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FIELDS of the FATHERLESS
Discover the Joy of Compassionate Living
By TOM DAVIS
David C. CookCopyright © 2008 Tom Davis
All rights reserved.
What am I missing?
Some years ago, I found myself asking this question almost daily. As a pastor, I thought I knew what mattered to God. I read my Bible almost every day. I tithed, I watched the "right" movies, I prayed as often as I could. I kept my devotions on track and I even journaled in an attempt to reflect on what was happening in my life!
But none of this could shake my conviction that I was still missing something.
That question eventually led me on the mission trip to the Russian orphanage, where the two little girls who desperately clung to my legs brought me the answer.
God showed me two life-changing truths during this time. It is these truths that began to answer my question, "What am I missing?"
The first truth was how deeply in love God is with the poor and the outcast. I didn't just learn this truth intellectually, I felt it. Throughout my stay, I sensed God loving these kids directly through me.
I sensed God loving these kids directly through me.
The second truth was how much God blessed me—how much joy He desired to give me—when I participated with Him in doing something that mattered so much! I had never before experienced God's pleasure and approval as strongly as I did in Russia.
That experience started me on a path of discovery in God's Word. It was a search that yielded surprising truths about the life God promises to bless—and about a special group of people.
The People on God's Heart
If you searched the Bible from front to back, you'd find many issues close to God's heart. But you'd also notice three groups of people that seem to come up again and again.
Allow me to introduce you to those people God wants us to put at the top of our priority list: the orphans, widows, and aliens (strangers). These are the weak, the underprivileged, and the needy among us, and they all have a desperate need of provision and protection.
Scripture mentions the importance of caring for these individuals more than sixty times! Clearly, the protection and well-being of these people is one of God's great and constant concerns. He actually defines who He is by His promises to them.
Consider His promise to provide:
A father of the fatherless, a defender of widows,
Is God in His holy habitation.
God sets the solitary in families;
He brings out those who are bound into prosperity.
His promise to ensure justice:
He administers justice for the fatherless and the widow, and loves the stranger, giving him food and clothing.
His promise to bless those who bless them:
At the end of every third year you shall bring out the tithe of your produce of that year and store it up within your gates. And the Levite, because he has no portion nor inheritance with you, and the stranger and the fatherless and the widow who are within your gates, may come and eat and be satisfied, that the Lord your God may bless you in all the work of your hand which you do.
Many other passages, including Isaiah 1:17, Psalm 82:3–4, and Zechariah 7:10, confirm God's commitment to this special group.
The Ancient Boundary
It shouldn't surprise us that God would take direct action to ensure His intentions for the fatherless were carried out. God commanded His people to set aside a portion of their fields for the sole purpose of providing for this group. The line that designated this special area was called the ancient boundary. It created a field, figuratively and literally, in which the alien, orphan, or widow could find the provision necessary to survive.
You shall not pervert the justice due an alien or an orphan, nor take a widow's garment in pledge. But you shall remember that you were a slave in Egypt, and that the Lord your God redeemed you from there; therefore I am commanding you to do this thing. When you reap your harvest in your field and have forgotten a sheaf in the field, you shall not go back to get it; it shall be for the alien, for the orphan, and for the widow, in order that the Lord your God may bless you in all the work of your hands. When you beat your olive tree, you shall not go over the boughs again; it shall be for the alien, for the orphan, and for the widow. When you gather the grapes of your vineyard, you shall not go over it again; it shall be for the alien, for the orphan, and for the widow. You shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt; therefore I am commanding you to do this thing.
(Deut. 24:17–22 NASB)
This passage opens with a call to biblical justice. While that may not be a particularly popular topic for a Sunday sermon, God is very concerned with justice, specifically when it involves the lives of people who suffer. Here, justice means taking care of the physical needs of aliens, orphans, and widows. It means taking passages to heart that talk about what justice looks like, like this one:
We know love by this, that He laid down His life for us; and we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren. But whoever has the world's goods, and sees his brother in need and closes his heart against him, how does the love of God abide in him? Little children, let us not love with word or with tongue, but in deed and truth.
(1 John3:16–18 NASB)
Oh, we've done it so many times haven't we? Though we have the means necessary to help someone in need, instead we shut down our hearts and let stinginess get the best of us. Here's my confession: "I'm guilty of this!" We all are. But we can't let ourselves repeat these patterns. We need to hear God's truth in a fresh way, and in a way that trickles through our lives and into our actions.
When it comes to caring for the people on God's heart, indifference is a sin.
We are also all guilty (by association) of living in a fallen world. It's a world that tries to press all of us good Christian folk into a mold shaped by self-concern, routine, conformity, and hypocrisy. However, living Jesus' way demands that we turn our back on our natural inclinations. Instead of self-concern, we need to be more concerned with loving our neighbors as ourselves and taking care of their needs. Instead of conforming to what every other Christian does and what society wants us to do, we must lay down our lives and allow our actions to speak louder than our words. The primary place this happens is in our love for other people. That's the life Jesus calls us to live more than any other.
One of the best definitions of justice I've heard is implied by the definition of its opposite: evil. Edmund Burke, an eighteenth-century British philosopher, said this: "The definition of evil in the world is when good men and women see injustice and do nothing." Here's another way to look at it: When it comes to caring for the people on God's heart, indifference is a sin.
The Deuteronomy 24 passage goes on to remind the Israelites that they were once slaves. We, too, were once slaves: slaves to sin ("dead in [our] trespasses and sins" is how Ephesians 2:1 [NASB] phrases it). We had no hope; we were slaves with no way out. In the same way God delivered the Israelites out of their bondage, he also delivered us. Romans 8:2 goes on to say that "the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has made me free from the law of sin and of death."
Thank God we were set free and that we're no longer slaves! What an incredible picture of the love and goodness of Jesus. What greater gift could there be? God wants us to remember our bondage, remember how He has saved us, and in that remembrance, He wants us reach out in love to the fatherless. That's what it means to be grateful.
The rest of the Deuteronomy passage would have spoken powerfully to the Israelites. While we may take food for granted today (it's only a short drive to the grocery store), everything the Israelites did revolved around seedtime and harvest.
What God was saying to the Israelites was simple: Harvest your fields without delay and enjoy the goodness you've worked hard for. But don't think only of yourselves. You know all that excess you have lying around? The extra sheaves, the olives that remain on the trees, the grapes still on the vine? Leave that for the widow and orphan, and you'll be blessed. This wasn't just a passing thought, it was how God's people were supposed to live their lives.
And it's also how He wants us to live ours.
Do you have lots of material goods? Share them with those who have little. It's really that simple.
Some might be tempted to presume that God's principle about a special field for the poor was just a quaint, ancient tradition—that it's irrelevant today. Yet we clearly see in the New Testament that God's passion for the poor, parentless, and alienated transcends time. His words concerning those in need are every bit as urgent in the New Testament as in the Old.
The apostle James wrote that caring for orphans and widows is the very essence of religion:
Pure and faultless [religion] is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress.
Acts 6 records an incident that exemplifies how the early church lived out God's command to take care of the poor. When the number of disciples was increasing, the Grecian Jews among them complained about the Hebraic Jews because their widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food. So the Twelve gathered all the disciples together and said, "It would not be right for us to neglect the ministry of the word of God in order to wait on tables. Brothers, choose seven men from among you who are known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom. We will turn this responsibility over to them and will give our attention to prayer and the ministry of the word" (vv. 3–4 NIV).
This proposal pleased the whole group. They chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit, and six other men. They presented these men to the apostles, who prayed and laid their hands on them (see Acts 6:1–6).
What's important to note about this passage is that the apostles were the ones who were handing out the food! This was not a task to be swept under the table (no pun intended). Why? Because the apostles knew "pure religion" meant ministering to those widows. They understood that such service was God's heart! At the point it became too overwhelming because of the numbers, they found men "full of faith and the Holy Spirit" (v. 5), laid hands on them, and appointed them to the task.
If the early church spent so much of its time focusing on the fatherless in this respect, shouldn't we make them a priority as well?
Pure and faultless religion is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress.
God gave us the responsibility to care for the defenseless. It's through our hands the Father's love touches, it is through our voices His voice is heard, it is through our efforts and those of the church that His care is revealed to the ones the rest of the world has forgotten.
The Church in Action?
The church is not an institution consisting of walls and stained glass. The church is people; people who represent the physical body of Christ on earth. We as the church are called to put flesh to His words and make Him alive to those who are desperate to know He is real.
In recent years, ministering in the fields of the fatherless hasn't been as much of a priority to the church as it has been throughout history. Many well-intentioned believers have lost sight of what God cares about most. The fact is, we put most of our energy into improving what is inside the four walls of our churches rather than bringing in the harvest that is outside.
A good friend once asked me, "If the fields are white for harvest, why do we spend all of our money on painting the barn?"
Ministry to Christ's body is important, but when we don't balance it with a legitimate attempt to care for the fatherless in our communities and around our world, something is terribly wrong.
The statistics reveal our neglect. When I originally wrote Fields of the Fatherless in 2002, reports indicated that there were over 70 million orphans in the world. Today, there are over 143 million according to the UN Statistics Division. That's one child in every thirteen. More than 13 million orphans were added to that total in 2006 alone, many of these due to the ravages of the HIV/AIDS pandemic. Every 5 seconds a child dies because he or she is hungry; 10.9 million children under the age of 5 die in developing countries every year—malnutrition and hunger-related accounting for 60 percent of these deaths. More than 1 million children are trafficked every year as sex slaves and another 8.4 million children work under horrific circumstances—forced into debt bondage or other forms of slavery, prostitution, pornography, armed conflict, or other illicit activities. By the end of 2006, there were 2.3 million children living with HIV around the world, and over half a million children became newly infected with HIV in 2006.
Yet a 2001 Barna Research Group poll revealed a telling statistic: Evangelical Christians are less likely than are non-Christians to give money and assistance to AIDS-related causes. Only 3 percent of evangelicals say they plan to help with AIDS internationally as opposed to 8 percent of non-Christians. This is only one example of how Christians have let down in their love for the unlovely.
This is not God's way. If we are to please Him, we must recover what has become a lost cause—the fatherless.
"If the fields are white for harvest, why do we spend all of our money on painting the barn?"
The encouraging news is that loving a person in need is much easier to do than you might think. You don't have to become a missionary or take a vow of poverty to reach out to the people on God's heart. You can participate in some very practical ways and make differences that will last an eternity.
As you meet the fatherless in these pages, you will be surprised how simple it is to make a dramatic change in a human life. You will learn how you can give just a little bit of God's love to someone else and watch him or her transform. You will discover abundant joy for your efforts, as well as something you might not have anticipated....
The Promise of a Blessing
Of course we should not care for the fatherless because of what we might get in return. Loving others isn't a 401K or an investment program! Yet don't miss this: There is a valuable blessing in store for those of us who actively care for the fatherless.
Remember the passage in Deuteronomy 24? God blesses those who leave the food for the widows and orphans.
God's blessing was not something the Jewish people took lightly. God's blessing enabled them to defeat their enemies. God's blessing prospered them and formed them into a great and mighty nation. The blessing of the Father meant the difference between success and failure, prosperity and poverty, abundance and want.
What about the church today? The blessing of the Lord is our inheritance:
Finally, all of you be of one mind, having compassion for one another; love as brothers, be tenderhearted, be courteous; not returning evil for evil or reviling for reviling, but on the contrary blessing, knowing that you were called to this, that you may inherit a blessing.
In both the Old and New Testaments, this word blessing connotes an infinitely lovelier circumstance than our word happiness. Happiness is temporal. It's a thing of chance and luck, a gambler's paradise. But the biblical word for blessing has to do with significantly satisfying fruitfulness. Blessing is the roses around your lawn, the beauty of fresh-fallen snow on the mountainside, and spontaneous blasts of joy. God's blessing is not just a nice thing to have; it's a necessity for those who desire to walk in genuine satisfaction.
When we pay attention to the treasures of God's heart, we put ourselves in a position of blessing.
The Hebrew word for blessing is baruch. It implies being hunted down and pursued by the favor of the Lord.
Excerpted from FIELDS of the FATHERLESS by TOM DAVIS. Copyright © 2008 Tom Davis. Excerpted by permission of David C. Cook.
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