This is the last part to Jean-Ray Knighton Fitt’s sermon series “No Poor Among You”:
“If there is a poor man among your brothers in any of the towns of the land that the Lord your God is giving you … be open-handed and freely lend him whatever he needs. Be careful not to harbour this wicked thought: ‘The seventh year, the year for cancelling debts, is near,’ so that you do not show ill will toward your needy brother … He may then appeal to the Lord your God against you, and you will be found guilty of sin. Give generously to him and do so without a grudging heart; then because of this the Lord will bless you in all your work and in everything you put your hand to. There will always be poor people in the land. Therefore I command you to be open-handed toward your brothers and toward the poor and needy in your land.”
There are also a few things I notice about these verses:
First, I notice that this poor man might be in any of the towns in the country – it’s not just the people who are near us, it’s also people who might live far away.
Second, I notice that we need to be willing to lend this person anything he needs – it’s not random giving. Lending involves a level of interaction and accountability, if we lend responsibly it means helping the person use what we are lending them properly, but it also involves an element of risk because he might not be able to pay you back and then you might need to write the debt off.
Third, I notice that if we are stingy towards this poor man, God calls it sin and he will hold it against us, but if we help him God will bless our work.
Fourth, I notice that the Bible refers to this poor man as a brother. He is not just some beggar that we need to give a few coins to. Brother means something quite different to stranger. If we think of a poor person as our brother we will take time to get to know him, to understand the issues he deals with, the struggles he faces.
What does that mean for us in practice? I think it means that we should actually go and visit poorer people where they live. How many of us visit our maid or gardener at home?
Some years ago I went to the funeral of my maid’s daughter … she told me her family and friends were so amazed and grateful that white people would take the time to come out to the farm and to the funeral of a black person. I found that so sad. Surely anyone would do that for someone who comes into their home every week and cleans up their mess?
I think it means taking time to get to understand the struggles of people who are poorer than us … starting, at least, with people we see regularly, and being willing to help them in practical ways.
A few years ago there was a painter who I used to call in for odd jobs now and again. One day when I picked him up he was looking upset. It turned out his wife had been sick for more than a week, she couldn’t keep any food down, and he was worried she was going to die. I didn’t really know what to do, but obviously we had to do something. So I said we could take her to the local clinic, but the clinic was closed, so we took her to RK Khan Hospital in Chatsworth, which is the hospital that serves Clermont even though it’s 30km away. Believe me, it didn’t excite me to spend a precious day of my leave carting a sick person all over the countryside, it messed up my day completely. But I was struck again by something I should know well: here was a very sick woman, too sick to walk to the taxi rank or to travel in a taxi at all (she vomited three times on the way and virtually had to be carried because she was so weak), too poor to afford a doctor, too poor to know anyone with a car. If I hadn’t taken her in, she might have died. And there are thousands of others like her.
I don’t want to set myself up as the perfect example, I’m really not. But the truth is that if I had seen my painter as just another poor man, instead of a brother that day, he might have lost his wife. Often we are tempted to just throw money at a problem—we know there are poor people so we give some money to charity to make us feel better. Giving money is fine, and we should all do it, but as rich people, people with resources, there is something else far more valuable that we hold, it is the ability to use our money and our contacts and our knowledge to make a better life for those who are poor. I had a 14 year old car and not everything worked properly on it, I took it for granted, and wished it was newer … but it was a resource that could save someone’s life.
Lastly I think it means that sometimes we must be willing to put our property, possessions and even our personal safety at risk as we would for a family member in trouble.
Once we took in a lady who was destitute and living on the street, she was a drug addict and virtually unemployable. She stayed in our caravan. She stole medication from our cupboard; she broke things on our property; she cost us a lot of money and hardly ever helped around the house—despite what she’d agreed to do. Once we had to rush her to hospital when she overdosed; she’d go up and down emotionally – it disturbed the kids. But today that lady has a stable job as a bookkeeper, and she’s held it for two years; she has got custody of her two children who’d been removed from her; and her mother, who wouldn’t talk to her, is so grateful she has her daughter back. Recently she was offered a recording contract in the USA for a song she wrote.
I won’t lie—it was hard, sometimes I got angry and frustrated. Sometimes it took its toll on my family and I know we wouldn’t manage to do that constantly. We need big breaks in between situations like that. We’re not as saintly as we may seem. There have been times when opening our home has helped people sort their lives out and other times when they’ve gone back to the street and all the stress and inconvenience seemed a waste … but looking at the big picture it was the simple use of space that we had, a little extra food, and modelling a relatively stable home environment that completely transformed that woman’s life, and the lives of her two sons.
All of us have resources that we take for granted that can make a huge difference in the life of a poor person … our knowledge, our education, our connections, our house, our car, our food. They come as part of the deal of being rich, they also come as tools you can use to change the course of someone else’s life. But they are useless unless you can see these people as brothers and sisters and get to understand them and their needs, visit their communities, sit in their homes. Otherwise you will never know how the money God has put in your hand is meant to be used.
The biggest problem is not getting money from the rich to give to the poor, it is getting the rich to know the poor. Because many of the answers to poverty are found in relationship and if you start to develop a closer friendship with someone who is poor, using your money and time to help them will not seem like such an insurmountable burden and your life will be immeasurably enriched.
Not all of us can adopt orphaned children, or take destitute people into our homes, but all of us can do something. We need to fight for systems that are just and fair, but we also need to learn to lend or give freely to people in need, we also need to learn to see them as our brothers and sisters, our sons and daughters, to know their faces and their stories, only that way will our money be used the way God really wants it to be.
Jean-Ray Knighton Fitt