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Tithes and Loans

More ways to help the poor.

Caring for the Poor (6)

“At the end of every third year you shall bring out the tithe of your produce of that year and store it up within your gates. And the Levite, because he has no portion nor inheritance with you, and the stranger and the fatherless and the widow who are within your gates, may come and eat and be satisfied, that the LORD your God may bless you in all the work of your hand which you do.” Deuteronomy 14.28, 29

According to the Law of God, charity is an important tool for helping to meet the needs of the poor in local communities. It is a necessary supplement to dignified work and is the duty of all members of the community.

Charity, by definition, is not something which can be coerced; charity must not be confused with taxation. It should be seen to be a community responsibility in which all are encouraged to share.

Freely giving to relieve the needs of those who are truly poor is a measure of justice—both obligatory and distributive justice—which helps to ensure that neighbor-love will be a defining characteristic of any community. To neglect charity, or to substitute taxation for charity, is to short-circuit the practice and flourishing of love, and does not reflect the intent of the Law of God.

Charity in ancient Israel
In ancient Israel charity toward the poor was practiced through tithes and offerings, distributed by the spiritual leaders—priests, Levites, and judges or elders—of each community. A part of the regular offerings of the people was set aside to be available to the poor, widows, orphans, and sojourners.

In addition, every three years the communities of ancient Israel took up a special offering to replenish their “community chests” of goods. At least some of these resources were made available for the needs of the poor.

This measure seems to have been more along the lines of what many communities practice today, through the charitable services and free goods we typically see today in many cities and counties. By soup kitchens, food pantries, and clothes closets, the poor are provided for on a short-term basis.

Such charitable efforts must not be the only means of meeting the needs of the poor; nor should they be the first line of defense. As we have seen, helping the poor to find meaningful and productive work is the first obligation of any community toward its poor neighbors.

Short-term, interest-free loans could also be used to care for those who had fallen on hard times (Ex. 22.25, 26). These appear to have been personal loans between friends or family members or close neighbors and were to be repaid without interest and in a timely manner. Those who loaned to the poor were not to charge interest, except possibly a fee to cover the lost opportunity costs the loan would incur.

Churches and public policy
Neighbor-love requires that communities accept responsibility to care for the needs of the poor among them. This is a responsibility we should expect all churches to embrace. And, indeed, many churches recognize caring for the poor, if only among their own members, as an important part of their ministry, either through the efforts of individual congregations or through church-supported mercy ministries and relief agencies

Local non-faith-based charities also exist to help in this area, and depend on the gifts of individuals and corporations to fulfill their missions. These also should be supported and assisted by the members of the Christian community.

In caring for the poor, public policy should perhaps be more by consensus than legislation. But for such a consensus to exist, some will have to argue its position and demonstrate their commitment to what is proposed. This is an area where churches and believers individually can lead in their communities without having to invoke the aid of local government.

Policies that seek to address the needs of the poor will work best when they follow Biblical guidelines. Practices to relieve the poor fail the test of justice when they (1) treat the poor indiscriminately, on the basis of income or wealth only; (2) deny the dignity of the poor by failing to create opportunities for work; (3) make the poor dependent on government programs and largesse; (4) violate the property rights of the non-poor (as through taxation); (5) create a class of people who make their living on the poor or on being poor; (6) create a political environment which either encourages poverty or links it to political power; or (7) bypass or supplant local agencies in offering solutions to the needs of the poor.

Community leaders and agencies should carefully monitor the presence and needs of the poor to encourage a public policy framework for individuals, corporations, and private charitable agencies to do the work for which they are best fitted. Work, charity, and short-term financial assistance are all valid and important ways to bring justice to the poor and practice neighbor-love with those in need.

For reflection
1. Caring for the needs of the poor provides churches an excellent opportunity to practice what Jesus taught in John 17.21-23. Why is this important?

2. In his book, Ministries of Mercy, the late Tim Keller called for deacons in churches to work together in caring for the poor. Does this exist in your community? Do you think the deacons of your church would be open to it? Why or why not?

3. As you see it, how could your community improve the services it offers to the poor and needy?

Next steps—Preparation: Pray for the poor and needy in your community, and for the various ministries and agencies that serve them.

T. M. Moore

What is the place of the Law of God in the Christian’s life? Our book, The Ground for Christian Ethics, answers this question and shows us again why Jesus taught us that keeping the Law is an indispensable part of our calling in God’s Kingdom. Order your copy of The Ground for Christian Ethics by clicking here. To gain a better understanding of how the Law of God applies in daily life, order a copy of our book, A Kingdom Catechism, by clicking here.

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Except as indicated, all Scriptures are taken from the New King James Version. © Copyright 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

T.M. Moore

T. M. Moore is principal of The Fellowship of Ailbe, a spiritual fellowship in the Celtic Christian tradition. He and his wife, Susie, make their home in the Champlain Valley of Vermont.
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