The Ideal, The Warning, and The Reality
The Bible makes it clear that God cares not only about life, but about the quality of life his people enjoy. In Deuteronomy 15, Moses lays out God's instructions for the “year of release.” Every seventh year, creditors had to forgive the debts they were owed. The land was also given the opportunity to rest, so that the soil could remain healthy and not suffer from relentless cultivation.
Because the poor Israelites often relied on gleanings during harvest times—just like in the book of Ruth!—God heavily emphasizes here that the Israelites must remember to take care of the poorer among them. Three key verses in this chapter describe the ideal, a warning, and the sad reality of the human condition:
- “There will be no poor among you; for the Lord will bless you in the land that the Lord your God is giving you for an inheritance to possess.” (15:4)
- “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.” (15:9)
- “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.’” (15:11)
It’s clear from the beginning of this chapter that God doesn’t want any of his people to suffer from poverty—and it is the role of the entire community to be their brothers’ keepers. But even while this law is being given, God knows the hearts of human beings and their unwillingness to open their hands to their neighbor, leading to the warning in verse 9.
And verse 11 acknowledges the sad truth: Despite what God has commanded here, there will always be poor people in the land of Israel. Even the people of God, who were themselves impoverished slaves in the land of Egypt, can’t manage to take care of each other when they are in need. This verse is a disheartening testimony to the broken condition of human beings. Even when God plainly lays out how we are to behave, we can’t seem to overcome our selfishness for the good of our brothers and sisters—and, indeed, there’s no evidence that the year of release was ever really practiced in Jewish history. Humanity is a hopeless case, it seems.
The Ideal, Realized
But in Mark 5, we meet the first human being who opens his hand to a brother in need—or, in this case, a sister—even when it might cost him. Jairus, a “ruler of the synagogue,” approaches Jesus and asks him to come heal his daughter, who is on the brink of death. Jesus obliges and goes with him.
But you know this story. On the way, Jesus feels power “go out from him,” and when he turns around he sees an ill and destitute woman. For twelve years, she has had a discharge of blood, and nobody has been able to stop it. Her money is all gone, wasted on physicians who couldn’t help her. She is ceremonially unclean, and therefore not allowed to touch anyone or be touched. She is lonely, poor, and without hope. But then she touches Jesus’ garment, believing with all her heart that even this small act of faith can make her well. And it does: “Immediately the flow of blood dried up, and she felt in her body that she was healed of her disease” (5:29).
But this isn’t the end of it. Jesus stops and asks, “Who touched me?” Why stop? The woman was healed, and the ruler of the synagogue’s daughter is at the point of dying! Why cause this delay, when she’s already been healed? As we already know, the little girl ends up dying before they reach the house. Surely Jairus won’t forget this delay.
He stops because the physical healing is only the beginning. This woman may be healed of her disease, but she is still alone. She is still ceremonially unclean. Her healthy body means nothing if she is left to die alone in the streets, unable to live within the community.
Jesus seeks full healing here. He stops and asks, “Who touched me?” And after the woman throws herself at his feet in fear and trembling, he utters perhaps the most beautiful word in the Gospel of Mark:
The little girl whom Jesus was on his way to heal had a father. She had a family and was a part of the community. This woman—perhaps more importantly than being ill—was alone. She was poor, ceremonially unclean, and alone. Now she is a daughter of the King.
Jesus didn’t care that an important man would owe him a favor. He didn’t care that he might get some brownie points from the religious establishment. He saw a sister in need, and he opened his hand to her as widely as he possibly could by claiming her as his own daughter. Jesus finally realized the ideal given to the people in Deuteronomy 15. Because of him, there is one less person in need in Israel.
We Are His Body
This is not a post about “following Jesus’ example.” Jesus Christ is not a dead moral exemplar. He is the living Lord, working and active in the world today, and as his body the Church is given the privilege of participating in his reconciling work.
The Church continues his work in Acts, chapter 2:
“They were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people” (2:45-47a).
And again, in 2 Corinthians 8, Paul tells the church at Corinth about the generosity of the Macedonian Christians. Even though they were about as poor as you can be, “their abundance of joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part” (v. 2).
As the Body of the risen Christ, the Church must be the one who realizes the ideal of Deuteronomy 15. Rather than being concerned with our own success or cozying up with influential people, we are called to open our hands to our brothers and sisters in need. As Jesus did in Mark 5, and continues to do today, I encourage you to live in a spirit of self-sacrifice and generosity, so that “there will be no poor among you.”