‘Holy Extravagance’ Deuteronomy 15:1-23 September 6, 1992
One of the unique and remarkable features of the Mosaic law was its genuine concern for the individual member of society and especiaily the poorer and weaker members. Elsewhere in the ANE men were treated before the law according to their social and economic status. In the Code of Hammurabi, for example, the slave and the underprivileged counted less before the law. But in Israel the needy were the special concern of the Lord and the covenant community was expected to ensure their welfare.
v. 3 The question discussed in the commentaries is whether in this seventh year the entire debt was to be permanently terminated, or whether only payments were suspended for that year.
It may be that it is the latter that is more probable and that this provision has to do with the fact that according to the law of Moses in that same seventh year the land was to lie fallow. Many poorer people, without the income of the land, would be unable to make payments on their debt and would have resulted for them in still greater hardship, such as being forced to enter into slavery which is discussed in vv. 12-18. A foreign merchant trading in Israel would still be able to make payments and is thus required to do so. He, of course, would have owned no land. Of course, at 49th year of jubilee, his debts were cancelled completely.
v. 5 There will be no poor…if only… Verse 11 is the acknowledgement that this condition will not be faithfully met in Israel.
v. 8 No encouragement to panhandling here; ‘freely lend… the poor must repay.’ Not that gifts were forbidden, of course, only that the justice envisioned was certainly not some form of income redistribution.
v. 10 The requirement of charity extends past the letter of the law to the attitude of the heart.
v. 15 Ethics from theology as in Paul! But now we think of Christ!
This morning, before we come to the Lord’s Table and there renew our love for, and our loyalty to the Lord Christ, I want to draw a single simple point from the text we have read. I want to remind you of something we should never forget as Christians. I want to remind you, as we are here reminded in Deuteronomy 15, that no one is a true and faithful follower of the Lord who does not follow him exuberantly and extravagantly. Genuine Christian faith and love always express themselves lavishly.
The world does not cancel debts in order to ensure that the debtor does not suffer any undue hardship. It does not happily forsake for others economic advantages which have come its way. The ungodly do not make a life’s work of giving away what rightfully belongs to them for the sake of the welfare of others. And, if they do occasionally perform works of mercy, they do not do so with the thought that because to love others in this generous way is the true purpose and pleasure of their lives, the more extravagantly they give to others the better. Further, ungodly people don’t take their very first paycheck and give it away, the way Israel was to give away the firstborn of the flock or herd and the first wool that is produced from their animals. No one else in the ancient world did these things and no one does them today.
But in the world of God’s grace, in the Kingdom of God, among those into whose the most extravagant divine love has been poured, this ‘hold nothing back’ kind of living and giving is the reality and ever more of it is the goal toward which believers always point themselves. The more they give away, the more they sacrifice, the happier they are, the more complete are their lives, and the more they experience the favor of God.
Christians are like the man in the riddle that Mr. Honest proposes in Pilgrim’s Progress:
A man there was, though some did count him mad; The more he cast away, the more he had.
As we read in v. 15, God’s lavish love for them has become the pattern of their lives; loving God and wanting to honor him, they seek to imitate him in the extravagance of love. There is a kind of madness to it, from the worldly point of view, but they go on in this abandon, this indifference to worldly wisdom, this extravagant forgetting of themselves in the knowledge that nothing pleases the Lord more than that his children should love the way he does.
In Deuteronomy that extravagance, that passion, that exuberance, that lavishness is seen in the generosity which believers extend toward the poor. But it is seen in many other ways as well. The fact is, that the Bible teaches the Christian life to be in all its parts an extravagance of devotion.
From the beginning to the end of the Bible we are treated to one illustration after another of men and women who do the most lavish things out of love and devotion and gratitude to God. We are being taught that true Christian love and true faith are mighty things and require powerful expression. Hannah had for years wept for a child and ached for nothing so much as a baby to hold in her arms. But, when God gave her a son in answer to her prayer, — a son she loved as only a long-barren woman can love her firstborn –, she gave that baby boy back to the Lord to be raised by another in the temple. David’s Christian faith and love made him a wonderfully extravagant man. Once it was leaping and dancing before the Ark of the Covenant with no thought of his dignity — it struck his wife as unbecoming, even humiliating. And then we have the woman who broke the expensive jar of perfume — worth a year’s wages — over the Lord’s head as a token of her devotion to him. Not just some of the perfume, but the whole jar, so that the whole house smelled of it. And what of the poor woman who put her two pennies, all the money she had, into the temple treasury because she loved the Lord and because honoring him was more important to her than life itself. Worldly people, making worldly calculations, do not do such things. And what of Paul who tells us that to follow the Lord and serve him it required that he suffer the loss of all things, which he was most willing to do. And what of the teaching of Holy Scripture that to follow Christ we must stand willing to give up our families, our possessions, even our very lives or that, in order to live lives worthy of him, we must not hesitate to gouge out a right eye or cut off a right arm.
This is everywhere the language of Holy Scripture. The Lord asks for everything from us, and the godly man or woman rushes to give everything to him, the more, the costlier the better. There is to be in every Christian life this lavishness, this immoderation which seems crazy to the world only because they do not know God, or his love, or heaven either. Whenever and wherever the church has been healthy and Christians in the church have grown strong in the Holy Spirit, there has been just this immoderation, just this extravagance.
Speaking of slaves, as here in Deuteronomy 15, in the early church thousands upon thousands of them were granted their freedom and often given lavish gifts as well, simply because of the overflowing love of God in their Christian masters’ hearts.
And speaking of generosity to the poor, how many examples of extravagant generosity are provided in the history of the church? I can name any number of early church fathers who, though from wealthy families or having become wealthy in their careers, when called into the Christian ministry gave everything they owned away to be used for the poor.
And then how many Christians there have been like John Elliot, the early missionary to the Indians in colonial America. He was paid by the church in coins and, such was his generosity, that he almost never got home with his salary. He would give some to this poor widow he passed, some to this needy family and arrive home with almost nothing left. The officers of the church once tied the coins very tightly in a handkerchief precisely so that he couldn’t give them away before he got home. But, on his way home from the church, he met a widow whom he wanted to help. He couldn’t get the handkerchief untied and so he told her, ‘Ma’am, I believe the Lord wants you to have it all!’
And, in so many other ways there has been this holy immoderation and extravagance in the lives of God’s people.
Origen had himself castrated so as to protect his purity from sexual temptations; Charles Simeon vowed to throw a gold crown into the River Cam every time he failed to rise early enough for the private worship of the Lord.
And much more, what of the generations of Christians martyrs who willingly laid down life itself as homage to the King of Kings. Young men in 18th century France left for Switzerland and theological study at the seminary in Lausanne even though they knew full well that upon their return to their homeland as protestant minister, they would be marked men and that most, if not all of them, would sooner or later be caught and executed. Indeed, the diploma of that seminary was known, by a kind of wry humor, as the ‘Brevet de Potence,’ a certificate for hanging. But they sought that diploma nevertheless and clutching it in their hands returned to France to serve briefly and then to die.
Through the ages what accounts could be given of fortunes gladly surrendered, of the cruelest evils borne and then truly forgiven, of the most costly sacrifices made, of lives readily put at hazard, of acts of extraordinary kindness shown, and all because these were Christians, and the immeasurable grace of God has no true answer in a Christian life which is not lavish and immoderate and extravagant.
But, the whole story would not be told if I did not say, at the same time, that the church has labored through the same many generations under the weight of multitudes of Christians or supposed Christians whose lives were devoid of this holy immoderation and zeal for good works. These church members never provoked either the amazement or the laughter of the world for their extravagance in serving the Lord. The world never thought them mad for the outrageous things they so willingly did for love’s sake.
In the 16th century, Suleiman the Great, the Sultan of the Ottoman empire, observed that many of the Christians in his domains were converting to Islam. When he inquired of them the reason for their change they answered that they did it because Muslims paid less taxes. Nothing extravagant here! Perfectly ordinary and self-serving worldliness and indifference to God, to his Word, to his salvation, and to the world to come. Christians in name, they were, but this world was their home and they have their reward. And far too many church members then and now are just like them: no passion and God-like love doing wild and wonderful and crazy things for God and others.
Now, the simple question posed to us by these commandments , in Deuteronomy 15 is this: what in your life is the equivalent to this extravagance and immoderation? In what way have you cancelled debts, freed slaves, and given up the firstborn of your flocks and herds? What do you do that makes the world think you are mad, or foolish, or irresponsible? What do you do for no other reason than that God’s grace to you demands a lavish response from you? In what ways do you forget and forsake all calculations of self-interest to do that which pleases your Savior and your Father in heaven? For what behavior do those who observe your life conclude that you think very differently about things than they do?
Israel’s laws were wonderfully different, because she was the people of God. God required things of them that a worldly calculation would never think of or approve. But then, by faith, Israel could enter a world and see a truth that was hidden from unbelievers. In that world one was more likely to prosper by cancelling debts than by insisting upon their repayment; more likely to gain by giving away than by keeping for oneself.
What is the evidence that you see that world and live in it and according to its principles? What do folk see that convinces them that you sure don’t think the same way they do?!
There should be many things: what you do with your time and money; the way you forsake your own convenience for the good of others; the losses you are perfectly prepared to suffer in order to be true to God and to his Word, the premium you place on the Lord’s Day and the Lord’s house, upon worship, upon prayer; the ignominy you are perfectly willing to bear if only you might speak a word for Christ and his salvation, the ease and the income and the status you are willing to sacrifice and surrender in order that your lives might count more for God, and so on. As you minister I am very pleased to say that I can see this immoderation, this extravagance in many of you. Your lives are being lived according to Deuteronomy 15, and more and more so in many cases.
But, of some others I must say I remain concerned that there is not more evidence of this extravagance, this lavishness, this holy madness — if we can call it that — which is one of the truest marks of the love of God and of true faith in the soul. I very much hope not, but I fear for some of you that if, once again, your taxes went up because you were a Christian, you might actually change religions! You say that you never would, but the only way to know that for sure is to see in your life now the evidence that, you care for nothing but pleasing God.
It is a sadness to me that this is so for some of you. Not only because it casts doubt over your salvation itself, but because, as is mentioned three times over in our chapter — in vv. 6, 10, 18 — God reserves his blessing and his favor and his generosity for those who serve him in this abandoned way!
You think that if you made such sacrifices it would literally ruin your life; if you gave up that much for the Lord you would be forever destitute; if you devoted so much time to seeking and serving him, your life would be a wearisome misery. But you are wrong. You couldn’t be more wrong. It is in the losing of one’s life for Christ that one finds it, and it is in the denying of yourself for his sake that you get the most for yourself. This is the universal teaching of the Bible and the universal experience of those saints who have put God’s word to the test and given wings to their faith!
David Livingstone, the famous missionary explorer, was a man who suffered great losses to serve the Lord and win the lost. He lived for years away from his wife, who died from one of Africa’s fevers very shortly after they were reunited after years of separation. He suffered every manner of disease himself and was interminably subject to terrible fevers. His life was often at risk from animals and men in Africa’s uncharted interior. He spent years separated from the congenial fellowship of like-minded Christians. But listen to these remarks which Livingstone made to some college students at Cambridge University during one of his rare visits home:
For my own part, I have never ceased to rejoice that God has appointed me to such an office. People talk of the sacrifice I have made in spending so much of my life in Africa. Can that be called a sacrifice which is simply paid back as a small part of the great debt owing to our God, which we can never repay? Is that a sacrifice which brings its own blest reward in healthful activity, the consciousness of doing good, peace of mind, and a bright hope of a glorious destiny hereafter? Away with the word in such a view, and with such a thought! It is emphatically no sacrifice. Say rather it is a privilege. Anxiety, sickness, suffering, or danger, now and then, with a foregoing of the common conveniences and charities of this life, may make us pause, and cause the spirit to waver, and the soul to sink; but let this only be for a moment. All these are nothing when compared with the glory which shall be revealed in and for us. I never made a sacrifice.
I never made a sacrifice! That is the language of Deuteronomy 15. No one can ever outgive God. You fear to give with such abandon and so you get nothing. You think that you couldn’t stand such losses and so you never find out that they are not losses at all. You cannot outgive God.
Or, as Jim Elliot used to put it: ‘He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.’
What a happy day it will be when more people out there think more of us are irresponsible, or foolish, or even mad, because of the abandon, the extravagance, the immoderation with which we serve the Lord and others in his name.