Gleanings for the poor.

The ancient Israelites had a welfare system which God himself implemented:

“When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap to the very edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest.   Leave them for the poor and for the foreigner residing among you.   I am the Lord your God.”  (Leviticus 23:21)

In Leviticus 25 God also commands a year of Jubilee, where people are to return to their clans of origin, debts are forgiven and the imprisoned are to be set free.  One has to wonder why God made those commands.  What was His plan, His intention?

Let that simmer for a minute while we talk about something else.  In contemporary American churches there is a line of reasoning that goes like this:  some poor people are hard pressed and definitely deserving of charity, but other poor people choose to be poor and depend on the government, they “game” the system so that they are able to live quite comfortably without having to make much effort, and they ought to be cut off.  The idea is that there are some poor out there who would change their circumstances with the right support, and we need to cut off the undeserving poor so that we can help the poor who are able to be helped.  Oh, isn’t that thought tempting?  It has an allure, a taste which is so sweet when it leaves one’s lips.  But don’t fall for it- God himself made no division between the poor whom did or didn’t deserve to be helped.  In fact, God said something which seems to contradict that idea:

There will always be poor people in the land. Therefore I command you to be openhanded toward your fellow Israelites who are poor and needy in your land.   (Deuteronomy 15:11)

God doesn’t say, “be openhanded with the poor because in that way they will become middle class and productive to our society, but don’t bother with those who don’t show potential.”  God says, “there are always going to be poor”, and then commands the Israelites to be generous.  That makes me wonder if the generosity is not ever supposed to be about eliminating poverty, but about something else.  Perhaps the reason the generosity is commanded is not just for the benefit of the reciever, but for the benefit of the giver as well.  There are practical reasons to reduce the burdens of poverty:  reduction in crime, better standard of living for everyone, raising the bottom for the betterment of all society.  But, there’s something else there too:

 Those who give to the poor will lack nothing, but those who close their eyes to them receive many curses.  (Proverbs 28:27)

Maybe the reason generosity to the poor is commanded is not just about God’s love for the poor, but also about His love for the rich.  The Bible does say some very negative things about laziness, and curses for sluggards.  The poor who are poor by nature of their own choices have brought their own curses down on their heads.  They live out their punishment every day, there is no reason to bring further condemnation into the arena by judging them ourselves or withholing our aid because we feel they are undeserving. We should give freely and leave their punishment to their own hand, and their judgment to God.  You see, by giving we change ourselves.  We become more like Jesus, who died for the sins of an undeserving world.  The Bible is full of talk of the decietfulness of wealth and cautions against the love of money.  We should not love our money more than we love our fellow man.  We should be generous for the sake of generosity, but also understanding that through generosity with our money we purchase something that we could never buy through spending on ourselves.  Jesus understood this when he told the Parable of the dishonest manager, and cautioned that what is seen as shrewd in the eyes of man is detestable in God’s sight, and said:

“I tell you, use worldly wealth to gain friends for yourselves, so that when it is gone, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings.”  (Luke 16:9)

Often, I hear people decry the government instituting a welfare program because “it’s the job of the Church.”  That brings us into another argument about the Church and State and the contradiction of claiming that the government was instuted by God but somehow cannot do the Lord’s work, but that is a distraction.  All I really want to say is that we need to decide what matters as a society.  Why can’t we pay our taxes and bless them as they go, to honor God, and not begrudge the poor of our society the gleanings of capitalism?

‘Tis better to give

Inspired by comments on Angry African‘s latest post.

Why do people give to charity?  I’ve heard a lot of excuses.  A lot of rich people say that they feel an obligation to the society that allowed them to succeed and gain wealth- which may very well be true.  I’m sure the tax breaks and the status don’t hurt, either.  Poorer people give out of a recognition that there are those even more desperate.  Christian’s give because they feel it is their life calling. There is also belief in Karma- that all we give away is returned to us.  So some people give because they wish to receive, or they give because they already have received.  There are those who give when a life experience like a loved one being diagnosed with cancer brings to the forefront of their mind the need to establish foundations for those in need.

And then there are simply those who feel that being charitable should be a way of life.  Those who are motivated deeply by compassion for their fellow humankind.

Then there are those who make excuses.  There are those who say that it’s too hard to know where your money is going, and they don’t have the time to properly research.  There are those who say that by giving charitably you are taking away the impoverished man’s need to learn to care for himself.  There are those who say, “why delay the inevitable?  Allow nature to take it’s course.”  There are those who say that to be charitable is a calling- one they haven’t heard.  Better to leave the good deeds to those who are summoned for it.  There are those who say that charity is simply medicine for the conscience of the complicit, and not necessary for themselves.  There are those who say they don’t have enough time, enough money, enough passion.

Let God judge their hearts.

The ones who bother me the most are the ones who blame the charities.  The ones who talk about it being a bandaid on a deep bleed.  Why feed a child who will just starve later?  Why give clothes to someone who will always be jobless?  Why give medicine to the starving, the impoverished, the ones who will never do anything to better themselves?  Why save the unsalvable?

The basic premise of this sort of argument is that there is something inherintly unworthy about one class of people, but more worthy about another.  So why save the starving African orphans, who will likely always be impoverished and in need, instead of offering job training to poor people in one’s own country?  Well…  There are a few reasons.  The first is this:

  1. First I will acknowledge the fact that there are some nations where the problems of poverty and governmental corruption are so intertwined that it seems impossible to do anything to better the situations of the actual people involved.  I know that Mexico is like this- one can do very, very little to actually improve the lots of the poor.  All one really can do is give a little, year to year, day to day, and hope that it keeps them from dying.  Which is a tragedy.  It’s not the old axiom of “give a man a fish and he’ll eat for a day, teach a man to fish and he’ll eat forever”- they know how to fish, their governments just steal their fish.  So the question I ask in this situation is:  will you allow the corruption in the system to kill these people- or will you do as much as you can?
  2. I understand the reasoning- no matter how much money is thrown at some problems, they will persist.  So why even try?  Why not give money to a separate cause that has some greater hope of being eventually effective?  Well, it goes like this:  People in our country have options.  They have a government that has their back.  They can find someone to set up a nonprofit organization in their favor, they can apply for grants.  How is a starving African AIDS orphan going to do that?   Yes- I realize that people in my own country can only get that help if someone is willing to help them, and it may as well be me- but I tend to gravitate towards being sympathetic to the most urgent needs.  If the governments of some people will not stand for them, then someone else has to.  It might as well be you and I.

Ultimately there are a lot of ways to help.  If you want to be sure that all of your money goes towards helping someone who wants to help themselves, there’s always Kiva, which allows you to give a “micro loan” to someone who is trying to start a business.  A friend of mine gave $300 to a woman who wanted to start selling organic peanut butter, because he liked peanut butter- and it was a great experience.  There’s also the Heifer Project, another organization geared towards finding more long-term solutions to short-term problems.  I find that a lot of people complain about charity without actually informing themselves about what is out there and what they can really do.

So let me tell you: