Sometimes when we are studying the Bible, we come across some statements that force us into some uncomfortable conclusions. This is what happened to me when I was studying the asection on the three Pilgrimage Festivals of Israel for my preaching commentary on Deuteronomy. Let me share an excerpt from the commentary.
CELEBRATING WITH THE NEEDY (Deut. 16:11, 14)
Both the Feast of Weeks and the Feast of Booths are to be celebrated with a wider circle than one’s own family. Verse 11 says, “And you shall rejoice before the Lord your God, you and your son and your daughter, your male servant and your female servant, the Levite who is within your towns, the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow who are among you” (see also 16:14). The term “sojourner” is used in the Bible for those we would describe as “resident aliens”—foreigners who have settled in the land. The King James Version rendering, “stranger,” is therefore misleading. Also included in the festival celebration are people whom the hosts would consider as being of a lower class and therefore who would usually not be included in celebratory meals with the family: “…your male servant and your female servant.” Then there were “the fatherless” and “the widows” who were needy people. There was economic disparity in Israel, but no class difference was tolerated among the people of God. We must do things to ease the burdens of the poor and needy (15:1-18), but we must never treat them as in any way inferior or not equal to us.
It would be better for us to be exploited by the needy than to be guilty of not treating them as the Bible says we should. To be sinned against is better than to sin against another!”
Chris Wright points out that Jesus also directed us to invite the needy for our banquets: “When you give a dinner or a banquet, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbours, lest they also invite you in return and you be repaid. But when you give a feast, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you. You will be repaid at the resurrection of the just” (Luke 14:12-14). If Jesus really meant this, then this is an area where Christians today are very disobedient to Christ.
This command of Christ and the instructions for the Jewish feasts should influence who we invite for our weddings and Christmas dinners. They should include servants and the poor people we help; and they should be sitting at table with us as equals.
Following this direction is not as easy as it may seem at first. There’s an awkwardness that comes when people who are culturally different to us join at a family event. Some who are not used to this equality do not know what to do with it, and they could exploit the situation in inappropriate ways. Some may abuse the friendship. Some who discover the Christian doctrine of equality do not realise that that does not negate the Christian practice of respect for elders and leaders. Some may not do their work properly as they do not feel so afraid of their Christian employers any more. These problems may be the price that we pay for fostering the type of community described in the Bible. And this would happen especially in the early years of change in the Christian community. Yet it would be better for us to be exploited by the needy than to be guilty of not treating them as the Bible says we should. To be sinned against is better than to sin against another!
As we seek to foster equality we will learn how to do these things wisely. Then there is a good chance of both the rich and the poor benefiting from the exercise. But the learning process may go on for a considerable period of time. During that time we may need to bear the cross of being humiliated because people we were bold to treat as equals abused our trust in them.
It must be noted that religious festivals the world over are associated with giving to the needy. In many religions, the motivation is the earning of merit through giving to the needy. The distinctive feature of biblical festivals is that we give out of gratitude to what God has given to us, and, in fact, even what we give are things that God has given us. We will be blessed by doing this, but that is not the reason why we give. We give humbly, not like great benefactors. We give with a joyful heart of gratitude to the God who has helped us even though we did not deserve it.
Often in religious festivals when the rich give to the poor they give as superior people helping inferior people. Not so when we give at a Christian festival. We identify with those we help by having them over to share a meal together with us as our equals.