Deuteronomy 15:1-2, 7-11
(watch here: https://youtu.be/YhbnC9ayfTU)
Every seventh year you shall grant a remission of debts. 2And this is the manner of the remission: every creditor shall remit the claim that is held against a neighbor, not exacting it from a neighbor who is a member of the community, because the Lord’s remission has been proclaimed.
7If there is among you anyone in need, a member of your community in any of your towns within the land that the Lord your God is giving you, do not be hard-hearted or tight-fisted towards your needy neighbor. 8You should rather open your hand, willingly lending enough to meet the need, whatever it may be. 9Be careful that you do not entertain a mean thought, thinking, ‘The seventh year, the year of remission, is near’, and therefore view your needy neighbor with hostility and give nothing; your neighbor might cry to the Lord against you, and you would incur guilt. 10Give liberally and be ungrudging when you do so, for on this account the Lord your God will bless you in all your work and in all that you undertake. 11Since there will never cease to be some in need on the earth, I therefore command you, ‘Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land.’
Again, rather than begin our time together with something a little funny, I want to instead begin with a wise story. This one is about a farmer who regularly grew award-winning corn. Each year he entered his corn in the state fair where it consistently won first prize. One year a newspaper reporter interviewed him and learned the farmer’s strategy for growing winning corn. What was it? Simply this: the farmer shared his seed corn with his neighbors. “How can you afford to share your best seed corn with your neighbors when they are entering corn in competition with yours each year?” the reporter asked. “Why” said the farmer, “don’t you know? The wind picks up pollen from the ripening corn and swirls it from field to field. If my neighbors grow inferior corn, cross-pollination will steadily degrade the quality of my corn. If I am to grow good corn, I must help my neighbors grow good corn.”
I like how that farmer understood that if he was going to be the best at what he did then he needed to help those around him be the best at what they do. Perhaps more importantly, he understood that he was part of a community. He didn’t farm in a bubble. Whether he liked it or not, his farm was affected by the farms around him and to ignore this meant utter failure. You see, the success of his corn relied on the success of their corn. This is a difficult concept to accept in our Western, independent, capitalistic way of thinking. We tend to think that the only way we can survive is if we fight and destroy anything that threatens our access to necessary resources. Rather than pool our resources, we fight over them. Rather than help our grow better corn, we work to destroy his corn so our corn will have access to more resources. And in fighting and destroying, we become more and more isolated from those around us. We forget that we are in a deeply interconnected community and that the only chance for long-term survival is by pooling our resources and using them more efficiently. Individuals only last so long but communities can last a long time if properly maintained and structured.
Which brings us to our reading for this morning. We’re closing out our 3-week sermon series on the Sabbath with this radical passage from Deuteronomy. Recall we’ve been reflecting on the three entities that stand to benefit from a Sabbath day of rest: ourselves, God, and the community. The first week we reflected on how our bodies are simply not designed to work all the time and need rest to restore and replenish. And in those times of rest, we can reflect how God blesses us with the necessary abilities for our work. Last week we reflected on how God benefits from a Sabbath by being allowed to sharpen our minds and hearts for greater service to him. We are able to give him more glory and praise. This week we are exploring how a Sabbath benefits community and our passage offers an interesting answer. It suggests that every seven years we ought to cancel the debts of our neighbor. Why? Because it allows our neighbor to re-enter the community unburdened by their debt. Having debt can be terribly isolating. It creates great fear and anxiety and uncertainty. It causes doubt and self-degradation. It keeps us from experiencing all the joys of life. And we know that God is a freeing God. Our God wants to set us free from fear and doubt and anxiety and uncertainty! Why do you think He led the Israelites out of slavery into freedom? Why do you think He sent his only Son to the cross to die for us? Why do you think He enabled the Son to come back to us? Because He wants us freed from sin and the fear of death! Because He wants us freed from whatever slavery and powerlessness we find ourselves in! God does want us to be debtors. He knows the effects debt can have on us and how it can distract us from loving and serving him and those around us. Jesus died to pay off all our debt to the Father!
God wants us in community with him and each other. God designed us to be in community. Now I realize there are varying degrees of sociability among us. There are the introverts and the extroverts and all those in between. Just because you’re an introvert doesn’t mean you’re not part of a community. Indeed, I’d say your community consists primarily of yourself and God but you’re still in community. Even God exists in community as the Triune God. Everything exists in community. And helping our isolated, debt-burdened neighbors to re-entering the community is important. The community becomes stronger and healthier by each person. We all bring unique gifts and talents and perspectives to whatever community we find ourselves in. A Sabbath rest enables us to offer those gifts and talents and perspectives.
Indeed, freeing our neighbor of their burden is our Christian responsibility. Recall what Paul wrote in his letter to the Colossians, “Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you must also forgive.” (3:13) We are called to forgive our neighbors and forgiving their debts is one way of forgiving them. In forgiveness, we are showing true love to our neighbor. Of course, we know we are commanded by Christ to love each other as we heard in John: “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.” (15:12) Loving one another involves more than sharing in their joy. It involves helping them reclaim their joy when they’ve lost it. As Paul writes in his letter to Galatians, we are to “bear one another’s burdens, and in this way [we] will fulfil the law of Christ.” (6:2) Scripture helps us to live in community. That’s because God wants us to be in healthy and life-giving community. A Sabbath helps ensure thriving community. Let us appreciate our community and how a Sabbath blesses it. Thanks be to God!
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.