Sermon preached on Deuteronomy 24:6-22 by Rev. W. Reid Hankins during the Morning Service at Trinity Presbyterian Church (OPC) on 9/19/2010 in Novato, CA.
Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
”It Shall Be Righteousness to You”
Today we read another passage with a series of miscellaneous laws of the old covenant. However, as we read through them, we see that with many of these laws there is a consistent theme. Most of these are civil laws that call for compassion toward the poor and needy in society. Something that strikes me right away is how these provisions are actually laws in the old covenant. I think we tend to think about compassion and charity, in one sense, as going above and beyond the duty. We might think that for us to help the poor is something commendable, but not necessarily a requirement.
Well, in some strict sense of fairness, we can understandably tend to think that way. And yet what we find here is that God is calling Israel to a higher standard. God’s not just suggesting that they treat the poor with compassion and charity. He’s commanding it. He’s legislating it. Notice verse 13. After talking about one of these provisions for the poor, it says that it, “Shall be righteousness to you before the LORD,” if you do this. It would of course be unrighteous for them not to do this.
We can understand why it would be righteousness to not afflict the poor and needy. We know that it’s wrong to take advantage of someone in need. But the sort of righteousness God is calling the people to in this passage goes beyond that. It’s a call for compassion that treats these people in a special way; not in a way that negatively discriminates, but in a way that gives special gracious treatment to these people in need. Surely all of this is a call for us as God’s people to reflect God. To show forth God’s righteousness; righteousness that extends itself in compassion and mercy to those in need.
Notice how verse 13 says that if we do this, then the poor and needy may end up blessing you. That’s the right spirit. The poor and needy shouldn’t receive this treatment in a spirit of entitlement. Rather, they should recognize God’s compassion working through the people. You see, if we show compassion in obedience to God, it means that ultimately God will be honored and glorified. So, today we’ll think about how this passage calls us to reflect God’s compassion in our lives, and see how that brings glory to God.
So let’s look then at the provisions in this passage for the poor and needy. Looking at this passage, we can divide up these provisions into three general categories. You have provisions here concerning the taking of pledges in a loan. You have provisions here concerning the payment of wages. And you have provisions concerning the practice of gleaning. We’ll address these one at a time. Let’s consider the taking of pledges first.
Back then when you took a loan from somebody, the common practice was to give a pledge of some item in return for the loan. The pledge was some item of value that you would want back when you repaid the loan. It was a form of collateral. It was a measure of security for the lender. If you didn’t repay the loan, they would then keep your pledge. That’s the typical way they did loans back then; they were basically somewhat secured loans, secured on the pledge. This is somewhat like going to a pawn shop today. You go to a pawn shop to get a loan of money, and you give them some item as collateral. You have so many days to repay the loan with interest. If you don’t repay it in time, then they keep your item and sell it at the pawn shop. Same general idea as what they did back then.
Of course, the people who often take loans are the people who are down and out. The poor and needy. These old covenant civil laws mandated compassionate treatment of the poor and needy who were receiving a loan. Several principles concerning the taking of pledges stand out here. First you see that the lender could not take a pledge that was essential to their survival or livelihood. You see this in verse 6 for example. You couldn’t take the lower or upper millstone as a pledge. Let me explain what this is. This was a little handmill that every household would typically have had. It was used to take the grain and grind it up for making the daily bread. Without this handmill, it would basically take away a family’s most fundamental basic equipment to prepare their main source of sustenance. The upper millstone mentioned here is just top stone of this handmill. It would have been a lot lighter to take, but would have rendered the entire millstone useless. So, this could not be taken as a pledge. As verse 6 says, it would have been taking their living in pledge. The thing taken in pledge must not be something that could result in their inability to provide for the basics of their survival or livelihood.
The next provision on pledges is seen in verses 10-11. It says the lender wasn’t to go into their home of the borrower when he’s getting the pledge. The idea here is that the lender couldn’t just barge into the borrower’s home, scope out everything he has, and then find the most valuable item he wants for the pledge. You weren’t allowed to snoop around the person’s home, inspect everything of value that he has, and then demand his most cherished possession. You see, that could have resulted in a form of extortion by a lender; that lender could demand too valuable of pledge that he finds in the home; he knows the borrower has the item; and he knows the borrower really needs the loan. So he could pressure the borrower into giving up something he really didn’t want to give up. So this law about the lender not going into the borrower’s home would have protected against this sort of greed by the lender; it would also have helped preserve some measure of dignity for the borrower.
The next provision on receiving pledges is in verses 12-13 and verse 17. Here you see that there are restrictions on how long you can keep a pledge when someone is in the most extreme form of poverty or need. Verses 12-13 say that you can only keep the pledge of the poor man until nightfall; you see here it’s talking about the situation where the only thing a man has to offer you as a pledge is the cloak off his own back. You can take the cloak for the day; but you’d have to give it back to him at the end of the day. This way the man can sleep in his garment and not get too cold at night without it. Again, this is an act of compassion toward the poor. Similarly, verse 17 says you must not take a widow’s garment as a pledge. That’s even more strict. If a widow needs a loan and only has a garment to offer up as a pledge, then you must not take it at all. Not even until nightfall. If that’s all she has to offer you, then this law of compassion says to not take a pledge at all.
So these are the laws here concerning the taking and giving back of pledges for the poor and needy. Let’s look next concerning the provision here in this passage about paying wages to the poor and needy. This is in verse 14. This is a pretty straight forward command. This old covenant law required them to pay the poor hired servants the same day they did the work. It says this must be the case whether he was one of your own countrymen, or a stranger in your land. You couldn’t discriminate here; if the person was poor and in need, you had to pay them the same day. Why? Because they needed that money to survive. They are so poor that they are just living one day to the next. So they were called to recognize this need and to pay such a person the same day.
In the New Testament James 5 takes this same idea and describes an action that’s probably in mind here too. James 5:4 talks about employers keeping back the wages of laborers, by fraud. In other words, James recognizes that the employers sometimes go beyond just not paying them the same day. Sometimes they just don’t pay them at all. James doesn’t give an example of what this fraud might look like, but without the existence of time cards and pay stubs, it probably would have been fairly easy to cheat a worker out of some of their wages. Instead, Deuteronomy required under the old covenant to simply pay these workers at the end of the day. Certainly there are principles here of fair compensation practices, that consider the needs of the employees, that employers today should apply.
The last provision for the poor and needy in this passage is concerning gleaning. This was a practice back then to help those who were in less fortunate situations. You see this in verses 19-21. The basic idea is this. If you owned a farm, when you harvested your crops, there were certain things you would do that would result in a small amount of the crop left behind. This would then be for those in unfortunate situations to go and gather; as it says in verse 19, it would be for the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow. These in less fortunate circumstances could then go and gather up what remained in the fields. That would be called gleaning. There wouldn’t be a lot left; you’re probably not going to be able to gather enough to sell in addition to what you need to eat yourself. But, it would have been something to help the poor out with.
So look at the examples given here to the land owners. Verse 19. If you are harvesting, and forget one of your bundles of grain in the field, don’t go back for it. Leave it for the gleaners. Verse 20, when you shake out the olives from the olive trees, most of the olives are going to fall off and that’s what you’ll take as your harvest. However, there would still be a few olives that didn’t fall off, left on the tree. Verse 20 says to not go back over them again. Leave them. Let the gleaners have them. Verse 21; same thing for the grape vines. Leave some for the gleaners.
This would have been a nice balanced approach of compassion to those in need. On the one hand, the rich are to be charitable, leaving something for those in need. On the other hand, this would have still required those in need to work as they are able to actually go out and glean. They weren’t to just become beggars, but to go out and glean. It would still have been hard work, but that hard work would be paid off with food to sustain them. You can think of the story of Ruth who worked hard as a gleaner so that she would have enough both for herself and for her mother-in-law.
I had a disturbing event happen two weeks ago to me that helps illustrate gleaning. I have a single grape vine in my back yard. This is the first year that it really had a sizeable amount of grapes growing on it. I’ve been waiting for the grapes to ripen, tasting one every week or so. They were getting so close. Then I came out one morning and they were all gone. I had put a net over it, but evidently not well enough. Something, probably a raccoon, got behind it and ate them all up. I was so sad. But then I noticed that the compassionate raccoons hadn’t eaten every single grape. As I looked closely there was a random grape here and there left on the vine. I was able to at least glean a few grapes from my vine and be able to taste how my ripened grapes turned out. Well, that’s gleaning, and if I had maybe 1000 more vines and spent all day taking off the few left behind by the raccoons, I could have gotten a decent harvest of grapes.
So here we have in this passage three different categories of laws in the old covenant to help out the poor and needy. Certainly we can think of principles here that might apply to our compassion today toward the poor. But let me draw your attention now to the rationale for these laws. We see this rationale given in verses 18 and 22. This rationale is attached specifically to just two of these laws here, but they sure seem to apply to all of the ones we’ve just discussed. Verse 18, “But you shall remember that you were a slave in Egypt, and the LORD your God redeemed you from there; therefore I command you to do this thing.” Verse 22 is basically the same, “And you shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt; therefore I command you to do this thing.”
How does this rationale relate to these laws about helping the poor and needy? You see, back then, someone who is poor and needy, is on the threshold of falling into slavery. God doesn’t want his people to fall into slavery. In fact, the very history and heritage of Israel was that God had freed them from slavery. That was their defining slogan. Hi, I’m an Israelite; God freed me from Egyptian slavery. Why? Because God is compassionate and loving. He had shown such kindness to Israel in their hour of need. So, do you see the connection here with these laws on being compassionate to the poor and needy? They were designed to help keep the poor and needy in Israel from falling into slavery. We started out today by saying that these laws seem to go above and beyond just strict fairness. Strict fairness might say things like this: It’s your problem, not mine, if you are down and out. I’m going to eat every single one of my grapes myself; grow your own grapes or pay me for mine. If you need a loan from me you better have a suitable pledge to offer and I’m going to keep it until every penny is paid back. That might sound strictly-speaking, fair. But God’s people hadn’t received just “fair” treatment. They had received gracious treatment. They were being called with these laws to reflect God’s compassion and kindness and love. This passage even says that’s what true righteousness is all about. True righteousness embodies the sort of radical compassion and love that God has toward us. Israel had been redeemed from slavery by God’s compassion. Therefore, they were to show God’s compassion to those in need among them, to keep them from falling into slavery.
Well, brothers and sisters, do you see then how this passage applies to us under the new covenant? Do you see how we can apply this passage to Christ? Is our new covenant context fundamentally any different? We see so clearly now what the message of the Bible has been, in both Old and New Testaments. It’s a message of how God has redeemed his people from slavery; not so much about physical Egyptian slavery; but from slavery to sin and death. Romans 6:16 says we were slaves to sin and that leads to death. To redeem someone from slavery is to purchase us out of slavery. To charitably give up something of your own to buy back someone’s freedom. Christ suffered the cross for our sake to redeem us. God redeemed us his people as an act of compassion and kindness toward us.
There are two words in the New Testament that are pretty similar to this concept of the pledge here in Deuteronomy 24. In the New Testament, Jesus is called a surety. Hebrews 7:22 says that Jesus is a surety of a better covenant. In other words, Jesus himself is the guarantee that we will receive the benefits of the new covenant. Like how the pledge was a guarantee to repayment of the loan; Christ is the surety that we will receive the benefits of the new covenant; he puts his life on the line for paying out these benefits. Of course, Christ actually had to put his life literally on the line, on the cross, in order to give us these benefits.
The second word in the New Testament similar to this idea of a pledge is used with regards to the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is called a guarantee. Ephesians 1:14, for example; it says the Spirit is the guarantee of our eternal inheritance. The idea here is that the Spirit is a sort of deposit or down payment for our life to come. We can trust God that we’ll receive the promised eternal life, because he’s already given a guarantee of that, by giving us the Holy Spirit right now, already in this life.
So brethren, think about all of this. We are eternally indebted to God for our salvation. We were slaves to sin, but we were redeemed by God. Not only were we poor and needy, but we were slaves, with no resources to redeem ourselves. And yet God’s graciousness purchased us from slavery. And yet being purchased by God, that makes him our new master. We now are rightly called slaves of God. And yet God didn’t save us just to keep us in another sort of slavery. But what’s God do? He also adopts us as sons and daughters and grants to us an eternal inheritance.
As Christians we already are redeemed. And yet we know many of the Christian promises have still a future fulfillment. There’s obviously much we still look forward to receive from God when Jesus returns. We know God has promised to give us many more riches, so to speak. But would we dare ask God for a pledge to guarantee what he has promised to give to us? Of course not. In light of everything, how could we ask God for something like that? We can take his word. And yet amazingly, as we’ve said, he’s given his Spirit to us as a guarantee of all these promises.
And yet think of this in the other way around. Christ essentially has paid off our debt for us. That would theoretically make him our new debt collector. He paid it off, so we’d owe it to him. But does Christ demand a pledge from us? Does Christ demand that we give a pledge of something valuable to us, in order for him to pay off our debts? Well, not really. We don’t have anything of value to offer as a suitable pledge. What could be a suitable pledge to give to Jesus who pays off all our debt of sin? We were poor and needy, nothing but slaves. Could we give even the shirt off our back as a suitable pledge? No! Instead God calls us to give forth just one thing. Our faith.
Faith, which is not a suitable guarantee of this debt. It’s not a suitable guarantee, because we know that we can never repay the debt we have incurred. Christ is not asking us to repay it, even. Christ paid the debt and forgave us the debt. And then he gives to us. He gives to us heavenly treasure as we hold fast to him by faith. What a radical perspective Scripture gives us. What a radical perspective of the debt we have to God, and how he’s handled it. This is why we talk about grace; grace through faith. Believe and trust in Jesus and be forgiven of all your sins. Turn away from your former manner of living and find new life in Christ. Pledge your life to him by faith, and realize all what he has already done for you and will continue to do for you, even into eternity.
Brothers and sisters, there are so many applications we as Christians can take away from a passage like this. In one sense it can boil down to this. Let us love one another. Let us love one another with the radical compassion and kindness that God has shown us. Let us look to reflect God’s righteousness; a righteousness that goes beyond strict fairness as the world might see it. Righteousness that radically loves. Let us love one another. Let us love all people, and especially believers; those belonging in the household of God. But let us even especially love those who should be of a special concern to us. The poor; the orphans; the widows; the strangers. Of course, for us in the church, the strangers are those who walk in that door on Sunday and don’t know anything about Christ. They are the strangers to the church that we need to especially show concern for them. This sort of love to one another will have physical, material, dimensions. It will also have spiritual dimensions.
Think first about the spiritual dimensions. Just remember the parable of the unmerciful servant in Matthew 18. That’s a parable about loan repayment, but Jesus uses it to give a spiritual application. The parable has a man forgiven of a huge debt. He was supposed to forgive others of the smaller debts they had with him. Jesus says this parable is to teach that Christians ought to extend forgiveness to other humans in light of the forgiveness they’ve received. Well, that’s certainly a point we can take away from Deuteronomy 24. Israel was to show earthly compassion to the poor to keep them out of slavery, because God had shown earthly compassion to them to free them from earthly slavery. In the same way, the spiritual compassion we have been given by God, should mean that we have spiritual compassion to others as well. That’s the message of Matthew 18. It’s certainly a fitting application from this passage. We should forgive others. But we should also share what we have spiritually with one another. We should have a community that loves one another even through deep spiritual fellowship, growing together in discipleship together. Use your spiritual gifts to be a spiritual blessing to each other; to grow together in Christ.
And yet we know that our love for one another must also have physical, material, dimensions to it. God’s compassion to Israel meant that they must show physical compassion to the poor and needy. This would result even in financial sacrifices for Israel to help these in their midst. But it’s not like in the New Testament that we don’t need to have physical compassion for people anymore. No, the New Testament continues to bring this same exhortation to the church. Romans 15:26 describes believers taking up a collection for the poor believers in Jerusalem. 2 Corinthians 9:9 talks about that same thing. Galatians 2:10 records the church commanding their missionaries to remember the poor. James 1:27 says true religion means we should care for the widows and orphans. Though there is a lot of ways we learn spiritual truths from very earthly old covenant laws, here we see that Christians still have a call to care for the poor and needy, even in their earthly, material needs. Doing this, shows forth God’s compassion and kindness in real tangible ways to people. We are called to reflect this character of God.
One natural way this is expressed in the church is through the official diaconal ministry. We take a monthly collection for the diaconal work of the church. This money is used to support the poor and needy, primarily in our church, and then beyond in our community as we have opportunity and resources. By giving to the diaconal work, and supporting the diaconal ministry with your time and efforts you have an opportunity to show forth God’s compassion through this official ministry.
And yet I would encourage us all to have this same spirit in other ways too. Let’s not limit this spirit to just cutting a check once a month in the diaconal offering. See that this is an attitude you should have to those in need around you. You’ll be able to reach people in your own personal lives, that the diaconal ministry of the church can’t reach. Your money doesn’t have to be channeled through the deacons in order for it to be a diaconal service. Sometimes it’s most fitting, and frankly more powerfully received, when it comes directly from you when you see a need.
As you are able, look to be generous and compassionate toward others God places in your life. Not everyone will be in a place to do this financially; but we can all have this attitude of cheerful compassion to those in need around us. Maybe you can personally help out financially your next door neighbor who is in need. Maybe you can’t help out financially to someone in need around you, but maybe you can go visit them in their time of need and lend your compassion and moral support and prayers. Financial giving to others is just one aspect of helping the poor and needy. Hospitality, visitations, prayer, encouragement, speaking out on their behalf, and biblical counsel are just a handful of other ways you can show forth God’s compassion to those in need. Let us indeed love one another. Love as God in Christ has loved us. Amen.
Copyright © 2010 Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
All Rights Reserved.