Open Welfare

In comments on my post from Chris Wright’s commentary on Deuteronomy, some of my friends have been at odds over what “welfare” should look like in the modern world. It’s a serious question, the answer to which I don’t know. Studying Deuteronomy has influenced my thinking, however, in the following ways:

1. God’s law has a huge, fundamental concern for the poor and the vulnerable. It’s not just the odd verse here and there. It gets emphasized centrally and repeatedly. The implication seems to be: God’s law exists for the welfare of the community, which finds its focus in the needs of the poor, the widow, the orphan, the slave and the immigrant. They are part of the community and their welfare is a barometer for the community.

2. Welfare for the poor and the vulnerable is not optional. It does not depend on kindness or voluntary charity. It is law–God’s law. As such, the “income” of the poor, whether through gleaning, tithes, release from loans, or whatever, is seen to be their natural right as part of the community.

3. Property rights are consistently secondary to the rights of the poor and vulnerable, as seen for instance in the law of gleaning.

4. The poor and vulnerable are consistently treated with dignity as full members of the community. They do not wait in a separate line. Even when they are badly in debt, even when they have sold themselves as indentured servants, they remain equal in status to their masters. The lenders can go only so far in recovering their loans–for example, they cannot enter homes but must wait outside.

5. Welfare provisions generally assume that the poor and vulnerable remain independent, taking care of themselves. For example, gleaners must harvest from the fields; the harvest is not handed over to them. For example, every seven years they get to start over, with the same basic assets as everybody else (i.e., the land). The baseline assumption is that they can handle responsibility, if they get a chance.

6. Generous attitudes are insisted on. The orientation is not toward “how little can we provide,” but toward a spirit of community concern for each other. And that spirit is inclusive; it involves the immigrant, for example. Though “there will always be poor people in the land” (15:11) “there need be no poor people among you,” (15:4), because God has been so generous in giving the riches of the land (undeservedly). As a community we are to emulate God’s generosity toward us. “Therefore I command you to be open-handed toward those of your people who are poor and needy in your land.” (15:11) “Open-handed” is an interesting choice of word. Its basis is a phrase meaning to let go, or release. Generosity means letting go of our resources, not maintaining control.

As I said, I don’t know how we apply this to welfare law. It’s a complicated matter, and perhaps it’s best not to be dogmatic but to allow for experimentation. One thing to keep in mind, however, is that all such systems of law are imperfect and prone to failure. Given human nature, they will be abused. These biblical laws, as interesting and clever as they appear to be, certainly were. We know that because of what the prophets wrote about Israel’s failings. Laws don’t reverse human nature. But that’s no reason to abandon the attempt to make them as good as possible.


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5 Responses to “Open Welfare”

  1. Paul D. Adams Says:

    Excellent summary of the biblical data. Thanks for sharing. Along similar lines, visit my essay where I capture the gist of OT teaching re: giving/tithing.

  2. David Weinschrott Says:

    I agree with your points, except on the more general redistribution of the land. While debts are written off every 6 years, land that has been sold or lost because of debt is returned to the original owners every 50 years – the jubilee year. God cared that this redistribution be observed. Jeremiah 34 establishes that a prominent cause of the captivity was the failure to release debts every 6 years. When some of Israel returned from Babylon/Persia, a portion began again to impose debt conditions that expropriated land. In Nehemia 5, he came down on them hard for continuing the practice that partly caused the exile in the first place.

  3. Luci N. Shaw Says:

    Tim, this is great food for thought, and action. I’m sending this to our church alms ministry team to fortify us as we meet street people and mothers living in their cars with their children. We know we are doing something for God and his children, but this adds extra motivation! Thanks. Luci

  4. Ken Williams Says:

    Tim, i read and appreciate your blog and books. i want to direct your attention to an article in First Things today about a remarkable woman from Birmingham who survived the bombing at a church 50 years ago. It is written by Timothy George.

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