A challenging and potentially transformative command to enact an economic Sabbath is found in Deuteronomy 15:1-11.
Every seven years, Hebrew creditors were to release the remaining debt of the loans given during the previous six years.
Debt was the ultimate source of poverty then as it is now, so this was a year when poverty was mostly eliminated in cancelling debts.
It’s a beautiful picture of social and economic redemption, but we encounter some difficulty upon closer examination of the text.
Deuteronomy 15:11 says that there will always be people in need, but this appears to contradict verse 4, which says that there will be no one in need among you.
A partial answer comes when we recognize that the fourth verse is a conditional statement. There will be no one in need among you “if” the people will obey God by following the commandment to observe the Sabbath year.
There may be a further, more challenging answer in this text as well.
The extravagant generosity called for extends beyond the observance of a Sabbath year every seven years.
In verses 7-11, openhandedness and extravagant generosity toward those in need is called for at all times and of all people.
This is the irony and the challenge of the text: If the attitude and action enacted during the Sabbath year were embodied all the time, an economic Sabbath wouldn’t be necessary.
Why? Because perpetual acts of compassion toward those in need would eliminate the possibility of perpetual poverty.
Thus, the statement in Deuteronomy 15:11, “There will never cease to be some in need on the earth” – or Jesus’ summary in Matthew 26:11, “The poor will always be with you” – should not be misconstrued as an assertion that the world’s needs are too great to address and must always exist.
Rather, it should be understood as a critique and condemnation of the perpetual indebtedness, unending hunger and ubiquitous poverty that exists in our world.
Reducing global poverty and hunger have been focal points of the international community for some time, and yet significant numbers of people remain food insecure – having to reduce the quality or overall amount of food consumed in a household due to lack of funds.
The poor will always be with us, it seems.
Yet, setting several reports and analyses from 2017 and 2018 next to one another demonstrates that extravagant wealth continues to grow side by side with great need:
Oxfam International focused on the ever-increasing gap between rich and poor in a January 2018 report that revealed the wealthiest 1 percent of the global population secured 82 percent of all the wealth created in 2017.
The World Health Organization predicted in October 2017 that the number of obese children and youth (aged 5 to 19) will outnumber those who are moderately or severely underweight by 2022.
This extravagant wealth exists – and increases – amid these starkly contrasting realities:
- Forty-one percent of U.S. children lived in low-income households in 2016, according to a fact sheet published in January 2018 by the National Center for Children in Poverty (NCCP) at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health.
- Global hunger increased by 38 million in 2016, the first increase in a decade, according to a September 2017 U.N. report.
- Despite five years of decline, 6 million U.S. households were still food insecure in 2016, according to a September 2017 U.S. Department of Agriculture report.
- In 41 “high income” nations, 20 percent of children still live in poverty and 12.5 percent were food insecure in 2016, according to a June 2017 U.N. Children’s Fund (UNICEF) report.
Extreme wealth and extreme poverty. Obesity and hunger. Contrasting realities that exist, persist, side by side – exposing a global economic system that increasingly and perpetually favors the “haves” over the “have nots.”
Those of us among the “haves” who want to help can easily feel overwhelmed when we read reports of global need.
This can cause us to think that anything we might do is inconsequential – like trying to put out a fire with a medicine dropper – which can lead to weariness and pessimism, perhaps even resignation, believing that there will never be enough food, money or other resources to meet the needs of us all.
And yet, Philip Alston, United Nations special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, offered this analysis in mid-December 2017: “There is no magic recipe for eliminating extreme poverty, and each level of government must make its own good faith decisions. But at the end of the day, particularly in a rich country like the U.S.A., the persistence of extreme poverty is a political choice made by those in power. With political will, it could readily be eliminated.”
Oxfam International observed, “Billionaires saw their wealth increase by $762 billion in . This huge increase could have ended global extreme poverty seven times over.”
Alston and Oxfam are unveiling the scarcity mentality that too often guides our individual and collective actions.
The lie of scarcity – that there isn’t enough to go around, that hoarding and hiding resources are necessary to my survival – lies at the heart of the lack of political will Alston references.
It is this fear-based logic that Jesus reveals as fallacy in the feeding of the 5,000 (Matthew 14:13-21; Mark 6:30-44; Luke 9:10-17; John 6:1-15) and of the 4,000 (Matthew 15:32-39; Mark 8:1-9).
In my reading of these stories – drawing on an interpretation William Barclay set forth in his “Daily Bible Study” series – Jesus meets a great need by eliciting the compassion and generosity of those who had just a little food to spare by encouraging them to share with those who had none.
A young boy is the first to respond to Jesus’ encouragement by offering his afternoon snack, which results in others in the crowd doing likewise.
The lesson is obvious: When the “haves” share what they perceive to be meager resources with the “have-nots,” everyone receives their fill with plenty left over.
This is the good, glad news of Jesus that liberates us from the seemingly engrained scarcity mindset that inclines us to hoard our resources. It can provide the “political will” to meet the world’s seemingly insurmountable need.
When we open our hearts and hands to those in need, when we turn from selfishness to selflessness, when we are liberated from our biological impulse of “survival of the fittest,” we discover that there is plenty to go around.
But we only see this when we become like the young boy who responded to Jesus’ command to feed the hungry crowd by opening his heart and his hands to share the little bit he had.
As we follow this young boy’s example, we just might bump up against the good and glad news of Jesus – the promise and provision of new, expansive, abundant life for the whole wide world that shows up when, where and in ways we least expect.