wright on this:
Such community care is itself dependent on corporate awareness of the grace of God. Twice Israel is reminded here of the exodus and its proof of God’s generosity to Israel in its time of utter need (24:18, 22). When Israel forgot its history, it forgot its poor. The prophets have to remind them of both. It is not surprising either that in modern Western culture, which has systematically been squeezing the biblical God out of its definition of reality and truth, there is a corresponding resurgence of callousness toward the vulnerable….The portrait of a caring society in these chapters is of a society with a memory at the center of its whole system of moral and social values and norms—the memory of God and God’s power.
- Chris Wright, Deuteronomy7
When we think about the “Quartet of the Vulnerable” within the church several things stand out.
One is that the context is now a CHURCH and not the NATION of Israel. The church is still concerned with sojourners, widows, orphans, the poor.
But now we express that concern in the context of the community of the church.
Christians are still active in society outside the church. But applying the principles of God’s Word gets harder and harder the move we get beyond the individual, the family, and the church.
But within the church we see this same community of concern:
And all who believed were together and had all things in common. 45 And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. (Acts 2:44–45)
So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith. (Gal 6:10)
But as in Deuteronomy, helping is not purely a matter of handouts.
For even when we were with you, we would give you this command: If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat. (2 Thess 3:10)
And with the sojourners, not only do we welcome all nations, all races, into the church, but we even make ourselves sojourners for the gospel. The church is sent out into “all nations” to “make disciples” (Matt 28:19–20).
As in Deuteronomy, “justice” is to be given to the poor. James 2:1–13 – “Show no partiality” to the rich or the poor and so “make distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts.” In this way “you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
The context is different now—the church and not a single nation. But in other ways it’s the same. God’s people are to create the kind of community of concern we see in the Word of God.
The seven principles these three passages have taught us:
Some practical ways to start from members of our Side-by-Side team:
But where we want to finish is by thinking of the ULTIMATE ANSWER. We are not the ultimate answer for people’s problems. No church is the answer. And certainly no political party or social movement.
The ULTIMATE ANSWER for all people is the Lord Jesus Christ. Before Jesus, we are all the most vulnerable. Without Jesus we have nothing.
Without Jesus we will face a horrible judgment before the “God of gods and Lord of lords” who accepts no briges and is partial to no one.
This means we can never look at the plight of another person and boast in ourselves. As if we have it all together. As if we have what they need. We don’t.
But we know the person who does. Jesus alone.
It’s this Jesus we want the world to know in our community of concern. It’s the Christ who proclaimed this for all the world to hear:
18 “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed,to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Luke 4:18–19)
Prayer and Closing Song.
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