"The LORD executes justice for the fatherless and the widow, and loves the sojourner, giving him food and clothing." Deuteronomy 10:18
It's interesting that the passage above speaks about engagement with the poor as a matter, not simply of mercy, but of justice and equity. Why? Because the world, as God intended it, was not supposed to have wide disparities of wealth. We can see this in the very structure of the civil laws of Israel.
(1) Land was evenly distributed in Israel. Numbers 26:52-56
(2) Land ownership could never be permanently transferred or lost. Leviticus 25:23-28
(3) Every 50 years, the original equitable distribution of land was restored. Leviticus 25:8-17
(4) Every seven years, the entire produce of the land was for the poor. Exodus 23:10-11
(5) Each year, a portion of the harvest was set aside for the poor. Leviticus 19:9-10
(6) When the poor needed a loan, it was to be given interest-free. Exodus 22:25-27
(7) Every seven years, the debts of the poor were cancelled. Deuteronomy 15:1-2
(8) The tithe was to support the poor. Deuteronomy 14:28-29
It’s easy to gloss over how radical these laws were. There was no such thing as private property (since all the land belonged to God and everyone was only stewards of the land). No one could accumulate vast amounts of wealth since land could never be permanently bought and sold. No family would ever suffer permanent destitution since all debts were to be forgiven and all land holdings would eventually be returned.
Moreover, the requirements to share with the poor are breathtaking. We often think of only the tithe (10% of earnings) being for the poor. But if you also take into account the various gleaning laws, debt-forgiveness laws, etc., the actual percentage that was to be shared with the poor was probably closer to 20% of earnings. This is the society God intended, and Israel, as the people of God, was to be a unique community of social justice – so that the Bible can boldly proclaim, "there will be no poor among you; if only you will obey and do all that I command." Deuteronomy 15:4-5
But tragically, Israel failed to obey and one of the major themes of the prophets is a scathing indictment of Israel's neglect for the poor. As we turn to the New Testament, what’s fascinating about the gospel is that Jesus rescues us by reenacting the very compassion to the poor commanded in the Old Testament – while he was infinitely wealthy and we were spiritually destitute, on the cross, he impoverished himself for our enrichment. 2 Corinthians 8:9 And now, as the redeemed people of God, we are to reenact this gospel love through social justice as the early church did – "they had everything in common and there was not a needy person among them." Acts 4:32-35 Notice the deliberate echo of Deuteronomy 15:4, cited above. This is the hope of the gospel.
(We covered this topic in Sunday school, which you can listen to here.)