Tag Archives: Welfare

Responsibility and Need

If any woman who is a believer has widows in her care, she should continue to help them and not let the church be burdened with them, so that the church can help those widows who are really in need.
1 Timothy 5:16 (NIV)

Early in my life journey I worked at a number of different churches and different denominations. One of the common struggles I observed was how each church handled those who would regularly come to the church asking for a handout. In every church I served there was a sincere and loving motivation to help those in need, but there was also the realization that responsible generosity also required  wisdom and discernment. While some individuals were people truly in need, others were not. There were individuals who were perfectly capable of getting a job and supporting themselves, but they were more than happy to avoid the work and simply make the rounds of every church in town seeing how much money they could talk the churches into giving them.

Along the way I’ve observed a simple reality of human nature. If you create a system of welfare there will be those who will try to take personal advantage of the system. Even Jesus encountered this when He fed the multitudes by turning a few loaves and fish into to a  miraculous Filet o’ Fish fest. He quickly recognized that many were following Him simply for the free lunch. John 6 describes Jesus confronting the crowd and questioning their motivation. He appears, at that point, to have shut down his miraculous fish sandwich program on the spot.

It’s so easy for me to get stuck thinking about “church” in context of what I have known and experienced “the church” to be in my lifetime. I default to thinking of buildings and denominational institutions with varying takes on theological issues.  It’s critical as a reader of Paul’s letter to Timothy for me to understand how different the circumstances were then. There was no institution, no denomination, and no church buildings. Small groups of Jesus’ followers were “the church.” It was a flesh and blood organism. Followers of Jesus gathered in homes where they ate together, worshipped together, and shared life together. They were loosely structured and yet they quickly gained a reputation for collectively caring for those in need who were marginalized and outcast by society of that day: widows, orphans, the sick, the diseased, and the disabled.

And, true to human nature, there were those more than willing to take personal advantage of the corporate generosity.

There is a theme woven throughout Paul’s life and letters that I rarely hear discussed today. It’s threaded through the entire chapter today. Until late in his life Paul always worked for his living and supported himself. His family were tentmakers by trade and no matter where he went he could pull out his tools and ply that trade. He expected Jesus’ followers to take personal responsibility for the needs of one’s self and one’s family so that generosity could be given to those “truly in need.”

In the quiet this morning I’m whispering a prayer of gratitude, as I recognize that I am blessed to have been raised in a culture and a family system that taught and modeled personal responsibility, hard work, and generosity. My gratitude extends to giving thanks for my job, my clients, and my colleagues. Finally, I’m thankful for the reality that, thus far in my entire life journey, I have never known what truly means to be what Paul described as “really in need.”

featured photo courtesy of IIP Photo Archive via Flickr

The Pain of Separation

I have forsaken my house,
    I have abandoned my heritage;
I have given the beloved of my heart
    into the hands of her enemies.
Jeremiah 12:7 (NRSVCE)

I’m assuming that for many living in the melting pot of America, the concept of a heritage and a people may not be as strong as it once was. My father moved our family away from his home when I was young and I grew up removed from the Dutch heritage in which he was raised. As an adult, I doubled-down and returned to my roots, moving to a town that is rabid about its Dutch heritage. I have an appreciation for what it means to embrace and celebrate the people and the culture that are your genetic roots.

In my Dutch heritage there is a word that you’ll still hear old-timers pull out once in a while: afscheiding, It means to “separate.” When an individual or group left the fold they became tagged “afscheiden.” I get the sense that in most circles it was once the Dutch version of a scarlet letter.

In the previous chapter we learned that Jeremiah had so incensed the people of his hometown with his prophecy that a price had been put on his head. There was a plot to kill him. How appropriate then, to read in today’s chapter, that the weeping prophet is feeling like an afscheiden. God has called Jeremiah to declare the destruction of his unrepentant people over and over and over again. Now his own people have turned against him. He feels separated, ostracized, and alienated. Jeremiah loves his people, his culture, and his heritage and yet his prophecy is all about Judah’s fall and destruction. There is a war raging inside him. Following God meant separation from his heritage.

Along this life journey I have walked alongside many people who have had to battle the deep internal struggle of parting ways with the faith and/or culture of their family and heritage. Every culture and heritage has it’s strengths and corollary struggles. A time comes when for the spiritual health of an individual or family there must come separation from a church, a family system, or a community. It is tremendously difficult for some to risk social and relational stigma and fallout. Jeremiah is feeling that. Following God feels like a betrayal of his family, people, and heritage.

This morning in the quiet I’m saying a “thank you” for all the great things that my family system, heritage, and culture have afforded me. I am also making a renewed commitment to follow wherever God calls me, wherever I’m supposed to be, even if I’m branded an afscheiden.

The Ancients Way of Welfare

When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest. You shall not strip your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the alien: I am the Lord your God.
Leviticus 19:9-10 (NRSV)

The ancient Hebrew legal system had a way of providing food for the poor. Farmers were forbidden from harvesting everything in their fields. The edges of the field (e.g. more easily accessible) were to be left unharvested. In addition, if grapes or grain fell to the ground during harvest they were to be left there. Those who were poor could gather food from the fields.

The thing I find fascinating about this ancient tax and welfare system is that the poor still had to work to gather the fruit or grains themselves. If they were incapable of harvesting themselves, then they had to work to arrange for someone else to do it for them. Once harvested, at least some of that which was gathered still had to be prepared. It wasn’t a “free” handout. It required some effort of the recipient.

This morning I’m thinking about giving and gleaning. Having been raised in the midwest and steeped in the Protestant work ethic, I’ve always known that the value of work goes beyond the paycheck. When you work for what you have you earn self-respect and self-esteem. There are always exceptional situations, but I have always thought it foolish to base societal rules on exceptional situations. In general, I believe there is something subtly and insidiously damaging to a soul when it continuously reaps without having to glean.

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Cost-Shifting

Moreover from the time that I was appointed to be their governor in the land of Judah, from the twentieth year to the thirty-second year of King Artaxerxes, twelve years, neither I nor my brothers ate the food allowance of the governor.
Nehemiah 5:14 (NRSV)

I have witnessed a change in the culture around me during my life journey. As a child, I learned by example that making your own way and being responsible for your own provision was of great importance. There were a few basic principles that were part of the fabric of the culture around. Living by these principles not only said something about your character, but they also benefited society as a whole:

  • Earn your own way.
  • Don’t take what you haven’t earned.
  • If you borrow in need, pay it back quickly (and before spending more for yourself).
  • Avoid needing any kind of financial assistance. If you need help, then get back on your feet and off assistance as quickly as possible.

What I have observed in increasing measure is a shift towards the acceptance of cost-shifting. I receive something and the cost is paid by someone else. This was once considered dishonorable and immoral, but I see it accepted by more and more people without question.

A few years ago I overheard a young married couple talking among my local gathering of Jesus’ followers. They were highly educated, healthy, and capable people of middle-class midwestern upbringing. I listened as they proudly espoused their creative ability to “work the system” and get all sorts of welfare and entitlement money from the government. They eagerly encouraged their friends to do the same, explaining how the money and assistance they received from from the government allowed them to work less.

It’s just out there,” they said of the government entitlement programs. “It’s free money. It’s going to go to someone. It might as well be me.

I continue to be bewildered (and angered) by my friends’ misguided thinking. They were blind to their cost-shifting. The money they received were tax dollars others earned. They were quite capable of working harder and earning their own way, but they chose to work less and accept assistance they didn’t really need. The more people cost-shift, the more an economy and a culture struggles.

Nehemiah was dealing with a similar situation in today’s chapter. The people left in Jerusalem after the city had fallen to the Babylonians were cost-shifting in different ways. They were taking whatever they could extort from one another. The leaders were taxing people in exorbitant excess of the King’s minimum in order to live high off the hog. Nehemiah calls a community meeting and confronts the people about how wrong this cost-shifting was in God’s eyes, and how bad it was for themselves as a society.

Nehemiah then led by example. He chose not to take everything to which he was “entitled” by his position and power. He actively pursued a spirit of contentment. He consumed what he needed and was generous with his blessings. He flatly refused to adopt the “take what you can get” mentality he’d observed in his people.

It’s Monday morning and I’m grateful this morning for growing up in a culture that valued hard work and earning your way. I’m thankful for the blessing of my job. I’m grateful for the opportunity to earn a good living, provide for my home, pay my tithes and taxes, and to be generous with what I have been given.

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Featured image by Kevin Trotman via Flickr

The Biggest Gig in Town! And, FREE FOOD!!

Jesus answered them, “Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves.
John 6:26 (NRSV)

I have watched the YouTube video above multiple times. I’m not alone. It’s at 25 million views and still going. The moment is compelling (especially for someone with hearing difficulties) and emotional at the most raw human level. A deaf person hears for the first time. I have yet to watch it without tears welling up in my own eyes.

Now I think about Jesus walking around the Sea of Galilee performing miracles. Take this YouTube video and multiply it. See moments like this over and over and over again in real time. The deaf could hear. Lame people got up and walked. Blind people could see for the first time. And, best of all, Jesus conjured up shore lunch of fish sandwiches for everyone!

Jesus was the best gig in town. Entertainment like no one had every seen along with great storytelling,  free food and free health care! No wonder the crowds were following Him in droves. He was riding a tidal wave of public opinion. He was the biggest game in town. He was bigger than Trump! More generous than Bernie!

And then, Jesus does the strangest thing. He walked away. He left quietly in the night. He got out of Dodge without telling anyone where he went.

The crowd was frantic the next morning. They went after Him. Searched for Him. Scattered around the country side until they found Him. They wanted more. Don’t we always want more? More entertainment! Bigger miracles! Bigger is always better. More is always better. Faster is always better:

Do something new, Jesus! We’ve seen you heal blind people. Yada, yada, yada. You do it all the time. Tears. Astonishment. ‘I can see!’ It’s getting old. Hey, I know! How about growing an eyeball in an empty socket!? That would be totally cool. Haven’t seen that, yet. Oh, and by the way: Can you conjure up something other than fish sandwiches for lunch? At least add some tartar sauce or something? Do you have a gluten free option? My wife has dietary issues.”

I find it fascinating that Jesus didn’t question the motives of the people. He saw them clearly and he, flat out, exposed what those self-centered motives were. Then…Jesus gets all weird:

“…unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.”

So…no more miracles? I guess shore lunch is out of the question today, too? Crap. Let’s get out of here. Obviously, the guy is a crackpot. Miracles were cool, sure, but the guy is talking nuts like some cannibal. Oh well, at least I got one free meal out of the deal.

Along my journey I’ve come to realize that my motives for seeking Jesus will largely determine the outcome of Who I find.

 

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Industrious Generosity

When you reap your harvest in your field and forget a sheaf in the field, you shall not go back to get it; it shall be left for the alien, the orphan, and the widow, so that the Lord your God may bless you in all your undertakings.
Deuteronomy 24:19 (NRSV)

It’s harvest time in Iowa. As Wendy and I have been driving through the countryside the past few days the combines are busy bringing in the corn and beans. Look across the horizon at the right time and you’ll see a haze of dust from the corn being harvested. It’s the nearest thing we have to smog in the otherwise clean Iowa air. The silos are full and the corn is being piled up in huge mountains of golden grain.

Perhaps that’s why it struck me this morning when the chapter discussed the harvest. In the law of Moses, farmers were not supposed to take all of the grain from the fields, pick all of the olives from the tree, or harvest every grape. They were to leave some for those in society who have nothing so that they could come and eat or sell what they harvested to make a little money.

The thing that I appreciate about the ancient welfare program was that it still required those in need to be industrious if they wanted to benefit from the farmers’ excess. You still had to make your way to the field and then had to do the work of harvesting what you needed.

I have observed along my life journey that those who are capable of being industrious but are not required to do anything for a handout soon come to routinely expect something for nothing. Today, I am appreciative of the Law of Moses which made provision for those in need, but expected that every capable member of society be industrious in providing for themselves.

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featured photo: catdancing via Flickr

When to Close Up the Filet-O-Fish Stand

source: roslyn via flickr
source: roslyn via flickr

For even when we were with you, we gave you this rule: “The one who is unwilling to work shall not eat.”

We hear that some among you are idle and disruptive. They are not busy; they are busybodies. Such people we command and urge in the Lord Jesus Christ to settle down and earn the food they eat. And as for you, brothers and sisters, never tire of doing what is good. 2 Thessalonians 3:6 (NIV)

I recently had several conversations with a friend who is on the leadership team for a local group of Jesus’ followers. They were having issues with a particular individual who has established a pattern of expecting the group to pay for things. A month’s rent, a tank of gas, or a new piece of furniture were common expectations from this person. The individual doesn’t ask for help, it is just an expectation. Ironically, this same person appears to have no expectation to actually work to provide for their own needs or to contribute to the group in any meaningful or tangible way.

Jesus was a giver, and I get that. We are called to give and to help those who need it, and I am continually challenged and convicted to do more in that department. I find, however, that we often fail to remember that after a couple of instances of miraculously providing fish sandwiches  to the crowds, Jesus stopped the welfare program with a blistering tirade. Jesus chided the crowds for following him simply because he filled their stomachs while they had no intention or hunger to fill their souls.

Today I’m reminded that even in the early days of the faith, a period of time I often find idealized by Jesus’ followers today, there were some of the same nagging, human issues we grapple with today. People are people. Wherever there is generosity, there will be those who seek to take advantage of that generosity. I find it interesting that in today’s chapter the leaders in Thessalonica were commanded to take a strong stand with such individuals. If those who were able didn’t develop an industrious work ethic, then the generosity had to end.

These are difficult issues, especially when it’s not just a debate of principles but becomes a real person you have to confront, encourage, and admonish. It gets messy. There is inevitable conflict. If there is to be real spiritual growth in human hearts and lives then sometimes conflict is necessary. Iron sharpens iron and it is not a gentle process. Jesus not only drove the crowds away when he effectively closed up his filet-o-fish stand, but even had his inner circle scratching their heads.

I think of wise King Solomon and his reminder that there is a time for everything. I guess there is a time for giving, and a time for withholding generosity. Today, I’m praying for wisdom to know the difference.