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D'varim/Deuteronomy 15:11 For [the] poor will not cease from the midst of the land
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As we read through the Torah portion, this text immediately jars. Only a few verses ago, Moshe has told us "There shall be no needy among you" (D'varim 15:4, NJPS), but now he seems to be saying that there will always be poor people in the Land. Even the ancient Sages baulked at this, asking how both promises could be true. Perhaps we need to consider the surrounding context to understand better what is happening. Verse 4, the positive statement, is followed by two dependent clauses: the first one starts with the word , here translated 'since' or 'because' - there will be no needy people becauseHaShem will greatly bless you in the Land you are to possess; the second starts with the word , "if only" - "if only you heed the L-RD your G-d and take care to keep all this Instruction that I enjoin upon you this day" (15:5, NJPS). The blessing is contingent upon obedience and the "no needy people" is contingent upon the blessing.
Our text, the negative statement, is preceded by an exhortation not to withhold aid to the poor because of the imminence of the sabbatical year and is immediately followed by , 'therefore': therefore, this is why, "I have commanded you to open you your hand to the poor" (v. 11). Gunther Plaut suggests that this is "a realistic appraisal of Israel's limited capacity to live in all respects as a holy people." It is certainly going to happen, HaShem predicts, "so I am setting up a safety net that you must implement." Richard Elliott Friedman agrees: "I take that to mean that poverty will not just come to a stop on its own one day - without any action by humans ... there will be no poverty only if people act to end it."
So can we take this as just a matter of chance? TheRashbam cites the verse "For there is not one good man on earth who does what is best and doesn't err" (Ecclesiastes 7.20, NJPS) as if shrugging his shoulders, implying that poverty will inevitably happen sooner or later. Don Isaac Abravanel (as translated by Michael Carasik) goes even further down the road to random happenstance: "Riches are not guaranteed; today's rich man is tomorrow's poor man, so it is good to be generous. What goes around, comes around." What? Are these things not within our control? It appears that the Ramban doesn't think so either: ""Our verse does not mean that there will always be needy people, but that poverty and need can never be completely eliminated."
Far from simply accepting that "stuff happens", making the poor and needy nobody's fault, theSforno attempts to reconcile the two verses by telling us that "[verse 4] without a doubt transpired with the generation that entered the Land: 'Israel served the LORD during the lifetime of Joshua and the lifetime of the elders who lived on after Joshua' (Joshua 24:31, NJPS). [Verse 11] refers to the period of 'when I am dead, you will act wickedly and turn away from the path that I enjoined upon you' (D'varim 31:29, NJPS)." Sifrei comments, "So long as you perform G-d's will, there will be poor only among others, but when you do not perform G-d's will, the poor will also be among you" (Piska 118). Ibn Ezra rather bluntly claims that "G-d knew that a generation would one day arise in which the majority were no longer worthy of the situation described in verse four."
Modern commentators show the same range of opinion. On the one hand, Drazin and Wagner contrast the two statements - "Verse 4's 'there will be no needy among you' occurs when all Israelites obey the divine commands, while verse 11's 'there will never cease to be needy ones' is reflecting the situation when the Israelites do not obey the commands" - joined by Jeffrey Tigay who writes that "the realism of verse eleven contrasts with the ideal described in verse four. Since Israel will ultimately break faith with G-d, it will violate the conditions required for the elimination of poverty." On the other hand, Patrick Miller tries to say that , aretz, means the world/earth so to allow for poverty existing outside the Land even if the Israelites have their own act together in the Land,FoototeRef(1) while Christopher Wright proposes "the realistic assumption [is] that there will be those who need special care and attention in society because of hardship and need."2 Verse 11 may be more realistic but, Peter Craigie suggests that "there need not be poor people in the land, for the L-rd will certainly bless you."3
It is possible that these commands, embedded as they are in the details of the sabbatical year, to provide for the poor and needy, might have slipped away into history if three of the four gospels hadn't recorded Yeshua quoting our text. The context is of a woman - although the gospels differ as to exactly who she was, they agree that the event took place at somebody's house in Bethany in the week before Yeshua's last Passover - anointing Yeshua with expensive perfume. Someone - Matthew says it was the disciples, Mark someone in the crowd, John that it was Judas - complained that this was a waste as the money could have been given to the poor. Yeshua responds that, on the contrary, she is anointing Him for burial - something the Jewish world considered an important part of burial ritual - and says "the poor you will always have with you" (Matthew 26:11, Mark 14:3, John 12:8). He is surely right - despite the material affluence of western society and the obvious opulence and wealth to be seen in the lives of a few - the poor and needy remain a significant part of our societies until this very day.
Luke presents the first congregations in Jerusalem acting to fulfill the original Torah mandate, "And all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need" (Acts 2:44-45, ESV), so that they found great favour with all the people and "the L-rd added to their number day by day those who were being saved" (v. 47, ESV). Where there was a need, the community moved to meet it by selling their possessions and sharing. Two chapters later, Luke is even more specific: "There was not a needy person among them, for as many as were owners of lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold and laid it at the apostles' feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need" (4:34-35, ESV). So much so that one "Joseph, who was also called by the apostles Barnabas (which means son of encouragement), a Levite, a native of Cyprus, sold a field that belonged to him and brought the money and laid it at the apostles' feet" (vv. 36-37, ESV). These are very important snapshots for the Body of Messiah because they show us that the early disciples of Yeshua really put their money where their mouth was: they not only spoke of love and brotherhood, they acted in love and brotherhood. Clearly, however, not everyone gave everything they had else - when everything had been consumed - no-one would have had the means of earning money to support those who now had nothing.
Many followers of Yeshua followed this example in the early days, providing food and hospitality, clothes and funds, to itinerant workers and evangelists sharing the gospel as they travelled around the Roman empire. Some years later, another of the apostolic writers framed the practice in specific words: "If anyone has the world's goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does G-d's love abide in him? Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth" (1 John 3:17-18, ESV). Connecting with Yeshua's own parable of the sheep and the goats, this make it clear that we cannot turn our backs on others and love G-d at the same time. Time and again, as people gave, the L-rd multiplied what they offered, stretching meals and funds to accomplish His purposes without depriving the donors and often, perhaps in other ways, repaying them as Yeshua promised: "everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands, for My name's sake, will receive a hundredfold and will inherit eternal life" (Matthew 19:29, ESV).
On the other hand, just as there are poor people among us today, living on welfare and charity when they could earn, at least some of, their own livings, there was a certain level of abuse among the early congregations. Again, like us, there were some folk within the communities who could not work through various illnesses and disabilities; these folk were maintained and carried by their families, friends and congregations who all shared from their individual and communal resources to help out. At least in the West, most modern societies have a welfare system that carries those people who genuinely cannot work. Rav Sha'ul is very clear in his instructions to the believers in Thessalonica: they are to "aspire to live quietly, and to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands, as we instructed you, so that you may walk properly before outsiders and be dependent on no one" (1 Thessalonians 4:11-12, ESV). Where possible, each person is to do what they can, even if that is not much. Conversely, he was adamant about abuse, instructing, "If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat. For we hear that some among you walk in idleness, not busy at work, but busybodies" (2 Thessalonians 3:10-11, ESV). Not working and living at the expense of others - even the state - by choice is not to be tolerated among the peoples of G-d. Sha'ul tells them: "such persons we command and encourage in the Lord Yeshua the Messiah to do their work quietly and to earn their own living" (v. 12, ESV).
Given, then, that there will always be poor and needy people in our midst, and that there is not enough - even if every believer sold everything they had and reduced themselves to a state of penury - to relieve all the poverty in the world, what should we do? Give as the L-rd directs. If there is a person or a cause that the Spirit lays on your heart, then you should give generously without exposing yourself to financial ruin or insecurity so that you yourself need to receive charity to make ends meet. Reduce your consumption and live modestly so that you have funds available to share with those who have a genuine need. Be careful with your giving so that you are not taken advantage of by those who could support themselves but chose not to do so. Avoid professional fund-raisers and those who track, monitor and manage your giving in order to maximise and stimulate your contributions to their causes. Find ways to help others in kind - time, food or clothing - rather than simply money.
1. - Patrick D. Miller, Deuteronomy Interpretation (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2012), page 137.
2. - Christopher J. H. Wright, Deuteronomy (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2012), page 189.
3. - P. C. Craigie, The Book of Deuteronomy, NICOT, (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1976), page 237.
Further Study: Matthew 19:16-22; 2 Corinthians 8:13-15; Philippians 1:27
Application: What can you do - even if it seems small - to relieve the poor and needy in your land? Ask the Chief Accountant about the way you manage your finances to see if He can find a few "copper coins" (Mark 12:42) in your budget to advance the work of His kingdom.
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© Jonathan Allen, 2023
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