Wednesday, 28 September 2011

Make Every Effort Part 3

James, Cephas and John, those esteemed as pillars, gave me and Barnabas the right hand of fellowship when they recognized the grace given to me. They agreed that we should go to the Gentiles, and they to the circumcised. All they asked was that we should continue to remember the poor, the very thing I had been eager to do all along, Gal 2.10

Like all of the other passages we have looked at in recent blogs, the Greek word for eager, spoudaz┼Ź, means ‘make every effort’. What is clear from this text is that all of the apostolic leaders believed that caring for the poor was an important priority. They were eager to do it and they made every effort to do it throughout their ministries.

But why this commitment to caring for the poor? What informed their convictions? Here are some key scriptures that shaped the social conscience of Israel in the past and so would, in turn, have shaped them.

When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap to the very edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest. Do not go over your vineyard a second time or pick up the grapes that have fallen. Leave them for the poor and the foreigner. I am the LORD your God, Lev 19.9-10.

During a harvest there would be a group of workers that went through a field in line with sickles cutting and then others followed gathering the sheaves. Invariably there were parts that were missed between each of the reapers. These could have been caught in a second wave of reaping but God forbade this. It had to be left for the poor or the foreigner in the land. These people along with orphans and widows were the most vulnerable in any society. So God made laws to protect them.

In one sense this was an enforced generosity on the part of the field owner towards the poor. But in relation to the whole harvest, the gleanings, those parts of the field missed in the first wave of reaping, was a tiny percentage of the whole. God was tempering our tendency towards greed by making the landowners leave enough for the poor. It did not substantially effect their profit.

This is what makes the story of Ruth so beautiful. She was a poor widow who gathered the gleanings from Boaz’s field. When they meet his heart went out to her and he told the reapers who worked for him to intentionally leave handfuls of grain, just for her, Ruth 2.1-12.

The same was true for the grape harvest. Not every grape was picked on the first pass of reaping. Invariably some were missed and God legislated that these should be left for the poor and the foreigner. God was establishing laws that would help to shape a just society. The burden was not placed just on the state but on the people as a whole.

In Lev 25.4-7; 11-12 we read:
But in the seventh year the land is to have a year of Sabbath rest, a sabbath to the LORD. Do not sow your fields or prune your vineyards. Do not reap what grows of itself or harvest the grapes of your untended vines. The land is to have a year of rest. Whatever the land yields during the sabbath year will be food for you—for yourself, your male and female servants, and the hired worker and temporary resident who live among you, as well as for your livestock and the wild animals in your land. Whatever the land produces may be eaten.

The fiftieth year shall be a jubilee for you; do not sow and do not reap what grows of itself or harvest the untended vines. For it is a jubilee and is to be holy for you; eat only what is taken directly from the fields.

The Sabbath rest was a weekly feature in Israeli life. But God also built this principle of rest into how the land was worked. So every seven years the land rested. There was no sowing and no reaping allowed. If anything grew up it did so from the previous years seeding. So whatever harvest appeared was a free for all, including the animals.

This was then extended to the year of Jubilee that happened every 50 years when all debts were cancelled and lands returned to their ancestral owners. Thus year 49 was a Sabbath year followed by another Sabbath year in year 50. Two years of Sabbaths. Now if were in any way disadvantaged as a citizen if Israel during that time it was wonderful for you. You had food for your family! You could live.

The spirit of all this is best captured by the verse in Deut 15.11:
There will always be poor people in the land. Therefore I command you to be open-handed toward your fellow Israelites who are poor and needy in your land.

God knew that the poor would always be there but He didn’t want the Israelite community to become hardened and indifferent to this reality. He wanted them to be ‘open-handed’ towards the poor and needy. On the other side of the coin God had these instructions to those who wandered into a neighbours field in Duet 23.24-25:
If you go into your neighbour's vineyard, you may eat as many grapes as you wish, but do not put any grapes into your basket.25 If you go into your neighbour's grain field, you may pick grain with your hands, but you must not cut down your neighbour's grain with your sickle, NCV.

I find this amazing. There was freedom to take enough food from someone else’s harvest for yourself but no more, no matter whom you were. Again the thinking behind this was that in proportion to the harvest, this was an insignificant amount and expressed God’s heart of generosity.

All of this teaching and practice was well known to the apostles and endorsed by Jesus. In Luke 14.13-14 NCV Jesus challenged His hearers with this statement:
“Instead, when you give a feast, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. Then you will be blessed, because they have nothing and cannot pay you back. But you will be repaid when the good people rise from the dead."

Notice His reasoning here, ‘They cannot repay you’. We give to those who are powerless to give back in this lifetime. In one sense this helps us define who the poor are, those who have nothing to repay us with. Paul goes on to quote Jesus to the Ephesian elders. They are some of his parting words to them:
I showed you in all things that you should work as I did and help the weak. I taught you to remember the words Jesus said: 'It is more blessed to give than to receive.'

There is a blessing in receiving for sure. We all like being blessed. But the truth is that it is more blessed to give than to receive. I did not understand this truth until I had children. But the joy of seeing their response when I did something for them far outweighed what it cost me to do it in the first place. I felt more blessed than they did!

When we get to the book of Acts we see how this principle of making every effort to care for the poor played out in the new church community. For a start they relinquished personal ownership of land and property in order to release money to care for the community,

The apostles were doing many miracles and signs, and everyone felt great respect for God. All the believers were together and shared everything. They would sell their land and the things they owned and then divide the money and give it to anyone who needed it. The believers met together in the Temple every day. They ate together in their homes, happy to share their food with joyful hearts. They praised God and were liked by all the people. Every day the Lord added those who were being saved to the group of believers, Acts 2.43-47 NCV.

In the midst of God’s awesome presence seen in signs and wonders the following happened:

1. They shared everything they had!
2. They gave to those who needed it.
3. They met daily.
4. They ate together, happy to share their food.
5. They praised God
6. They were liked by the people who watched them
7. Everyday believers were added to their number.

The generosity of spirit they had was as a direct result of their surrender to the Lordship of Jesus. The OT commands were now being worked out in their community spontaneously. Awesome!

This is played out further in Acts 4.32-37 and 5.1-11 where a sharp contrast is made between Barnabas and his generosity and the deceit of Ananias and Sapphira. The issue was not the reluctance of this couple to give everything. Holding back something for themselves was their free choice, their right. There was nothing sinful in this. The problem was that they lied about how much they received for the property. They left the community with the impression that they had given everything.

It is hard to know what was in their thinking when they did this. Perhaps they thought that giving all was the only option. Perhaps they felt guilty about keeping something back for themselves. Perhaps they felt less spiritual if the others knew this. Perhaps they felt they couldn’t live up to the expectations of others. Whatever the reason they lied. And it cost them their lives. This is the first case of church discipline that we read about. As you might expect fear fell upon the whole community, inside and outside of the church.

All this took place under the new covenant of grace established by Jesus! Why? I believe it was because the church was moving forward with great momentum and the Holy Spirit knew that this sin would slow the process. He did not want the hearts of the people discouraged by this deceit. Honesty before God and the people in such matters was crucial.

Notice too that Sapphira was judged separately from her husband. Saying she was submitting to his leadership was no excuse. She too had a choice and she chose to collude with Ananias. God held her accountable for her choice! They were judged as individuals unlike Achan and his family in the book of Joshua.

When we get to Acts 6 we find the first record of unrest in the church. Essentially it is a social justice issue. The Greek speaking Jewish widows were finding themselves disadvantaged when it came to food distribution. The Hebrew speaking widows were getting more! We are not told who was perpetrating this injustice. Luke records it in a way that hints it is rooted in racism similar to the problems that existed between Jews and Samaritans.

The key thing to see is that the apostles took this issue seriously and acted. They laid out criteria for the selection of a new level of leadership that could take care of this problem. And the criteria combined the spiritual with the practical. Remember that in the Bible wisdom was the ability to live life practically and well according to Proverbs. So they chose men full of the Spirit and wisdom and the apostles appointed them, Acts 6.1-6.

These men acted impartially so that justice in the community was restored. Listen to the consequence for the whole church in the next verse:
The word of God was continuing to spread. The group of followers in Jerusalem increased, and a great number of the Jewish priests believed and obeyed, Acts 6.7.

Not only were people saved but priests, the hardest group to win, were converted. Amazing. Later in Acts 11.29-30 the believers in Antioch learn, through a prophetic utterance, of a famine throughout the world. In response they determine to send relief aid to the believers in Jerusalem. They saw themselves as connected to that distant community and so social justice became a burden they willingly carried.

It’s worth noting that they responded according to their ability.
The disciples, as each one was able, decided to provide help for the believers living in Judea, Acts 11.29 TNIV. None gave beyond their means, but they did give.

This apostolic practice is further endorsed in the letters of Paul, James and John. Take a look at James 2.15-18, 1 John 3.16-18 (which strongly resonates with Deut 15.11). Listen to Paul in 1Thess 5.14;
And we urge you, brothers and sisters, warn those who are idle and disruptive, encourage the disheartened, help the weak, be patient with everyone.

Everyone needs patience and to be dealt with patiently. That’s where Paul ends. Yet three specific categories of people are listed here. The lazy and disruptive (one word in the Greek), the fainthearted (literally small souled) and the weak. With each group Paul suggests a different approach whilst all need patience.

The lazy group are able to work but choose not to. Paul says, ‘warn them’. In other words they need a kick, a challenge. He will later go so far as to say if a man won’t work he shouldn’t eat. Now there is a way of motivating someone. He even says don’t eat with such a person. They are not living up to Biblical standards and have no grasp of their social responsibility.

The fainthearted don’t need to be challenged, warned or rebuked. These people have a small capacity. They need massive encouragement, building up. This of course requires discernment. We have to be able to tell the difference! If not, we may end up rebuking the fainthearted and encouraging the lazy. Not good! I’ve seen it happen.

The final group are the weak. This term includes the poor, the sick, the lame, the blind, the orphan and the widow. These people need our support. Paul is clear that by support he means financial support. That is the context for using the word in Acts 20.35 NKJV.

All of this resonates with the words of Jesus in Matt 25.31-47 where He speaks of the judgment of the nations. Look at part of the text here:
Then the King will say to those on His right hand, ‘Come, you blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world: for I was hungry and you gave Me food; I was thirsty and you gave Me drink; I was a stranger and you took Me in; I was naked and you clothed Me; I was sick and you visited Me; I was in prison and you came to Me.’
“Then the righteous will answer Him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry and feed You, or thirsty and give You drink? When did we see You a stranger and take You in, or naked and clothe You? Or when did we see You sick, or in prison, and come to You?’ And the King will answer and say to them, ‘Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me.’

This is Jesus speaking. We can rely on His words. Notice how unselfconscious the sheep are to these acts of kindness. It was part of their lifestyle. They did it without fanfare or hope of recognition. How amazing that when we care for the weak we are in fact caring for Jesus. Wow. I believe it’s time for the church to make an effort to care for the poor; to get involved in social justice issues. To find men full of the Spirit and wisdom who can come up with creative solutions to difficult social problems.

We cannot look to government agencies to have the answers. They need to look to us, to the church. And we need to look to the Lord and step out in obedience. Paul tells us that love is expressed by loving our neighbour. A lawyer tried to justify himself once by asking Jesus who his neighbour was. Jesus then told the parable about the certain Samaritan. You'll find it in Luke 10.25-37.

This is helpful. We cannot meet all the needs around us but we can meet the needs of those God puts in our way. Crossing over to the other side, as though we haven’t noticed, is not a legitimate option. We need to get involved. And like the Samaritan it costs us something in time, energy and money. But as we do, we have the assurance we are doing this to Jesus.

Here are a few suggestions for how you can begin.

1. In the parable of the certain Samaritan scripture tells us he was ‘moved with compassion’. The important thing is to allow yourself to feel what others are going through. Everything Jesus did came from this ability to have compassion on people in their pain and need. Pray that God opens your heart to embrace the pain of others. We must learn to weep with those who weep out of genuine empathy not as professional mourners.

2. Let this compassion be translated into action of some kind. Dare to get involved. The Samaritan did what he could; he treated the man’s wounds and then bound them up, put him on his own donkey, took him to a place of refuge, paid for an extended stay and further care (two days wages – about £200 by todays reckoning), then promised to return to settle any outstanding accounts. That is very comprehensive.

3. Involvement will always cost you something. It takes time, energy and money to make a difference. Choose a lifestyle that leaves enough for such demands. If you aim to live on 80% of your income then you will have money on hand when you need it. Too often we match our lifestyle to our full income. Remember if you have a bed to sleep in, a cupboard for your clothes and a roof over our head you have more than 75% of the people in the world!

4. The goal is to help people so that they are empowered to help themselves and others. We don’t want to create dependency on us. The idea is to see people become whole so that they can face life with faith and hope. That’s what the Samaritan did for the man who fell among robbers. He knew it would take time but he had a clear goal.

5. Dare to go on trip that takes you out of your comfort zone. There are many places in the world with great need. Don’t go on your own. Go with someone who knows what they are doing. You can easily find yourself out of your depth. And when you feel totally overwhelmed with the needs around you, remind yourself that you serve a God whose heart is so big He is able to meet all those needs through Jesus.

I pray that as a believer and as a church we are able to embrace the needs of a broken people in a broken world and bring the touch of heaven to those who need it. Make every effort to remember the poor!