Protecting lives

God says, “You shall not murder” (Exodus 20:13).

Luther explains, “What does this mean? We should fear and love God so that we do not hurt or harm our neighbor in his body, but help and support him in every physical need.”

Salvageable adds: This commandment prompts discussions in many controversial areas: abortion, euthanasia, the death penalty, and just and unjust wars, to name a few. Christians should seek God’s will in these extreme cases, but too often Christians become absorbed with these cases and overlook the everyday ways in which we are tempted to sin against this commandment.

This is the first of four brief commandments which protect, in order, lives, marriages, property, and reputations. (They are so brief that three of them are tied for shortest verse in the Bible, if we count letters in the original languages rather than in English translations.) Luther indicates that we not only are forbidden to kill our neighbors, but we are not to hurt or harm them in any way. Jesus goes even further, indicating that rage and insults against a neighbor also trespass this commandment.

Obedience to this commandment involves attitudes as well as actions. All human life is to be respected and even treasured. We should not even want to harm a neighbor. This includes deliberate acts of violence, and also carelessness. When we carelessly risk harming a person’s life or health, we break this commandment. That applies to our own lives as well. We are to be good stewards of our bodies—neither obsessing over our health and fitness to the point of idolatry, nor engaging in unhealthy habits that can shorten our lives or reduce our ability to serve God by helping our neighbors.

Even neglect is sinful. Not only are we to avoid hurting and harming others, but we are to help and support others. Both Old and New Testaments call God’s people to care for widows and orphans and all that are poor and vulnerable. Deuteronomy 15:4-5 says, “But there will be no poor among you; for the Lord will bless you in the land that the Lord your God is giving you for an inheritance to possess—if only you will strictly obey the voice of the Lord your God, being careful to do all this commandment that I command you today.” But Deuteronomy 15:11 says, “There will never cease to be poor in the land.” God knew that his people would sin, failing to honor and protect the lives of their neighbors, allowing selfishness and greed and cold-heartedness to keep them from caring about the lives of their neighbors. Those sins continue today. Enough food is produced in the world each year to feed every person alive, preventing starvation and diseases caused by malnutrition. The food is not distributed evenly, though, so that those who have more than enough can share with those in need. Politics, waste, and greed all play a part in the inequities of the world. We could be doing better.

Special circumstances call for a lifting of this commandment. Soldiers on a battlefield behave in ways that would be inappropriate anywhere else. Medical and religious professionals help families make difficult decisions about care given to the terminally ill. Many Christians believe that it shows respect for human life to deprive a murderer of his or her life. Even Jesus laid down his life as a sacrifice, dying so his people can live, purchasing forgiveness for all of our sins, including sins against the lives of our neighbors. J.

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Woe to you who are rich

Jesus said, “Woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. Woe to you who are full now, for you shall be hungry” (Luke 6:24-25). Believers and unbelievers alike nod and applaud when Jesus scolds the rich. We know that he is not talking to us. He is talking to those people who have more than we have—those who could feed the world’s hungry and shelter the world’s homeless and cure the world’s ailing people if each of them just gave a fraction of the wealth they have acquired.

But who are these wealthy people?

If you have eaten today and expect to eat again before this time tomorrow, you are rich.

If you own more clothing than you can wear at one time, you are rich.

If you have a roof over your head and four walls around you, so that when it rains you do not get wet, you are rich.

If you can control the temperature under that roof, keeping yourself cool in the summer and warm in the winter, you are rich.

If you can press a button or two and be entertained by musicians, actors, or athletes, you are rich.

If you must control your diet and your exercise to keep from gaining weight, you are rich.

Explain to the impoverished people living in Asia and Africa your frustration when you set the TV to record a movie or a ball game and the recording is missing the last ten minutes of the production.

Explain to the homeless people living in American cities why you turn the thermostat down a degree or two after spending fifteen minutes on the treadmill.

Explain to Jesus why his scolding was meant for other people and not for you.

Yes, we all give at the office. We all support Christian outreach which includes help for the poor. Some of us donate our vacation time to take trips to other parts of the world where we can help those less fortunate than ourselves… for a week or two.

The fact remains that we are rich. Ninety-nine percent of the people who have dwelt on this planet could not even imagine the comfort, the medical care, and the entertainment that we take for granted. We are the one percent whom God has blessed with material comforts, not because he loves us more, but because he expects greater acts of mercy and love from us.

You will do more when you have paid off your student loans or your credit card debt. You will do more when you have retired from your job and have paid off your mortgage. You will do more once the government gets off your back with high taxes and too many regulations.

Jesus did not wait before he offered you help. He looked into this world from outside of time and saw your cold-hearted regard of your neighbors, your addictions to wealth and comfort, and your neglect of his most basic commandments. Jesus had compassion, not only upon your neglected neighbors, but also upon you. He set an example for you, feeding the hungry, healing the sick, using the power he had to make life better for others. His example has become a Substitute, so that when his Father looks at you, he sees righteousness instead of sin. As a Substitute, he became also a Sacrifice, so that when his Father looked at him on a certain Friday afternoon, he saw your sins and treated them as they deserved. Jesus thought of you that day. He said, “Father, forgive them; they don’t know what they’re doing.”

This forgiveness is not license to remain addicted to wealth and comfort, or to remain cold-hearted toward the poor. This forgiveness is wealth, and wealth is meant to be shared. As God has forgiven us, so we forgive one another. As God has given us hope of a better world, we share that hope with those around us. God loves us, and he teaches us to have his compassion toward those who need it the most.

Our treasure is in heaven, not on earth. Abraham and Job and Solomon were wealthy men, but God did not hate them for their riches. Like them, we can be poor in spirit, no matter how much we own in this world. Being poor in spirit is not measured by how much money you have; it is measured by how much money has you. When we judge ourselves by worldly standards, we know we are not rich, because we don’t even have enough money to buy everything we want. When we judge ourselves by heavenly standards, we know that we are rich, because our investment is in the love of God through Jesus Christ our Lord, and nothing in all creation can separate us from that love.

This wealth we share. We forgive those who sin against us. We share the hope we have in Christ Jesus. And, because God has blessed us with riches in this world, we do what we can, when we can, to serve God by helping others. After all, we were created to do good works, prepared for us from the foundation of the world. J.

 

The cost of being poor

One of the oddities of our current economic system in the United States is that it is costly to be poor. I cannot offer any brilliant solution to fix that problem, but for those who haven’t noticed the problem, I can describe it.

Banks favor wealthy people over poor people. Keep a minimum balance in your account, and you will be charged fewer fees to use the bank. If you are close to breaking even but you accidently overdraw your account, banks will charge a fee for attempting to spend money you don’t have. Wealthy people never have to worry about insufficient fund fees. Of course it would be ridiculous to demand that banks change the way they work. A bank would go out of business if it waived these policies for everyone who is poor.

If you are wealthy, it’s easy to get a loan. Banks are happy to lend money to customers who are able to repay the loan. If you are poor, you are unlikely to get a loan. You might have the greatest invention in the world and just need a few thousand dollars to start a business, but if you don’t already have those thousands of dollars, they are difficult to find. Again, no one can change the way loans work; banks would go out of business loaning money to people who cannot repay those loans.

Credit cards are a wonderful convenience when you are able to pay the full balance every month. That’s really the wisest way to use a credit card. They can also be a convenience, though, when you have a sudden unexpected emergency—a car repair, for example, or replacing a broken appliance. The danger of that convenience is that now you have a debt that increases monthly due to interest charges. Then, if money is tight for other reasons and you miss a payment, penalties are added to the debt you already have. Credit works that way, and its basic rules are not going to change. But the credit card business is more likely to hurt poor people than wealthy people.

Rural poor have fewer resources than urban poor. They cannot take advantage of mass transportation, and they are farther away from social services offices. However, the urban poor face additional costs that the rural poor (and the wealthy) do not have. Living in the least costly neighborhoods coexists with greater danger from crime and from gang violence. For that reason, property insurance and automobile insurance are higher for people who live in those areas. These higher insurance costs lead to higher prices for gasoline and groceries in the city. Moreover, sales taxes usually are higher in the city. Higher prices and higher insurance rates make it difficult for families to save enough money to move to less dangerous and less expensive surroundings.

“There will be no poor among you; for the Lord will bless you in the land that the Lord your God is giving you for an inheritance to possess—if only you will strictly obey the voice of the Lord your God, being careful to do all this commandment that I command you today” (Deuteronomy 15:4-5). The Law of God demanded compassion and justice for all people. Every seventh year debts were forgiven, slaves were freed; and every fiftieth year property that had been sold was returned to its family. God’s people were commanded to help the widow, the orphan, and the refugee. A cloak that had been given as security on a loan was to be returned by sundown. In the courts, poor people and rich people were to be regarded equally. Workers were to be paid their wages at the end of each workday. Harvesters were commanded to leave behind scraps for the poor to glean.

“For there will never cease to be poor in the land” (Deuteronomy 15:11). God knew that his commands would not be obeyed. Jesus reminded his apostles of this verse when they objected to the perfume that had been poured on him. They said that the money would have been better used to help the poor. Jesus answered, “You will always have the poor, but you will not always have me.” Poverty cannot be ended by legislation. Taking money from the rich to give to the poor did not end poverty in Robin Hood’s day, and it will not work today.

On the other hand, God still expects compassion from his people. The knowledge that there will never cease to be poor in the land motivates Christians to help as they can. No one deserves to be poor. Some wealthy people use their wealth in various ways to help the poor—gifts of food, clothing, or shelter; scholarships to open opportunities for the poor; financial support for libraries, museums, and hospitals; endowments to fund research to combat diseases and other problems that plague poor people more than wealthy people. Investing in businesses that provide jobs also gives help to the poor.

In Fiddler on the Roof, Tevye says, “It’s no shame to be poor. But it’s no great honor either.” Until the Day of the Lord, there will never cease to be poor in the land. When we pray, “Give us this day our daily bread,” we are asking God to help the poor as well as ourselves. Our compassion for the poor is the beginning of God’s answer to this prayer. J.

Favorite books from childhood

My sainted mother taught me to read even before she sent me away to kindergarten. She used to say that teaching me to read was a matter of self-defense; she could never get anything done when I was following her around the house, pleading that she would read me just one more book.

I remember loving a lot of early readers, such as the story about the boy who overfed his goldfish. Most of my reading memories, though, are of the classic chapter books which I liked to read over and over. I think I may have read each of these nine books once a year from the time I received them until I finished high school. Later, I also read these books to my children.

The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain (Samuel Clemens), 1876. Twain combines several adventures, based on events of his childhood in Hannibal, Missouri, to create an endearing story of a mischievous boy coming of age in the mid-nineteenth century. From whitewashing a fence (and enticing his friends into doing the work for him, and even paying him for the privilege) to exploring a system of caves, Tom Sawyer leads an active life. Inspired by books about pirates and medieval adventures, Tom Sawyer enlivens the existence of nearly everyone in town, giving the adults more excitement than they know how to handle. When he and his friends run away from home and camp on an island in the Mississippi, the town fears that the boys have died. Learning of this, Tom Sawyer and his friends wait until the funeral is underway before revealing that they are alive. When I was a boy, I wanted to be Tom Sawyer, and I definitely envied him his Becky Thatcher.

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain, 1885. In this sequel to Tom Sawyer, Tom’s homeless friend Huck Finn has been adopted by a wealthy widow. Feeling constrained by her pressure to conform to social norms, and feeling threatened by his father, Huck Finn travels down the Mississippi River by raft, accompanied by an escaping slave named Jim. Traveling from town to town, the pair encounter a number of odd characters and strange situations, from a feuding family reminiscent of the Montagues and Capulets to a pair of scoundrels who claim to be the Duke of Buckingham and the King of France. When Jim is captured, Tom Sawyer appears on the scene and prepares an elaborate plot to rescue him. This book is one of the strong candidates for the title of “The Great American Novel.”

Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll (Charles Dodgson), 1865 and 1871. Mathematician Charles Dodgson knew a girl named Alice and told her stories to entertain her. These stories became the basis for his two books, usually packaged as one volume. In the first set of episodes, Alice falls down a rabbit hole and meets various creatures, finally dealing with a living deck of playing cards. In the second set, Alice travels through a mirror to a different world in which most of the people she meets are pieces in a chess game. Both accounts feature parodies of serious poetry combined with charming nonsense. Elements of the stories about Alice are among the most recognizable of all those derived from children’s literature.

Bambi by Felix Salten, 1923. I was lucky enough to have read this book several times before I first saw the Disney cartoon based upon it. The animals in the book are far more complex and interesting, although the theme of environmentalism is as strong in the book as in the film. Most stories starring talking animals fail to be convincing, but this story of a fawn growing up to be a stag is as real as any coming-of-age tale of a human child.

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl, 1964. This book describes a charming and well-mannered boy living in dire poverty with his parents and grandparents, a boy who wins the chance to visit Willy Wonka’s candy factory. Four other children also win the chance to visit the factory, but each of them is wealthy and spoiled. In some places the book risks becoming preachy about the manners children should have, while in others it fails the most basic tests of political correctness. In spite of its failings, the book succeeds because of its strong characters: Charlie, Grandpa Joe, and of course Willy Wonka.

Five Little Peppers and How They Grew by Margaret Sidney, 1881. Long before I encountered the writings of Charles Dickens, this book taught me about poverty and perseverance. Five children are being raised by their widowed mother with occasional help from their good-hearted and generous neighbors. At first the book relates a series of adventures that the children face (including a bout with the measles), but then the youngest of them is befriended by a wealthy boy and his grandfather. This wealthy family sponsors the Pepper family’s first real Christmas and then continues to help the Peppers, all the while learning valuable lessons from the cheerful way this poor family faces the challenges of life. Several sequels were written, but the first book is far and away the best of the series.

Heidi by Johanna Spyri, 1881. An orphaned girl is taken by her aunt to live with her grandfather, a gloomy recluse who inhabits a cabin high in the Swiss Alps. She charms him and his neighbors, but then is snatched away by the aunt to be a companion to a rich but crippled girl in the city of Frankfort. Heidi pines for the beauty of the mountains, but before she returns, she brings excitement and happiness to the wealthy Frankfort family. After sending Heidi back to her grandfather, this family manages to visit Heidi in the Alps and to draw even more strength from her. Although this book is a touch heavy-handed with its lessons about Christian living, it remains a treasured classic for its believable title character and for the changes she brings into all the lives that intersect with her life.

Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson, 1883. A young boy takes a job aboard a ship, only to fall under the power of pirates. They are seeking treasure, but violence threatens between the pirates and the rightful crew of the ship. The boy becomes an unlikely hero who helps to resolve the conflict. This is one of the more violent books I read growing up, with gunfire and deaths, but it was an action story of which I never tired.

The Wizard of Oz by Frank Baum, 1900. Although it inspired the famous movie of the same name, this book contains far more adventure than could fit into the movie. Characters and monsters even stranger than those in the movie challenge Dorothy and her friends as they move through the land of Oz. Dorothy interacts with all four witches (two good and two wicked) as well as the wizard, who is indeed a humbug, but who is able to give the scarecrow, the tin man, and the lion exactly what they want. In the book, the land of Oz and its inhabitants are more than just a dream.

Several of these books were written more about children than for children. For this reason, they remain enjoyable even when read by adults. I remember many summer afternoons when I was curled up on the couch with one of these books, reliving the familiar adventures and seeing ideas I had been too young to consider the previous time I read the book. In my opinion, all these stories are classic tales that belong in every family library. J.