The Political Church: Meeting God in the Torah, Part 2

Church StateBankruptcy

(Deu 15:1-2 ESV)  “At the end of every seven years you shall grant a release. 2 And this is the manner of the release: every creditor shall release what he has lent to his neighbor. He shall not exact it of his neighbor, his brother, because the LORD’s release has been proclaimed.”

God established a system that discharged all debt each seventh year — the Sabbath year. The result was to give each Israelite a fresh start, regardless of need — in many ways a much more generous system than the American bankruptcy system.

(Deu 15:7-11 ESV)  7 “If among you, one of your brothers should become poor, in any of your towns within your land that the LORD your God is giving you, you shall not harden your heart or shut your hand against your poor brother, 8 but you shall open your hand to him and lend him sufficient for his need, whatever it may be. 9 Take care lest there be an unworthy thought in your heart and you say, ‘The seventh year, the year of release is near,’ and your eye look grudgingly on your poor brother, and you give him nothing, and he cry to the LORD against you, and you be guilty of sin. 10 You shall give to him freely, and your heart shall not be grudging when you give to him, because for this the LORD your God will bless you in all your work and in all that you undertake.”

God furthers instructs his people to lend generously to the poor, even in the year immediately before the Sabbath year when debts are released. The idea seems to be that it’s better to lend than to give money, so the poor maintain their dignity and have the opportunity to pay back what they can.

Therefore, we see God recognizing the need to provide the poor with dignity, but also the need to keep debts from piling up so high they could never be repaid.

Justice

(Deu 16:11 ESV) “For there will never cease to be poor in the land. Therefore I command you, ‘You shall open wide your hand to your brother, to the needy and to the poor, in your land.'”

Jesus famously quoted v. 11 — “there will never cease to be poor in the land” — and many quote Jesus as though this teaches the futility of serving the poor and thus eliminates any obligation to them. Of course, in context, God was saying exactly the opposite: “You shall open wide your hand to your brother, to the needy and to the poor.”

Again, we see God’s special concern for the weak and vulnerable in society, here described as “needy” and “poor.” It’s likely been true in every society, even in the Promised Land, that the poor cannot stand up for themselves and so must have others to stand up for them.

(Deu 16:18-20 ESV) 18 “You shall appoint judges and officers in all your towns that the LORD your God is giving you, according to your tribes, and they shall judge the people with righteous judgment. 19 You shall not pervert justice. You shall not show partiality, and you shall not accept a bribe, for a bribe blinds the eyes of the wise and subverts the cause of the righteous. 20 Justice, and only justice, you shall follow, that you may live and inherit the land that the LORD your God is giving you.”

Of course, God’s justice extends to judicial justice as well. God repeatedly requires judges to judge as he judges — impartially.

(Deu 17:18-20 ESV)  18 “And when he sits on the throne of his kingdom, he shall write for himself in a book a copy of this law, approved by the Levitical priests. 19 And it shall be with him, and he shall read in it all the days of his life, that he may learn to fear the LORD his God by keeping all the words of this law and these statutes, and doing them, 20 that his heart may not be lifted up above his brothers, and that he may not turn aside from the commandment, either to the right hand or to the left, so that he may continue long in his kingdom, he and his children, in Israel.”

If the people choose to be ruled by a king, the king must make a copy of the law with his own hand and rule under the law. Contrary to the law of many of the surrounding nations, the king of Israelite ruled under the law — he is not the law himself. Law comes from God.

Labor law

(Deu 24:14-15 ESV) 14 “You shall not oppress a hired servant who is poor and needy, whether he is one of your brothers or one of the sojourners who are in your land within your towns. 15 You shall give him his wages on the same day, before the sun sets (for he is poor and counts on it), lest he cry against you to the LORD, and you be guilty of sin.”

Contrary to any notion of “freedom of contract,” God tells us not to use economic power to take advantage of the laborer.

Self-help

(Deu 24:19-22 ESV) 19 “When you reap your harvest in your field and forget a sheaf in the field, you shall not go back to get it. It shall be for the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow, that the LORD your God may bless you in all the work of your hands. 20 When you beat your olive trees, you shall not go over them again. It shall be for the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow. 21 When you gather the grapes of your vineyard, you shall not strip it afterward. It shall be for the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow. 22 You shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt; therefore I command you to do this.”

One part of the Torah’s welfare system was the gleaning system. Farmers were required to leave unharvested grain and grapes in the field and olives on the true so the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow could go behind the owner and pick the leftovers. Thus, the farmer made a donation to the poor, but the poor had to work for it — not as much as the farmer, but it wasn’t just handed to them.

Conclusions

Obviously, Israel and the United States are not the same. The US is not a theocracy and, even if it were, it wouldn’t be under the Law of Moses. Nonetheless, we can learn a lot about what’s important to God from the Torah.

God remains deeply concerned about the fatherless, the widow, the alien, the poor, and the needy. He is still concerned that they receive justice — both fair trials and help when they need it.

God encourages the forgiveness of debts and doesn’t want to see people overburdened with debt. God wants us to treat employees not only fairly, but with sensitivity to their relative poverty.

On the other hand, God also expects the poor to help themselves, but with the help of those who are better off.

Aliens are not to be discriminated against and are to be treated with compassion and justice. They are entitled to the same help as the native-born poor. But they may also be required to conform to local cultural norms. Many verses impose God’s commands on the sojourners without regard to whether they’ve converted to Judaism. (The question of whether aliens are legal or illegal is not addressed, but the principles are plain enough.)

There is nothing inherently ungodly in a governmental welfare system or in law that encourage the wealthy to help the poor. It’s quite legitimate to say that the poor and the needy are both the church’s problem and the government’s problem. It’s a problem for Christians to deal with as individuals — and for the church, as the spiritual Israel, to handle as an institution.

There are some needs that only individuals and the church can meet. There are some needs that the government meets best — particularly debt forgiveness and financial support for the most needy.

This doesn’t lead us to the perfect Christian bankruptcy law or the perfect Christian labor law. We no longer live in an agrarian society, and we are not part of a theocracy. Rather, we must look through the Torah to the principles behind the Torah — an abiding, intense love for those who can’t help themselves. And we need to fashion laws in the spirit of the Torah — that is, consistent with God’s revealed character — as we can.

Good Christians will disagree about how to do these things, but good Christians shouldn’t disagree over the need. For example, while Deuteronomy makes no distinction between illegal and legal aliens — the setting was radically different from our own — the principle is one of genuine, sacrificial love for those in need. How we do that is a matter that requires some discussion, but the need and motivation are clear enough.

You see, we presently have a system where Latin Americans cannot legally enter this country (there is no meaningful legal immigration option) and where we are doing very little to relieve their poverty where they are. It’s supercilious to argue that they should enter legally. Our absurd immigration laws don’t allow it, even when we have more jobs than people. Just so, it’s frivolous to argue that the Mexican’s problems aren’t our problems. Many are Christians — meaning they’re part of our own nation, a holy nation, a people called out — fellow citizens of heaven.

We don’t get to hide behind human borders to deny relief to the poor and needy. And when we realize that — when we escape the selfish, political argument that America is for Americans and we owe these people nothing — well, it becomes a much more difficult question.

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11 Responses

  1. In my opinion, the best thing the US can do for Mexicans is to provide economic opportunity inside Mexico. After all, they can’t all immigrate to the US (whether legally or not). That’s not a short term solution but I think it is the only viable long term solution.

  2. I find the whole Illegal Immigrant argument highly fascinating and sometimes amusing. Here in Virginia everyone complains about the illegals and everyone knows our local agribusiness economy would collapse if they actually packed up, apologized for the inconvenience and went home. We complain about them being here while we hire them to muck out the poultry houses and run the lines at the plant. And then we whine about the jobs they are taking from our own kids – the same ones we are borrowing rediculous amounts of dough to send through college so they never even see the inside of a chicken plant.

    Typical hypocrisy.

    No, love your neighbor, take care of the poor, don’t oppress your hired man, live the attitude of God.

  3. Very useful insights, Jay. Thank you.

    What jumps out to me is now God’s view gets away from a legalistic perspective. After all, a land owner has the right to “pick his land clean.” But God says, in effect, don’t get hung up on the details of what your rights are.

    More examples of how the spiritual perspective and worldly perspective are so different.

  4. Jay, this series presents the most thoughtful and accurate view of the biblical philosophy of government that I have read in quite some time. Thank you!

  5. This post was very, very convicting for me. For me, this might be your best post to-date.

  6. The futility of both of our political parties is enormous.

    The Democrats, in their lust for power, want to treat the “illegal” as a legal, and give full citizenship to them while they continue to spend the country into bankruptcy.

    The Republicans, in their lust for personal security, want to treat the poor as criminals for trying to care for their families.

    One lacks any sense of the inevitable collapse of the economy. The other lacks any compassion on people whose needs are great.

    The Christian way is neither of these. Jay, I believe you have laid out the principles of God’s way – but the details of how to put it into practice in our society at this time in our history are still murky.

    Jerry
    CommittedToTruth.WordPress.com

  7. The easiest thing to do is just kill off all the Amalekites, Hittites, Jebusites, Hivites and whatever other surounding nations there are–then there can’t be any illegal immigrants because nobody is left to imigrate. If you truly were to follow the Torah that would be your solution. But it is abominable blasphemy to even beleve that this stuff was really done or commanded by our God. Jesus said rightly to JAmes and John “ye know not what spirit ye are of” when they sougt to emulate the old testament attitude towards those who disagree in matters of religion. can you onyl imagine, jay, if the conservatives were to take your horrid advice and try to learn about god from the Torah? They would come and stone you as Deut 13 comands. thank God the only thing in the OT they believe in Nabad and Abihu means silence of scripture is authorityative.

  8. Jerry,

    I made a fair proposal: Rather than working through each of the many alleged contradictions in the Bible one at a time, pick the one or two that give you the most concern and let’s deal with them. I’m not interested in your taking dozens of pot shots. We could go on for months and accomplish very little.

    Let me put it this way: if these kinds of questions are the heart of what challenges your faith, which ones do I need to resolve to restore your faith? If this is just a game, be honest enough to say so. If these are truly the reasons you lost your faith say so. But I have no interest in dancing around the edges.

    Tell me honestly why you lost your faith — and let’s discuss it.

    PS — I’ll be on vacation starting Saturday and have to spend time getting ready. I may not be able to respond until the week after nest. I’m already largely not responding to comments just to cope with all I have to get done.

  9. I never said I lost my faith in Jesus. Just in inerrancy. I don’t see why anyone would believe that Jesus used to command genocide or that his Father did. “God is love unless you were a nonjew under the old testament” is just a silly doctrine. Inasmuch as Jesus himself indicates that Elijah called down fire from heaven to kill the 100 soldier by another spirit “ye know not what spirit ye are of” it is plain that Jesus saw parts of the old testament as wrong. And when Paul says “the letter kills” he means quite obviously that if we believe in inerrancy we will die spiritually because the letter is not inerrant.

    If you want to restore my faith in inerrancy then please explain how God who curses those who call evil good and good evil could do so himself. How could he praise killing your son or daughter for leaving Judaism and even command that you throw the first stone? and then also attack the notion of throwing a stone with he that is without sin cast the first stone? One of the images of God we are being presented in the scriptures must be false and John indicates this is the case when he says as he so often does but especially in John 1:18 no man has ever seen God but the onlybegotten son has declared him. God was not properly and correctly known by moses. that is why John says the law came by moses but grace and truth by Jesus Christ. otherwise, God surely hates the Maobite and will have eternal war with Amalek. As in Zecariah 14:21 there will no more be allowd a Canaanite in his house if these notions of God are accurate. Sadly many Christians take Zechariah 14 as a prophecy of the Messianic age and believe that this is about the church. does God ban the palestinians from the church? did Christ not die for them? or was Jesus right when he said all who came before him were theives and robbers.

  10. Jerry P,

    What law did Jesus come, not to abolish, but to fulfill?

  11. Jerry,

    I’ve never taken a position on inerrancy. You see, regardless of whether the scriptures are inerrant in fact, I’ve always considered it a blunder to argue for faith from inerrancy. After all, making that argument begs people to look for contradictions and shifts the focus from faith in Jesus to faith in the Bible.

    Second, many a denomination has split when one side or the other has insisted on making inerrancy a test of fellowship or salvation (as is happening right now in the Churches of Christ). I think wise people learn from history, and I have no desire to help create one more split or create one more fellowship issue.

    And in such splits, the issue becomes not Jesus and not obedience and not the mission of God, but which definition of “inerrant” or “true” or “inspired” we should agree on. For example, the Chicago Statement on Inerrancy (http://www.bible-researcher.com/chicago1.html) is highly nuanced —

    We affirm that canonical Scripture should always be interpreted on the basis that it is infallible and inerrant. However, in determining what the God-taught writer is asserting in each passage, we must pay the most careful attention to its claims and character as a human production. In inspiration, God utilized the culture and conventions of His penman’s milieu, a milieu that God controls in His sovereign providence; it is misinterpretation to imagine otherwise.

    So history must be treated as history, poetry as poetry, hyperbole and metaphor as hyperbole and metaphor, generalization and approximation as what they are, and so forth. Differences between literary conventions in Bible times and in ours must also be observed: since, for instance, non-chronological narration and imprecise citation were conventional and acceptable and violated no expectations in those days, we must not regard these things as faults when we find them in Bible writers. When total precision of a particular kind was not expected nor aimed at, it is no error not to have achieved it. Scripture is inerrant, not in the sense of being absolutely precise by modern standards, but in the sense of making good its claims and achieving that measure of focused truth at which its authors aimed.

    The truthfulness of Scripture is not negated by the appearance in it of irregularities of grammar or spelling, phenomenal descriptions of nature, reports of false statements (e.g., the lies of Satan), or seeming discrepancies between one passage and another. It is not right to set the so-called “phenomena” of Scripture against the teaching of Scripture about itself. Apparent inconsistencies should not be ignored. Solution of them, where this can be convincingly achieved, will encourage our faith, and where for the present no convincing solution is at hand we shall significantly honor God by trusting His assurance that His Word is true, despite these appearances, and by maintaining our confidence that one day they will be seen to have been illusions.

    Inasmuch as all Scripture is the product of a single divine mind, interpretation must stay within the bounds of the analogy of Scripture and eschew hypotheses that would correct one Biblical passage by another, whether in the name of progressive revelation or of the imperfect enlightenment of the inspired writer’s mind.

    Although Holy Scripture is nowhere culture-bound in the sense that its teaching lacks universal validity, it is sometimes culturally conditioned by the customs and conventional views of a particular period, so that the application of its principles today calls for a different sort of action.

    This statement was signed by, among others, James Boice, Carl F. H. Henry, Kenneth Kantzer, J. I. Packer, Francis Schaeffer, and R. C. Sproul. But I’m not sure that even this affirmation of inerrancy would be approved in all camps of the Churches of Christ.

    On the other hand, I’ve yet to have a reader mention some alleged discrepancy that challenged either my faith or my conviction that the scriptures are reliable, inspired, and authoritative. Indeed, no reader has yet convinced me of an error — although several have tried.

    But I’m neither for nor against the inerrancy camp, as it’s a discussion that I find unnecessary and unhelpful. You see, the naive argument is that unless the Bible is free from error we can’t trust it. And that’s an absurd, facially ridiculous statement. I trust my mother implicitly — but she’s been known to make mistakes. If you show me a mistake in the phone book, I won’t stop using phone books.

    In the real world — the place free from battling theologians and preachers — it’s enough that the resource be reliable for us to, you know, rely on it. So as a matter of common sense, the Bible doesn’t have to be perfect to be a reliable source on which to base our faith in Jesus.

    Just so, many placed their faith in Jesus long before the New Testament was written on the basis of the teaching of uninspired friends and neighbors, who weren’t inerrant at all but were reliable and who taught the truth.

    Again, I’m not arguing against inerrancy. I’m just arguing against profoundly bad logic — the kind of bad logic the divides denominations and costs people their faith.

    I teach from the Bible every single day. I never pause to ask whether what I read is true, authoritative, inspired, or reliable. I never even ponder whether it’s inerrant. I just teach what it says — and I find that those who seriously study the Bible find, as I do, that it’s authority and power radiate from its pages. I’m constantly in utter amazement at the brilliance of the scriptures, how beautifully they fit together, and how they reflect a remarkable, common thread.

    Hence, I proceed from a firm conviction that the scriptures are true. But if someone were to show me a genuine error or contradiction, it wouldn’t shake my faith in the least — as my faith is in Jesus, and I see Jesus every day in the lives of my fellow church members and in my readers and many other people. I see the hand of God in history. And I know what Jesus has done in my life.

    Therefore, I find the inerrancy controversy tedious — and potentially devastating to the Churches of Christ, just as it’s been for many other denominations. I mean, if you’re arguing over a concept so difficult it takes pages just to define the word, you’re likely wasting your time.

    That being said, when I get back from vacation, I’ll try to respond to your specific questions — because I always enjoy digging into the text and learning more about God. If I’ve not responded in a couple of weeks, remind me.

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