There seems to be a contradiction in Deuteronomy 15. V.4 says “there will be no poor among you.” V. 11 says “there will never cease to be poor in the land. So which is it to be? Will there be no poverty, or will there always be poverty?
If God’s people rise to the challenge of vv. 7-8 there will be no contradiction. God instructed the Israelites to be generous in their support of the poor. “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, but you shall open your hand to him and lend him sufficient for his need, whatever it may be.” If God’s people rise to that challenge there will be no contraction: there will always be poor people in our midst but they will be so well cared and provided for that their poverty will be brought to a quick end.
Two quick reflections on these verses. Firstly God’s instruction is to our thinking as well as our action. We are called to respond to poverty with both our heart and our hand. We should be moved by it, and we should do something about it. We should have compassion, and take action. It’s no good having one without the other. It’s probably obvious to us that having compassion but not doing anything about it is no good to anyone, but it might come as a surprise that being generous, but without really caring, isn’t good enough either.
Secondly, a word about lending. In this context lending is no different from giving. The chapter is about the Sabbatical Year. Every seven years the Israelites were to write off all their debts. If you lent in the first year you had the best part of seven years in which to be repaid. If you lent in the seventh year, well the chances were that you wouldn’t be repaid. But God is very clear in vv. 9-10: the fact that you might well not be repaid was certainly not a valid reason for not lending. “Take care lest there be an unworthy thought in your heart and you say ‘The seventh year, the year of release is near’… you shall give to him freely, and your heart shall not be grudging when you give to him…” We have the same point made more forcefully on the lips of Jesus in Luke 6:35 “…lend, expecting nothing in return…”
God’s people, then, are called to care about poverty and to do something about it. This should come as a great challenge to those of us who care a great deal about evangelism but who care and do little about poverty. It is of course right that we never allow social justice to take place of evangelism: what good is it to set people up for life if they remained ruined for eternity? But if we think that evangelism means that we are excused from caring about, or doing anything about, poverty, then we deservedly come under God’s rebuke.