Summary: We need to redirect our culture away from ourselves to the needs of others and the glory of God. Culture must not be used merely for self-interest.
The readings we heard from Deuteronomy 15:1-11 and Acts 4:32-37 this evening talk about how the Christian community is supposed to act. The events in the reading from Acts take place immediately after the coming of the Holy Spirit. The people had an uncommon experience of the life and death of Jesus and they met to talk about what these events meant. As they witnessed to each other, the power of the Holy Spirit came into them and sent them out to witness before the world. This witnessing included serving the poor just like Jesus did. It became the mission of the early church. The power of the resurrection commanded such a consuming loyalty that people gave everything they had to the church and its mission, thereby welding their future to that of the church.
Both Moses and Jesus told us that the poor will always be with us. Consequently, we must always be generous. As children of the one true God-who loves to provide everything we need-the Lord encourages us to give generously to the poor. He blesses us so we can bless others.
In Deuteronomy 15:1-11, Moses taught that helping the poor is an issue of the heart. In Moses' mind, an open heart led to an open hand. Jesus also stated that wherever our treasures are, there our hearts will be. Moses stated that because the poor will always be with us, they will always need help from the wealthy, and the needs of the poor are to be met gladly and generously.
That did not meant that there would be free handouts to anyone who wanted them. The poor generally had to work for their keep. In this way they kept a sense of dignity and kept their work habits intact. The laws requiring landowners not to harvest all their grain-to ;eave grain and dropped bundles of harvest, as well as grapes on the vine and olives in the tree-allowed the poor to have something to glean and thus, through honest labour, to provide for their needs. After all, the land belonged to God, as did all the harvest he provided.
The covenant laws regarding poverty were so extensive that obedience to them would eventually root out poverty. What if our society followed these laws? Wouldn't other nations think our way of ordering society was best? Justice is seen in the way a nation treats its weakest members. Think of how an attitude like this would impact our churches. Infighting would stop, and rumours would end. Vision would move from paper to practice. Needs would be met. Spiritual gifts would be exercised. Our communities would see that God is doing powerful work among his people.
In Old Testament times, every seventh year was to be a jubilee year. During jubilee years, debts were to be forgiven, servants were to be set free and fields were to be left unplanted. It was assumed that debtors were poor Israelites who borrowed money to feed their families. Jubilee years proclaimed God's grace. The Israelites had the view that the poor were to be given whatever they needed, even though such "loans" would never need to be paid back. Their attitude was one of warmth and generosity, especially with the realization that there would always be poor people in Israel.
Do we have a similar attitude today? When do we look at the poor through God's eyes? When do those who have plenty make sacrifices that really cost something? Moses told the Israelites to open their hands wide to the poor, and God expects us to do the same. When we do, God will bless us. If we give merely to get a blessing, that is the wrong motive. We have to give in order to be a blessing, and if we are a blessing to others, God will bless us.
A closed hand is a grasping hand or a fist. It turns inward. It also represents an attitude of calculation. The wealthy in Israel were not to hold back on lending to the poor, especially as the jubilee year drew near. Instead, they were to give generously. Then they would honour God and be blessed.
An open hand is an offering hand. It says, "Welcome!". It lets go of hostilities and is open to receiving whatever other people offer. We receive with open hands from our Creator and Sustainer, and we openly offer to others what we have received.
The audience in the reading from Acts is a good example of what the Christian community should be-a serving community. They shared what they had, thereby following the old saying, "From each according to his ability, to each according to his need". We are called to minister to the needy, because when we look at the needy, we see the face of God. Until Christianity began, the poor were thought of as victims of cruel destiny.