Deuteronomy 15: 1-18 Forgiveness of Debts
1 Every seventh year you shall grant a remission of debts. 2 And this is the manner of the remission: every creditor shall remit the claim that is held against a neighbor, not exacting it of a neighbor who is a member of the community, because the LORD’s remission has been proclaimed. 3 Of a foreigner you may exact it, but you must remit your claim on whatever any member of your community owes you. 4 There will, however, be no one in need among you, because the LORD is sure to bless you in the land that the LORD your God is giving you as a possession to occupy, 5 if only you will obey the LORD your God by diligently observing this entire commandment that I command you today. 6 When the LORD your God has blessed you, as he promised you, you will lend to many nations, but you will not borrow; you will rule over many nations, but they will not rule over you.
7 If 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 toward your needy neighbor. 8 You should rather open your hand, willingly lending enough to meet the need, whatever it may be. 9 Be 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. 10 Give 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. 11 Since 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.”
12 If a member of your community, whether a Hebrew man or a Hebrew woman, is sold to you and works for you six years, in the seventh year you shall set that person free. 13 And when you send a male slave out from you a free person, you shall not send him out empty-handed. 14 Provide liberally out of your flock, your threshing floor, and your wine press, thus giving to him some of the bounty with which the LORD your God has blessed you. 15 Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the LORD your God redeemed you; for this reason I lay this command upon you today. 16 But if he says to you, “I will not go out from you,” because he loves you and your household, since he is well off with you, 17 then you shall take an awl and thrust it through his earlobe into the door, and he shall be your slave forever. You shall do the same with regard to your female slave.
18 Do not consider it a hardship when you send them out from you free persons, because for six years they have given you services worth the wages of hired laborers; and the LORD your God will bless you in all that you do.
There is a narrative that is heard frequently in some political circles and among many conservative religious groups that reflects a privatized view of reality. The belief that an individual’s prosperity is possible without any obligation to the neighbor or the safety net for the vulnerable among us. Sometimes this privatized view of reality and faith is endorsed with the idea that, “there will never cease to be some in need on the earth,” (see verse 11) or Jesus’ saying in John’s gospel, “You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.” Pastors who preach with an emphasis on social justice issues, or who advocate for legal protections for vulnerable portions of the society are often accused of being too political. And perhaps this is on my mind after seeing several of my colleagues in Houston who were brokenhearted at the failure of the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance after actively working to assist with addressing some of the fear based misinformation that often was circulated by other Christian groups. Perhaps this particular ordinance may not align with what Deuteronomy 15 is talking about, but Deuteronomy’s call for a society that practices debt forgiveness is opposite of a community that can endorse a privatized view of economics or of a religion that is uninvolved in advocating on behalf of those who are economically and politically at risk.
The type of economic forgiveness that is outlined here in Deuteronomy challenges the privatized world of economic gain. The people are called to live a life that is generous towards their neighbors, lending to them and providing for them in the time of need but not allowing for people to become bondservants into perpetuity. The life of the community is not to be tied to the ability of the people to acquire more property and wealth at the neighbor’s expense or parsimoniously trying to address the need of the neighbor because a time of remission of debt is near. Their identity is tied to the story of the Exodus, they were once enslaved and were liberated by the LORD of Israel and now they are not to return to the economic system of Egypt that they were liberated from but rather are to liberate their fellow Hebrews every seventh year. Also they are not to send them out empty handed but rather to give them the resources they need to not immediately be returned into slavery.
The demands of Deuteronomy 15 were a challenge for the people of Israel to enact. The enticement of being able to secure one’s own wealth and future by increasing one’s holdings or having more slaves to bring in more agricultural produce in ancient times (or the ability to keep people perpetually indebted through high interest in many people’s lives today) are difficult issues to address. An example from the book of Jeremiah tells about the people of Judah releasing their slaves only to enslave them once again during the days leading up to the exile in Babylon (Jeremiah 34: 8-22). It is much easier to allow amnesia to set in and believe that “My power and the might of my own hand have gotten me this wealth.” (Deuteronomy 8:17). Yet for the people of Israel, and Christians who are also bearers of this story and message it is the LORD who provides. As the Lord’s Prayer can remind us we are to forgive our debtors as we want our debts to be forgiven.
What does this look like in a contemporary secular setting? This is a challenging question since the society that Deuteronomy envisions is not a secular society but a unified society where the people shared in a common covenantal identity. But perhaps in the secular and privatized society there is a great need for people of faith who take seriously the need to advocate for a just society. There will be disagreements about what this type of society might look like and there will be those who advocate for similar things for non-religious reasons. Yet, this vision that Deuteronomy shares (which may or may not have every been realized) is a vision that echoes throughout both the Old and New Testament and still continues to come back into public discourse today. Yet even more than advocating for humane policies, which is important, perhaps we need to learn to be humane people. Rather than giving up because “there will never cease to be some in need on the earth,” as people of faith perhaps the first response is learning to “Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land.”
Deuteronomy 15: 19-23 Giving the Best To God
19 Every firstling male born of your herd and flock you shall consecrate to the LORD your God; you shall not do work with your firstling ox nor shear the firstling of your flock. 20 You shall eat it, you together with your household, in the presence of the LORD your God year by year at the place that the LORD will choose. 21 But if it has any defect– any serious defect, such as lameness or blindness– you shall not sacrifice it to the LORD your God; 22 within your towns you may eat it, the unclean and the clean alike, as you would a gazelle or deer. 23 Its blood, however, you must not eat; you shall pour it out on the ground like water.
Sometimes working in a church you get used to receiving castaways. A friend told a story how a woman drove up to church, dropped off a box and was irritated when they flagged the woman down to find out what was going on. The woman had dropped off a large box of water damaged books and very ratty toys figuring they could go in the church library or nursery. They were not good enough to be in her own home anymore but maybe they were good enough for the church. Yet, one of the reasons this discussion about sacrifices comes up multiple times throughout the book of Deuteronomy is to address various issues around the eating of these animals. While the animals are to be eaten together in community as a part of the festival, it is also not to be done with the ‘runt of the liter’ or the animal that is damaged in some way. The people were charged to bring their best to God and the community. Their actions in celebration and worship were to model their calling to love the Lord their God with all their heart, soul and might. (Deuteronomy 6:5)