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Mike hopes to see the world turned upside down through local communities banding together for social change, especially churches which have recognized the radical calling to be good news to the poor, to set free the prisoners and oppressed, and to become the social embodiment of the reign of God on earth as it is in heaven. He lives with the blessed memory of his wife, in Durham, NC, and has three adult children living in three different states. He also shares his life with the Mt. Level Missionary Baptist Church in Durham, the faculty and students of Shaw University Divinity School in Raleigh, NC, and the faithful fans of Duke and Baylor Basketball in his neighborhood.

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Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Open Hearts Mean Open Hands, Part 2

This is the text of a sermon continued from the previous post.

Deuteronomy 15:1-11
Acts 4:31-35

But this is not the kind of economic system intended for the world that God loves. Deuteronomy 15 has a different idea of how to deal with hard times. The Bible teaches us another way of thinking about borrowing and lending. God has a bailout plan called the Sabbath year and the Jubilee. There is a time for bailing out people who have bad debts, but it is not just for the benefit of insurance companies, banks and brokerage firms. No, it is especially for making sure that people who fall on hard times don’t have to stay there forever. Verse 1 says, “Every seventh year you shall grant a remission of debts.” You shall grant a remission of debts. You must not let debts pile up year after year, decade after decade, generation after generation, until a large mass of people and their descendents can never escape them. When things get out of hand, there has to be a collective setting things back aright.

The deeper purpose of this economic practice is stated in verse 4, which says, “There will be no one in need among you.” There will be no one in need among you. It is not a prediction that needs and difficulties will not arise. It’s not saying that God will magically put money in your bank account whenever you want it. It is a statement about maintaining a society of care for one another. If Israel would follow these economic practices, they could keep from creating a class of perpetual poverty, of permanent debtors, of unending wage slavery.

Verses 7 through 11 expand on the way that Israel could be a people who have no need among them. They must not be “hardhearted or tightfisted” toward their neighbors. Instead, they should open their hands with generosity, not grudgingly thinking about the year of remission and not getting paid back. Verse 11 recognizes that misfortunes, mistakes, bad decisions, poor judgment, health setbacks, loss of a loved one and provider, business closings, weather disasters, and many other reasons may push some people into poverty. It says, “There will never cease to be some in need on the earth.” Hard times may come. Poverty may break out. Then Deuteronomy follows this observation with a command about how to live every day: “Open your hand to your poor and needy neighbor.” Open your hand. Don’t close it up. Don’t harden your heart. Don’t become cold and indifferent. Open your hand. Open it. Open it, and keep it open.

Maybe some of you recognized that Jesus quoted from this passage when some people were complaining about the cost of a jar of ointment which a woman had used to anoint his feet. They claimed it was a waste of money. They postured that such extravagance should instead be directed toward helping the poor.

You probably also have heard people use Jesus’ words to teach the opposite of what Deuteronomy is saying. We have to realize that sometimes elements of our culture which do not conform to the gospel have become so powerful in shaping our thinking that we do not read the Bible very well. The heritage of white supremacist interpretations of the Bible led many who called themselves Christians to believe that God wants people of certain skin color to rule over people of another skin color. In a similar fashion, people often quote Jesus’ words from John 12, “The poor are always with you” to give a reason why it is useless to help the poor. They act like Jesus is saying that we can’t really do anything to solve poverty, so we should just quit trying.

But that is the opposite of what Jesus was saying. He was quoting from Deuteronomy 15:11 in order to remind the people in the room that acting upset about this woman’s gift to Jesus was hypocritical when they were tightfisted toward the poor every day. These were the same kind of people who declared their possessions Corban, or devoted to God, so that their poor aging parents would not be able to make a claim on their wealth. They were the ones who tithed their mint and cumin but ignored the weightier matters of the law concerning justice and mercy. So when they hear Jesus quoting Deuteronomy 15:11, they knew the rest of the verse condemned them for not opening their hands to the poor and needy who came their way.

An economic system which exploits and uses the average worker so that a wealthy elite can become richer and richer has turned away from the ways of God. Economic systems are not strictly rational and unhindered free markets. Economic systems do not operate independently of power, and lots of money translates into lots of power. If a society is to be beneficent, just, and prosperous, it must be organized in ways to see that all of its members can have a share in the good, a share of justice and a share of prosperity. But far too often, people and institutions with great wealth use their power to benefit only themselves and to the detriment of the poor and the worker.

There are many forms that economic inequity and injustice can take. Many examples of inequity in the economy are addressed in the Bible. One which was often addressed is called usury. U-S-U-R-Y, usury. Usury describes the practice of charging inordinate interest on loans. The Bible generally looks down on the practice of charging interest, but it does not seem to ban it absolutely. However, it is very clear in saying that charging interest on people who are in economic distress is wrong. By biblical standards, usury is one of the worst forms of sin, often listed along with lying, bribery, dishonoring parents, robbery, adultery, rape, and murder.

But nowadays we live in a different economic system, and charging interest has become a standard way of doing business. We don’t like high interest rates, but we are used to seeing them. We accept it as the way business works. Of course, it is the way that people who have plenty of money can use their money’s power to gain even more money. I accept and agree that there are reasonable ways of loaning with interest which do not go against the biblical view of economic justice, but there are also many common practices which blatantly offend God’s justice.

Part of the problem is that we have been trained to think in a modern way that is different from the Bible’s teaching. We don’t usually think of interest as potentially falling into the same category with rape and murder. Most of us keep trying to get more credit so we can borrow more and get more stuff. Certainly all of us need to learn how to be careful and responsible in the way that we borrow money and go into debt. Many of our bad choices have put us in the mess we are in. But let’s not be turned away from the heart of this problem. The issue at hand is usury. While there are appropriate ways to borrow and loan money with interest, there are also many inappropriate, wrong, even downright evil ways of doing so, called usury.

We all need to learn a little history to understand the present. Until the late 1970s, there was a federal usury law in the U. S. which set a limit on interest rates that banks could charge. That law was repealed during a time of high inflation when the economy was in turmoil. While it may have helped get business through one set of problems, it gave rise to a whole new set of problems. Those problems have been steeping and stewing for thirty years. Those of us who have been trying to make a living since that time have seen how interest rates have gotten higher and higher, payday loans have taken a foothold with astronomical rates, and banks have offered credit with teaser rates only to jack interest rates up again and again with little or no warning.

Consumer credit has become such a growth industry because the banks are taking a subscription on our future income. Just like you subscribe to a magazine and it keeps coming for a year or several years, they are subscribing to a piece of your paycheck. They adjust their lending practices to try to make sure that you keep having to pay them for years and years, even if you didn’t borrow very much. Low monthly payments mean plenty of interest is paid and very little of the principal. Their business plan is to keep your monthly payments coming indefinitely, almost infinitely. I know what I’m talking about, because Visa has had a long-time subscription to my paycheck. But an economy based on predatory practices is not sustainable. The overextended, high-risk, no tomorrow credit economy has reached the limits of its irrationality and recklessness. A reckoning has come.

Continued into final section in next post . . .


King of the Paupers said...

"U-S-U-R-Y, usury. Usury describes the practice of charging inordinate interest on loans. The Bible generally looks down on the practice of charging interest, but it does not seem to ban it absolutely."

Jct: Thomas 95: Jesus said: If you have money, do not lend it out at interest."

And both usury and excessive interest are condemned in the Bible:

Ezekiel 3:18 adds responsibility,
God states his laws for life with his expected certainty:
"And when I tell the wicked man that "You will surely die,"
You will be held accountable if you don't warn the guy.
But if you tell him and he doesn't change his wicked way,
You will have saved yourself and he will be the one to pay."
In 18:5: "Suppose a man takes not much interest,
He takes no usury. He'll live! His actions I have blessed.
Suppose he has a son who takes excessive interest,
And lends at usury. He'll die! His actions I detest.
But if this son too has a son who doesn't do the same,
He does not take the pledge for loans, his greed he overcame.
He takes no usury nor interest that is too high,
He will not die for his father's sin, the soul that sins will die.
But if a wicked man turns from the sins he did commit,
He gives back what he took in pledge. His sins I will acquit.
Forgotten will be his offences when I come to judge,
Because of good things he does now, I will not hold a grudge.
But if a righteous man turns from my law to evil way,
None of his righteous deeds will count. He'll die! I do inveigh.
So cleanse yourselves of all your sins and cease to be such fools,
I take no pleasure in the death of men who break my rules."
Ezekiel declared that usury and interest,
Could have a different effect, there was a simple test.
If interest demanded is of something that can breed,
Such interest is payable and not sin I concede.
So if you lend a hundred head and ask to get two more,
That might not be excessive lending that He would abhor.
But if you gain all of the calves and he still owes you some,
That would be judged excessive, that is more than maximum.
And if the interest is on some silver or some gold,
It's usury because there are no babies to behold!
It's interest if principal can breed to multiply,
It's usury if principal cannot so classify.

From http://johnturmel.com/poembibl.htm

Anders said...

Hello Mike Broadway,
My name is Anders and I found your blog through Google. You wrote: As Deuteronomy 15 and so much of the Bible teaches, There should be no one in need among you.

There are also many other mitzwot (commandments) in Torah and all of them are very important.

This is also in accordance with what the Torah-observering Mashiakh (“Messiah”) from Nazareth taught.

Since you are a Christian I think that the website www.netzarim.co.il will be of interest to you. It contains research, previously unknown to most Christians, about Ribi Yehoshua and what he and his followers taught. It is an essential read to learn about his teachings, which are in accordance with Torah – the instruction manual from the Creator.

Have a very nice day!
Anders Branderud

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