My mom—who happens to be with us tonight—is the Director of Volunteer Engagement for a nonprofit in Charlotte that works with homeless families. A few years ago, I got roped into helping with childcare for an event they held for some of their families. We put a movie on in the background, and at some point, it caught the attention of a 6- or 7-year-old girl.
“Why are they doing that?” she asked. I started to clumsily explain what little of the plot I had picked up from halfway paying attention, but eventually gave up and went straight for the moral of the story. “The point is that you don’t need money to be happy.”
I was not prepared for this little girl’s response.
“Yes you do!”
I started to argue, then realized—I had left my home on the campus of a private university for the weekend to visit my parents’ home, where I have my own room to this day. She was staying in a homeless shelter with her family. Who was I to tell her that you don’t need money to be happy?
Our passage for tonight has always troubled me. John is the only Gospel writer who tells us explicitly that Judas wanted to steal the money for himself—without that parenthetical aside, Judas’ concern is a fair one. And Jesus’ response is disappointing: “You always have the poor with you.”
Does that mean we should accept poverty as a natural part of life and move on? What the heck, Jesus?
As it turns out, Jesus isn’t much for the status quo. There is another place in the Bible besides the gospels that talks about always having the poor with you. Jesus’ Jewish listeners might have picked up on it. Deuteronomy 15:11 says, “there will never cease to be some in need on the earth,” or in another translation, “There will always be poor people in the land.”
But there’s more to it than that. There is an imperative in Deuteronomy—a “since” and a “therefore.” Here’s the whole verse: “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.’"
Jesus wasn’t saying, “Oh well.” Jesus was asking us, “What are you going to do about it?”
You may or may not have noticed it, but earlier in the service I used a version of the Lord’s Prayer that isn’t the one that typically shows up in Methodist contexts. Do we have any Presbyterians here? Y’all are the primary group I know of that says, “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.”
Now, I’ve always preferred the other version, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” This is partly because I just don’t like using the word “debt” when talking about salvation. That sort of transactional language is connected to some theories of atonement that don’t fit with the nature of God as I have come to understand him. It tends to make God out to be wrathful, legalistic, and frankly kind of a jerk.
However, I used “debts” and “debtors” on purpose tonight. Here’s why. The Deuteronomy passage I mentioned is not talking about poverty as a general concept. It’s talking about a concrete Jewish practice known as the Jubilee.
Let’s back up. In Genesis, we have the creation accounts that tell how God made the world in six days and rested on the seventh. That seventh day is the Sabbath. At the end of each day of creation, God saw that it was good. When God created humans, he saw that it was very good. But he called the Sabbath not good, but holy.
The Sabbath is a day of rest when no work is to be done. We just completed a church-wide Lenten study on the Sabbath here at Centenary, and many people found the concept very challenging. A whole day of no work in this 24/7 world?
Well, the Sabbath day is nothing compared to the Jubilee. Here’s how the Jubilee works: every seven years, you take one entire year to do four things: let your fields lie fallow, meaning you don’t plant any crops; remit all debts owed to you; liberate slaves; and redistribute property. The Jubilee year was like a massive reset button for the economy—I bet you wish we had one of those today, huh?
In his book The Politics of Jesus, John Howard Yoder claims that the Lord’s Prayer is actually referring to the Jubilee, specifically to the practice of forgiving debt. The Greek verb used here means “remit” or “forgive” specifically in a monetary sense. There’s nothing wrong with us taking this as a call to forgiveness more broadly, but for Yoder, it’s important that we not lose that very concrete sense of forgiving monetary debt and its connection to the Jubilee.
Deuteronomy 15 is tackling a problem with the Jubilee. As the seventh year approached, people were much more hesitant to lend money for fear of not getting paid back. Think about it—if you’re in year one, no big deal, surely this person can pay you back in six years. But if you’re six and a half years out from the last Jubilee, if you give a loan, chances are pretty good you’ll lose that money when the debt gets cancelled.
The writer of Deuteronomy has to remind the faithful to be generous and not tight-fisted. Refusing to lend money to the poor for fear of losing it defeats the purpose of the Jubilee, which goes back to the idea of Sabbath—it’s all about trust in God. One of the things people here wrestled with most was this anxiety that if they took a whole day each week where they didn’t get anything accomplished, it would negatively impact their lives or their careers.
John Howard Yoder addresses this by looking at Matthew 6—that’s the passage that says do not worry, looks at how God clothes and feeds the birds of the air and the lilies of the fields who do no work. That sounds nice, but Yoder puts it in the context of the Jubilee and offers his own interpretation:
“If you work six days (or six years) with all your hear, you can count on God to take care of you and yours. So without fear leave your field untilled. As he does for the birds of the heaven which do not sow or harvest or collect into granaries, God will take care of your needs. The Gentiles who pay no attention to the sabbath are not richer than you.”
The Jubilee is not something for the wealthy to fear. It is a celebration of God’s providence for all people and a foretaste of the kingdom. The remission of debts and redistribution of property is a tangible sign of our part to play in the bringing in of the kingdom.
There is a Haitian proverb that says, “God gives, but God doesn’t share.” Gandhi said something similar: “The world has enough for everyone’s need, but not enough for everyone’s greed.” We live in a world that is intensely focused on scarcity—not enough money, not enough food, not enough weapons. The truth is that we have more than enough, we just haven’t figured it out yet. God has given us more than we need. The jubilee reminds us of that. It helps us to share what we have been given and to remember that it was never ours in the first place.
The organization my mom works for, the one through which I met the little girl I told you about earlier, is called Charlotte Family Housing. They provide a myriad of services to homeless families, all aimed at helping them “achieve long-term self-sufficiency.”
Two of their programs in particular are worth noting here. First, they offer interest-free microloans to help families in emergencies or with a sudden job loss. As part of that, loan recipients are encouraged to keep up with their payment plan as a way to help other families in need—if they pay back their loans on time, the money is there to help someone else. They are empowered to participate in extending the same assistance they have received to others.
Second, each year around the holidays they run a special store, appropriately named the Jubilee Store. Families are able to purchase gifts for loved ones at a reduced price. Instead of simply being given handouts, they are given the dignity, self-esteem and personal accountability that comes with budgeting for and buying presents. Proceeds from the Jubilee Store go back into the microloan fund.
Tomorrow is Holy Thursday. Here at Centenary, we will remember the Last Supper, when Jesus shared a Passover meal with his disciples just before Judas betrayed him. The next day is Good Friday. In the darkness of a service called Tenebrae, we will hear the last seven words of Christ in word and song as we hear the story of Jesus’ crucifixion. On Sunday, this building will be full of lilies and people in pastels and seersucker as we celebrate the resurrection on Easter.
But what about Saturday? We don’t talk much about Holy Saturday in most mainline Protestant churches. Saturday is the day where it seems nothing really happens. Jesus is in the tomb. We just wait.
Some traditions refer to Holy Saturday as the Great Sabbath. Between the crucifixion on Friday and the resurrection on Sunday, Jesus rests in the tomb. Some Moravians will have a Holy Saturday love feast. Many Catholics and Orthodox will hold services to keep vigil as they wait for Easter morning. Here’s part of a prayer from the Matins service for Holy Saturday:
You have sanctified this, the seventh day,
which of old You blessed by rest from work;
for You bring all things into being and renew them, my Savior,
while resting and reviving on the sabbath.
Last week, we sang the old hymn “Alas! And Did My Savior Bleed.” The final verse goes like this: “But drops of tears can never repay the debt of love I owe.” That debt was cancelled on Holy Saturday. By dying and rising, Jesus freed us from slavery to sin and death. Jesus became our Jubilee.
“You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.” “God gives, but God doesn’t share.” Jesus is our Jubilee, and we are the body of Christ. Amen.
Sarah S. Howell