If there is among you anyone in need, a member of your community in any of your towns within the land that the Lord your God is giving you, do not be hard-hearted or tight-fisted toward your needy neighbor. You should rather open your hand, willingly lending enough to meet the need, whatever it may be. Be careful that you do not entertain a mean thought, thinking, “The seventh year, the year of remission, is near,” and therefore view your needy neighbor with hostility and give nothing; your neighbor might cry to the Lord against you, and you would incur guilt. Give liberally and be ungrudging when you do so, for on this account the Lord your God will bless you in all your work and in all that you undertake. Since there will never cease to be some in need on the earth, I therefore command you, “Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land.” --Deuteronomy 15:1-2, 7-11 (NRSV)
Then Jesus said, “There was a man who had two sons. The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.’ So he divided his property between them. A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. But when he came to himself he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.”’ So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. Then the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ But the father said to his slaves, ‘Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate.
“Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. He replied, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.’ Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. But he answered his father, ‘Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!’ Then the father said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.’” --Luke 15:11-32 (NRSV)
Grace and peace to you from God our Father, and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
It must have been tough to be a banker in Israel. Although one could get used to having that one day each week - that shabbat day, that seventh day - to stop and to rest. It was an entirely different thing to erase all debt every seven years. As a creditor, to simply eliminate any outstanding loan payments and entire loans beginning at midnight on the eve of each seventh year. Each jubilee year.
This command though was only part of a series of commands for Israel related to shabbat, to overall financial practices, and to sabbatical years - this series of biblical regulations that were part of what came to be known as the Holiness Code. Part of the collection of laws given to Israel by Moses at Sinai. Each seventh year - each sabbatical year - the land was to lie fallow. To rest. In the same year, any property that had been taken had to be returned to its original owners and heirs. All indentured service were to be freed. And, then, of course, all debt was to be erased. Gone.
It must have been tough to be a banker in Israel. In fact, it must have been tough to be someone in a position of power, someone controlling others, whether through owning debt, or taking property, or owning others - holding onto power was not an easy thing in Israel.
Because that’s exactly what God intended.
Over these past three weeks, as we’ve explored what it means to be keepers of the Sabbath. To stop. And to rest. Today, we come to the biggest of the three. The hardest of the three. The third aspect of Sabbath-keeping that really encompasses every element of this fourth commandment and, really, of all the commandments. As we’ve learned how important it is for us to stop and to rest. To remember who we are. And who God is. The text from Deuteronomy today is a striking illustration of the trust that the Israelites are invited to live in. Trust that we are invited to live in.
How hard it must have been for Israel! To go from years and generations of slavery to forty years of absolute trust and dependence on God in the wilderness. Then, to becoming landowners in Canaan, to begin forming and shaping their society and their ways of living together with all of the challenges and messiness that can bring. And, then, God calls for all debt to be erased every seventh year.
One has to wonder how that worked out? After all, isn’t it human nature to want to try to game the system? How might debtors respond? Would they somehow try to manipulate the process to ensure that the largest possible amount of debt remained by the end of that sixth year, so that it could be eliminated? Or how about those bankers? Perhaps they only made loans for six years, even reducing the total amounts they would lend, always with an eye for the seventh year - that sabbatical year.
But, isn’t that really the point? Because, in our human nature we try to find these work arounds. Because we are afraid. Afraid that things won’t work out. That we won’t have enough money. That God won’t provide. Even though God says God will. Even though our experiences prove otherwise.
God understands our mindset. The gradual way in which sin creeps in. How we become enticed to build ourselves up at the expense of others. To guard and to protect our worth. And to ignore the need of others. To amass power for ourselves and then to consolidate it. To use it to disempower and dehumanize others. God recognizes the human mindset. And calls it out. God calls out being tight-fisted and hard-hearted. Resenting those in need as though they are taking something away from us. Refusing to see each other as mutual caregivers, that we belong to each other and are to help one another in the same way that God helps us. Because there will always be need in the world. It is our human condition that ensures this.
It’s why the Sabbath command is so important. Because it reminds us that God is God and that we are not. And it leads us to trust. To trust in God, an abundant God, who will ensure that we are cared for. And who invites us to join with God in caring for each other and meeting each other’s needs.
Because this is the way of freedom. The way of freedom won for us in Christ. A freedom that is for everyone, regardless of financial worth or status. A freedom that disrespects power and control. A freedom that sees everyone and everything as coming from God’s creative hand. And as we live into our Jesus-won freedom. As the Spirit works in our hearts to deepen our faith, we grow in trust. Trusting God. That God will meet our needs. And that we are then free to meet the needs of others.
This is God’s ideal. That there be no separation between freedom and welfare. That the justness of a society is measured by its treatment of the dependent. The orphan. The widow. The foreigner. The poor. The lowly. As J. M. Hamilton writes on this chapter in Deuteronomy, “The view of human rights in the Bible ‘defines that treatment which the dependent has a right to expect of society and that treatment which society owes to the dependent.”
What a radical view of how we are to care for our neighbor and for the dependent in our society! That it is their right. And that it is an obligation by the community. What a radical view for a society - for our secular society - that has taken its cue from the Enlightenment, rather than from Scripture. Seeing human rights as things to be safeguarded from others rather than a set of obligations that is owed. How radical is that?
But, isn’t it this radical nature of God’s grace that we see in the story of the prodigal son? This young man who goes to his father and insists upon his inheritance. Who then takes it and squanders it in the worst way possible. Who ends up slopping pigs. So hungry that he even considers joining in and eating their food right along with them. Someone who has been a fool. Someone who has earned exactly where he’s ended up. Self-destructed. At the bottom. Where he deserves to be.
It’s interesting, isn’t it, to view this story with a Sabbath lens? As the young man returns home, still scheming how he might convince his father to take him back, his father sees him. Is overjoyed. And welcomes him in. The young man discovers that he is loved and claimed simply for being his father’s child. And he is given a place, working alongside his father, in freedom. Restored to wholeness. His older brother is offered this same place, but it’s so hard for him to let go of the false idea that his worth is measured in what he does. What he produces. What he earns. Instead of who he is - his father’s child.
It’s why the Sabbath is so important for us. If we cannot assess our value and our standing by how productive or how successful or how good we are, the invitation by God and the grace offered by God to simply abide in God’s love, to trust in God’s love - a love that claims us as God’s own - it can feel terrifying. And, perhaps, even a little offensive.
But, we, too, can move from slavery to freedom. We, too, can be awakened from death into life. We, too, can feel our joy made complete. We, too, can experience rest for our souls. If only we Stop! We rest! And we trust. And we let God meet us just as we are.
Preached July 28, 2019, at Grace & Glory Lutheran Church, Goshen, KY.
Readings: Deuteronomy 15:1-2, 7-11; Luke 15:11-32