Sunday, August 25, 2019

The Ideal and the Reality

“There will be no poor among you; for the Lord will bless you in the land that the Lord your God is giving you for an inheritance to possess ...”

“There will never cease to be poor in the land.”

It is impossible to argue that the glaring contradiction between the quotes above can be explained away by assigning them to different dispensations (or covenants, if you prefer), by pointing out that they were written by different writers at different times for different audiences, or even (if we’re totally desperate to be done with the issue and silly enough to throw inspiration under the bus), by contending that one or another of them is mistaken.

None of the usual explanations work.

You Always Have the Poor

In fact, both these statements were made by the same writer within the same context, reporting the same speech from the same man, and all within a span of eight verses. It is impossible he didn’t notice that he appears to have Moses arguing with himself, and it is equally impossible his audience, either at the time or since, would not have pointed this out to him in the event he did somehow miss it. So it’s not a mistake.

And yet, either there will be “no poor” among you or else there will “never cease to be poor” among you. We cannot have it both ways. It’s a real poser.

We should probably note that Jesus weighed in on the issue, agreeing with the second proposition. “You always have the poor with you,” he observed. If it’s not a direct quote from Deuteronomy, it certainly relies on OT teaching for its authority, as is the case with so very many statements the Lord Jesus made. And, if we are honest, as we look around, we can say that not only did this truth apply to ancient Israel and first century Judea, but it is very much the case today. We have plenty of poor in the land, despite taxes, numerous government programs, loving or enabling relatives, food banks, church charities, secular charities and every conceivable attempt to alleviate the problem of poverty. We always have had. There have been times in human history when nearly everyone was poor, but there has never been a single moment when nobody was.

A Conditional Promise

If verse 11 is unarguably the case, and always has been, what then do we do with verse 4? Well, we should probably note that the statement is not an observation or a prophecy, it is a conditional promise. It is followed by the words “if only” and the following condition:
“… if only you will strictly obey the voice of the Lord your God, being careful to do all this commandment that I command you today.”
Verse 4, then, is a declaration of God’s original intention. It is what God would have liked to have done for Israel. He would have preferred there be no poor among them. He contemplated for them the possibility of a perfect society. An ideal. Moreover, he even gave them conditions under which that perfect society could be realized. All it would take was the cooperation of each individual Israelite in obeying the Law he had given them.

Well, we know how that goes. And so did God. But what I want to notice here is that scripture frequently follows this pattern. It states God’s ideal, then afterward provides the necessary accommodation for the reality that human beings would inevitably fail to abide by it. In this case, God’s remedy took the form of a seventh-year debt “sabbatical”, in which all outstanding debt would be forgiven. In God’s grace, the poor man in Israel, whether impoverished through bad judgment, laziness or just plain misfortune, was not left indefinitely with his face to the floor.

Though he was never supposed to exist in the first place, God made sure that if and when he showed up, the poor man would be taken care of.

Anticipating Failure

Similar accommodations are made for human failure in other areas. For example, God’s ideal was that marriage be a life-long union, but in the event that one of the marriage partners failed to respect it, there were, built into the law, better and worse ways to deal with a partner’s having not attained to the ideal.

Likewise, God’s preference was to bless Israel within the borders of Canaan. Ideally, once brought into their promised land, God’s people would never again leave it. And yet, knowing them all too well, he gave them instructions about how to behave in exile when they inevitably found themselves there.

Again, Israel is urged repeatedly not to “turn aside to the right hand or the left” from all that God had commanded them. That’s was God’s preference. But the vast percentage of sacrifices and offerings mandated for Israel were God’s acknowledgment that his people would be turning aside to the right and to the left on a regular basis.

The People Play Their Part

But the remedy for this anticipated failure was not simply some unilateral act of God magically setting all things to rights. Others had a part to play.

In Israel, relief for the poor depended on debtholders respecting God’s sabbatical remedy. If they did not, the poor remained in their misery. For a sinning spouse, relief from shame and ignominy depended on the injured party behaving righteously. In Babylon, Judah’s fate was in the hands of her captors regardless of how righteously and helpfully the exiles behaved. And the repentant sinner bringing his offering depended on a morally-functioning priesthood to obtain the relief he sought. Sometimes, sadly, that was not available.

In every case, sin took the sinner out of the enjoyment of God’s intended blessing and put his or her fate in the hands of men, who may or may not choose to cooperate in the restoration process.

Similarly, in the New Testament, turning a fallen believer back into a fully-functioning member of the Body of Christ requires more than his or her repentance. That is certainly a necessary precondition, but it is not always enough. So Paul tells the Galatians, “if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness.” To the Corinthians he says, “For such a one, this punishment by the majority is enough, so you should rather turn to forgive and comfort him, or he may be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow. So I beg you to reaffirm your love for him.”

Restoring and Reaffirming

How do we “restore” and “reaffirm”? Well, that generally involves taking the initiative, doesn’t it. When the prodigal son’s father saw him coming, he didn’t wait for him in the drawing room, peering at him through the window. Rather, “while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him.” That tells us two things: (1) His father was looking for him. He had never lost hope. (2) His father was ready to respond to the slightest indication of repentance by making restoration easier.

There is great blessing to be enjoyed by discerning God’s original intentions and conforming our lives to his ideals. And it can be done, relatively speaking. Nevertheless, just as there will never cease to be poor in the land, until the Lord Jesus returns, there will never fail to be sin among the people of God. It is not unexpected. It is not beyond remedy.

God has always looked for ways to make bad situations better. But improving the condition of men and women crippled by sin requires the rest of us to think the way God does.

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