Sunday, September 26, 2021

Treasures of the Needy

It was a morning in early December. The year was 1891. All but penniless, a 41-year-old man named Joseph sat at table, eating what little breakfast he'd been given: bread, molasses, and coffee. It wasn't much, but it kept starvation away. He was in the Berks County Almshouse in Reading, Pennsylvania. And he was thinking about how he'd gotten there – and how the only family heirloom he had, all he cared about other than his tools and his clothes, was still at risk of being lost to him forever.

Over the years, Joseph had worked many jobs. He'd been down in the quarries and the mines, the farms and the factories. He'd traveled from town to town, fixing clocks, watches, organs, and pianos wherever he found them broken. He'd left home on bad terms with his father Nathan, a good but strict man who often made clear that Joseph was hardly the shining light of the family. Joseph found drink a bit hard to resist, though he did try. But nothing Joseph did ever seemed good enough. His little brother Will, seven years his junior, had by this time become a pastor, on whom Joseph – a struggling believer at best – relied for counsel, support, and a listening ear (though not always a sympathetic one).

From March to May 1884, beset by the “most dreadful” pain, Joseph lost 22 pounds. He was diagnosed with a kidney disease, an affliction that became more agonizing in colder weather. By that August, his savings were down to $8.83. His next job fell through, because in his condition, he couldn't physically meet its demands. Yet after kidney surgery, he was on his way to improvement, especially once he was warm and fed. Two years later, in the late summer of 1886, Joseph was a foreman at the Susquehanna Paper Company. He was pulling in $42 a month, almost half of which went to his boarding, from which he walked 2.5 miles each way to and from work.

That October, Joseph fell sick, and after suffering through two months of ineffective medical care, he underwent bladder surgery. The whole ordeal cost him dearly, and he asked his brother Will to beg their dad to send him a few dollars so he could afford to get his clothes cleaned. December 1887 found Joseph back on his feet, employed by the Dauphin Car Manufacturing Company. For putting in a nine-hour day of labor, he got a dollar, with over a month between paydays. The new year began with a promotion to general overseer, and a raise to $1.40 a day, though other workers had gotten their pay slashed to just fifty cents. But just days later, a fire struck Dauphin, wiping out the job site – including Joseph's tools. He begged his little brother for a few dollars to buy rubber boots and a coat, since he'd be working out in the cold now – which he just couldn't endure.

That February, once the car shop had rebuilt, disaster struck again. Joseph had been pouring molten metal into boxes, but their dampness generated a sudden release of steam that exploded upward, hitting him in the left eye. After a month and a half of suffering, the end of March 1888 saw Joseph at the Harrisburg Hospital, where he had the eye removed. Doctors found metal shards embedded in it. He asked his brother Will for money to pay the medical bills. Joseph had hoped to fix clocks in the meantime, but his right eye was slow to compensate. By mid-April, he was back at the car shop, whose future was in jeopardy due to disputes among the owners. In May, he got caught on the planer belt and narrowly avoided being cut to pieces. A dangerous job for a one-eyed man. A few days later, business slowed to a crawl, so that even Joseph had his wages cut: $1.25 for a ten-hour day. Joseph threatened to quit. And when he heard his mother Lydia had sprained her back in a fall, he did just that, going back home to Berlinsville to help them a while.

By August, he was running a tram for the Juniata Sand Company for $1 a day. He still owed Will $5, but asked him to reclaim it from money he'd left at the family home. But then Joseph got laid off. Deeply depressed and scared of the coming winter, he confessed he couldn't find a new job – nobody wanted a one-eyed worker when so many two-eyed ones were up for hire. Thankfully, it was harvest: Joseph could husk corn for fifty cents a day plus board. But in doing too much heavy lifting later, he hurt his back. Then, after hiring himself out at an ore mine for $1 a day, his bad back was slammed with a piece of heavy lumber, requiring three days of bed rest and a job change. In the spring of 1889, he found work at the Hummelstown Brown Stone Company, operating a multi-ton stone hoist for 12.5 cents an hour. But he didn't last there either.

In August, so afflicted with chronic back pain that he'd started taking morphine, Joseph wrote Will a letter. He knew Will was willing to support him, but Joseph asked, “How long could I get on in that way to be sponging on you? Why, dear brother, I would only be a disgrace in your family and the neighbors.” After another autumn husking corn on the cheap, Joseph confessed he wanted to take up Will on the offer to move in for the winter, but Joseph was “too ashamed to do it.” He kept traveling from town to town, doing odd jobs in the countryside, until in January 1890, he heard that his estranged father Nathan was sick. He moved back to his parents' farm, taking up construction projects in the neighborhood and priding himself on overcoming his opium habit. His father died in February 9, and for over a year Joseph lived on the farm. But the neighbors reintroduced him to wine, and his alcoholism flared up. On the first anniversary of their father's death, Joseph wrote Will a request for $15. He came clean: Joseph had outstanding debts yet in five counties, the creditors were hounding him, he was scared of going to jail. Will obliged him with a check. It was May 1891 when Joseph, disgruntled by the neighbors, left the farm. Days later, finding no work, he made his way to York, then Lebanon, begging God out of his distress. Unable to afford even a place to stay, he once more begged Will for help.

That summer, Joseph found employment in Pottstown as part of a construction crew building a bridge. But near the end of August, another workplace accident: part of a steel chisel lodged in his right eye, his only eye. In intense pain and unable to afford medical care, he peddled on the streets of Myerstown before making his way to Pottsville to work on the boilers. Wages were so low he had to offer up his late father's watch as collateral to a watchmaker, Robert Green, for a couple dollars to cover board and doctor himself up. But when Green set September 17 as a deadline by which he'd auction off the watch if he didn't get repaid with steep interest, Joseph fired off several desperate letters to Will, pleading with him to get the watch back. Will came through.

Stepping down from the boilers, Joseph turned again to husking corn, but in his fragile state, his strength gave out. He asked Will to find him a job. Will said he'd try, but that he couldn't honestly recommend Joseph to any employer. “What are you capable of doing?” he wrote Joseph. “You cannot endure hard work. You are not faithful enough for a position of trust. So I don't see what work I can secure for you. … After you are here a while, you will leave the work and bring disgrace on yourself and me.”

In October, Joseph headed to Pittsburgh and Allegheny, hunting a job in the iron works, but was dismissed, told nobody needed “half-cripples or old men.” The weather was getting colder. Joseph found himself in Brecknock Township husking corn, sleeping in a barn overnight, and while he slept, two tramps lodging in a nearby stable stole Joseph's only decent coat. A couple weeks later, Joseph bought painkillers and tried to overdose. Coming halfway to his senses enough to survive, he walked to Topton and borrowed fifty cents from the director of the poor there – and as collateral, he once more left his father's watch behind. The fifty cents were enough to catch a train to Reading. Deeply depressed, anxious, and suffering fainting spells, Joseph wrote to Will to tell him not to bother praying for him any more: “Hell is my place,” Joseph lamented. And with that, he appealed to the Berks County Almshouse to take him in, with only 87 cents to his name. That's how he reached the poorhouse.

Now, that's not the end of Joseph's tale. He would eventually leave that poorhouse – Will paid his bill – and get their father's watch back, though it would only be weeks before he'd have to use it as collateral again. Joseph Henry Heil would at last die in March 1905 in the poorhouse in Carlisle, 54 years old. He didn't quite live long enough to see his little brother Will become the founding bishop of the Evangelical Congregational Church.1

Last Sunday, in our exploration of God's commandment “You shall not steal,” we looked at the most horrible way to break that commandment: the theft of persons, in slavery and human trafficking. But before that, we considered more ordinary ways to break the commandment: robbery, burglary, pick-pocketing, shoplifting, tax evasion, embezzlement, bribery, vandalism, dishonest business dealings, false advertising, buying stolen goods, refusing to return what's borrowed, and keeping what's lost without a good-faith effort to find the real owner. Now this Sunday, as we wind down, we'll check out three other sadly common ways this commandment is broken.

And the first of those is paying insufficient wages to a worker. Often, we as Americans – great free-marketeers that we are – operate under the assumption that for an economic transaction, all you need for justice is mutual consent. If one person's willing to sell his labor for fifty cents a day, then that's all an employer needs to hire him for: mutual consent is met, so justice is there, people might think. America has always been obsessed with consent as the only standard. But that's too low a bar for sex, and it's too low a bar for work. Now, work is an obligation, in accordance with each person's capacity: “If anyone is not willing to work,” says Paul, “let him not eat” (2 Thessalonians 3:10). So to the extent possible, each person is commanded “in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and to eat their own bread” (2 Thessalonians 3:12). That was all Joseph wanted to do.

But Christianity insists employers owe their employees several things out of love. One is ethical work with safe working conditions. Moses warns that some jobs are wrong – that they so defile the money earned that it isn't even eligible to donate to the sanctuary (Deuteronomy 23:18). Paul calls on thieves to turn, not just to profit, but to honest work with their own hands” (Ephesians 4:28). Nor can employers put employees in needless danger. There's a duty of care. That's something Joseph wasn't given: no one protected his back from swinging lumber, his eyes from chisels or hot metal, or his body from the freezing cold. That safety was stolen.

Another owed thing is a just, fair, and living wage. In the Bible, Jacob complained when Laban “cheated me and changed my wages ten times” (Genesis 31:7). The prophets say it's a cursed society where wages aren't enough to sustain a life (cf. Haggai 1:6). “Woe to him who... makes his neighbor serve him for nothing and doesn't give him his wages” (Jeremiah 22:13). Jesus says “the laborer deserves his wages” (Luke 10:7). But it's been observed for centuries that “when... workpeople are wronged in their wages, being paid either too little or when the hire is kept back, this is a sin against this commandment.”2 Back in 1919, with Bishop William F. Heil on the scene as chairman, our denomination went on record as saying that Christian ethics mandate that “all men shall receive a fair minimum living wage.”3 The pastor and lay delegate of this church heard those words, affirmed the report. We have believed and do believe this. It isn't enough for desperation to lead somebody to accept low pay. If it's not a living wage, it's not fair, not just. The wage has to be enough to support yourself and your family on. In that way, Joseph Heil and most other workers in his day were routinely cheated of what was their due by justice. In today's money, accounting for inflation (which itself has been labeled by some as a kind of cruel theft of the value of people's money4), he'd barely have been earning over $4/hour. Today's minimum wage, while higher than that, is so far behind inflation it's nowhere near a real living wage. Many workers today are still being robbed of what justice requires for them.

And the wage must be given in a timely manner. Moses says, “You shall give him his wages on the same day, before the sun sets (for he is poor and counts on it), lest he cry against you to the LORD and you be guilty of sin” (Deuteronomy 24:15). James denounces the rich because “the wages of the laborers who mowed your field, which you kept back by fraud, are crying out against you” (James 5:4). Joseph wasn't paid in a timely manner – so he was forced into desperate measures to bridge the gap until that far-off payday. Such employers, even if all the money is eventually given, are effectively breaking God's commandment.

A second way the commandment is broken, and this one outside the workplace, is in charging interest on a loan. This one might surprise us. But remember how Joseph was told that his father's watch would be auctioned off by a certain date if the jeweler didn't get repaid with interest? The Bible has some things to say about that. The psalmist is clear that a righteous person is “ever lending generously” (Psalm 37:27). But God says in his Law, “If you lend money to any of my people with you who is poor, you shall not be like a moneylender to him, and you shall not exact interest from him” (Exodus 22:25). “If your brother becomes poor and cannot maintain himself with you, you shall support him … Take no interest from him or profit, but fear your God...” (Leviticus 25:35-36). “You shall not charge interest on loans to your brother – interest on money, interest on food, interest on anything that is lent for interest” (Deuteronomy 23:19). “Woe to him who heaps up what is not his own... and loads himself with pledges! Will not your debtors suddenly arise?” (Habakkuk 2:6-7).

Notice a theme? In the Old Testament, even the principal of a debt was wiped away every seven years, when every loan was legally required to be forgiven (Deuteronomy 15:1-2). In the meantime, loans – especially to the poor – could not involve the charging of interest. To charge interest is exploitation, is theft, in the Bible. If anything, Jesus raises the bar: “Lend, expecting nothing in return, and your reward will be great” (Luke 6:35). The early church took him seriously, and regarded interest-charging as a sin requiring church discipline.5

Now, we live in a country where the private debt of all Americans – not government debt, private debt – adds up to over twice the nation's gross domestic product.6 We live in a country where credit card debt and student loan debt and medical debt are eating people up left and right. Americans have outstanding medical debt of over $140 billion. Nearly one in five Americans is part of that figure. It's become the #1 source of debt that gets turned over to collection agencies.7 Add on top of that credit card debt to the tune of $787 billion, with interest rates that average over 15%.8 The interest rates aren't quite so sharp for student loans, but the total amount of that debt is nearly $1.7 trillion! And that's shared among one in every eight Americans.9 That, in and of itself, is so severe it's recently been labeled “a national catastrophe.”10 America is a nation of debt crisis.

And in light of what the Bible actually says about debt forgiveness and banning interest, some in America who press and cajole the downtrodden into signing foolish contracts, who pack hidden fees and late fees into everything, who charge rates of interest that could never be just, who build their riches off the debts of others – well, such contributors to the crisis could be in for a rough surprise at the final judgment.

Finally, there's a third way the commandment can be broken. And it's keeping too much stuff. In the Bible, the point of working is so that, after you've supplied the basic needs for yourself and your family and your relatives in need (1 Timothy 5:8), you should work so as to “have something to share with anyone in need” (Ephesians 4:28). See, what God gives us, what God produces for us through our labor – it isn't for us alone. The Bible is clear that you can steal just by keeping what you've earned or made, if somebody else is in need of it and you can do without it. “Woe to those who join house to house, who add field to field, until there is no more room” (Isaiah 5:8). “The people curse him who holds back grain” (Proverbs 11:26). Whatever you have in excess of your needs has been entrusted to you, yes, but not for you. It might be hoarded in your custody, but God is the True Owner, and he's got designs for it.

And the Bible is equally clear about what those are. “There will never cease to be poor in the land. Therefore I command you: You shall open your hand wide to your brother, to the needy and to the poor, in your land” (Deuteronomy 15:11). Jewish writers before Christ were not confused about what that meant: “Because of the commandment, help the poor; and in their need, do not send them away empty-handed” (Sirach 29:9). “Give in proportion to what you own. If you have great wealth, give alms out of your abundance. If you have but little, do not be afraid to give alms even out of that little” (Tobit 4:8). “Let all of life be common, and all things be in agreement.”11 And when, when the Word became flesh, the Word of God announced that “only with difficulty will a rich person enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 19:23). He inspired his Apostle to say, plain as can be, that the “greedy” just can't “inherit the kingdom of God” (1 Corinthians 6:10). Why? Because those excess goods are the right of the needy. To hoard possessions is theft when others are in need.

Listen to the voices of the early church: “God has given all things to all his creation. … Be ashamed to keep things that belong to others. Imitate the fairness of God, and no man will be poor.”12 “Those who are rich and greedy... are a kind of robbers lying in wait on the roads, stealing from passersby, and burying others' goods in their own houses as if in caves and holes.”13 “Now the chains on your barns have choked the throats of the poor, have shackled the necks of strangers, and have pulverized the stomachs of the hungry.”14 “Are you not a robber? The things you received in trust as a stewardship, have you not appropriated them for yourself? … The bread you are holding back is for the hungry, the clothes you keep put away are for the naked, the shoes that are rotting away with disuse are for those who have none, the silver you keep buried in the earth is for the needy. You are thus guilty of injustice toward as many as you might have aided, and did not.”15 “Are you poor? You know someone who is even poorer.”16 “Resolve to treat the things in your possession as belonging to others.”17 “For if we all took only what was necessary to satisfy our own needs, giving the rest to those who lack, no one would be rich, no one would be poor, and no one would be in need.”18 “No one should hesitate to give to the poor, for the hand of the poor is Christ's treasury: what he receives on earth, he stores up in heaven.”19

That's what the early church said on this. And they were only echoing Scripture. Paul has a word of wisdom for people who are “rich in the present age,” people in custody of excess beyond what they need (1 Timothy 6:17). And that's plenty of people today. America has a food insecurity crisis. Last year, more than 38 million Americans went hungry. It's estimated that one in eight Americans will experience food insecurity this year, with one in twenty Pennsylvanians having very low food security. No community is immune.20 And yet some people have plenty on their plates and in their fridge, letting it go to waste with hardly a moment's thought. Is that us? America is in the midst of a housing crisis. In our county alone, over 400 people are homeless.21 Many, many others find rent prices to strain or exceed what they can manage.22 But some people hoard ownership of multiple houses – one here, one for vacations – or have homes with plenty of room that could offer hospitality to others. Is that us? Are we the “rich in the present age”? Paul might say so, given his standard of being content if you've got food, clothing, maybe a roof over your head (1 Timothy 6:8). So it's to such as us that he lays down a command in Christ: “Be generous and ready to share” (1 Timothy 6:18).

But maybe you'll say, “People don't want to be charity cases!” That's right, most don't. Joseph Heil didn't. It wounded his pride badly, to think of 'sponging' off his brother. He really wanted to be self-sufficient. Jewish thinkers of the time of Jesus knew this, and handled it by announcing that “a gift is a type of loan” – it's just a loan that the lender commits to immediately forgive.23 If the recipient later enters better times and can return it, that's great! But if not, is that a loss to the lender? No! Why not? Because of what's written: “Whoever is generous to the poor lends to the LORD, and he will repay him for his deed” (Proverbs 19:17). It's in lending to God through the poor that we become, in practice and not just in principle, his creditors – which is just a Latin word for 'believers.'24 It's when we sell what we've got and “give to the needy” that, lending to the Lord, we “provide” ourselves with “a treasure in the heavens that does not fail,” Jesus says (Luke 12:33). Paul echoes him: it's by being “generous and ready to share” that people can “store up treasure for themselves as a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of that which is truly life” (1 Timothy 6:18-19). Jesus sums up this way of boosting our heavenly accounts with a brilliant phrase: being “rich toward God” (Luke 12:21).

The early Christians, at their best, really came to live like this: doing justice and mercy to all, so as to be rich toward God. A century after the church came to be, a Greek Christian summarized how believers lived: “He who has, gives to him who has not, without boasting. And when they see a stranger, they take him to their houses and rejoice over him as a true brother. … And if there is among them anyone who is poor and needy, and if they have no spare food, they fast two or three days in order to supply to the needy their lack of food.”25 In all this, they were only aiming to imitate their Lord. “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich” in heaven above, “yet for your sake he became poor” on this earth (2 Corinthians 8:9). It doesn't get any poorer than the cross, where every worldly good was stripped off Jesus. He was made penniless. He gave up everything for us. But in giving up everything, he nailed to his cross “the record of debt that stood against us,” canceling it and its demands (Colossians 2:14). He replaced our sinful wages with a much more priceless gift (Romans 6:23). And this Lord is raised as “the Lord of all, bestowing his riches on all who call on him” (Romans 10:12), “so that through his poverty you might become rich” (2 Corinthians 8:9) with “the unsearchable riches of Christ” (Ephesians 3:8). May you “be enriched in every way to be generous in every way, which through us will produce thanksgiving to God” (2 Corinthians 9:11). Amen.


Almighty God, rich in boundless mercy, we have been given much, much more than we know. We live by your great bounty in every moment. In our custody, we now may have houses or lands, we now may have silver or gold. But in place of them all, Lord, put in our spirits a deeper hunger for Jesus. For we live in a world of injustice, a world of exploitation, of unjust wages, and of inequality; and in this world as in the next, we need Jesus, the Justice of God made flesh, the Mercy of the Father manifest to us. Pour out your rich grace upon us undeserving souls, and redeem us for yourself and for your generosity, cancelling all our debts on the cross of Christ. Shape us by your rich Spirit into a people of justice and mercy, people who bear the family resemblance of a heavenly Father. Let the world know whose we are by how much love we show, especially to poor laborers and to the needy who cannot labor. Let us in our hearts be like them, for have you not “chosen those who are poor of this world to be rich in faith and heirs of your kingdom” (James 2:5)? Open our hearts and our hands to our neighbors, that our goods might pile up in the storehouses of heaven and not of earth. We ask one thing, and one thing only: to be rich toward you, Lord. Amen.

1  Information about Joseph Heil's life and activities, including quotations, are drawn from his letters to his brother William F. Heil, in W. F. Heil Papers, EC Church Archives.

2  Richard Tudor, The Decalogue Viewed as the Christian's Law (Macmillan & Co., 1860), 506. Compare to B. W. Randolph, The Law of Sinai: Being Ten Devotional Addresses on the Ten Commandments (Longmans, Green, & Co., 1896), 153 (“Ought we not to be at least as anxious to give a fair wage for work done as to get an article at low cost?”); Pope Leo XIII, Rerum novarum (15 May 1891), §46 (“A workman's wages [must] be sufficient to enable him comfortably to support himself, his wife, and his children”); Pope John Paul II, Laborem execrens (14 September 1981), §18 (“Remuneration for work should guarantee man the opportunity to provide a dignified livelihood for himself and his family on the material, social, cultural, and spiritual level, taking into account the role and productivity of each, the state of the business, and the common good”).

3  1919 Report of the Committee on Social Service, in E. R. Hart, Proceedings of the Twenty-fifth Annual Session of the East Pennsylvania Conference of the United Evangelical Church, Held in Bethany United Evangelical Church, Allentown, Pa., February 27 to March 3, 1919 (Publishing House of the United Evangelical Church, 1919), 85.

4  Joy Davidman, Smoke on the Mount: An Interpretation of the Ten Commandments (Westminster Press, 1954 [1953]), 105.

5  Charles R. Geisst, Beggar Thy Neighbor: A History of Usury and Debt (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013), 20-22.

6  “United States Private Debt to GDP,” Trading Economics, <>.

7  Raymond Kluender, et al., “Medical Debt in the US, 2009-2020,” Journal of the American Medical Association 326/3 (2021): 250-256. See <>.

8  Center for Microeconomic Data, “Quarterly Report on Household Debt and Credit, 2021:Q2” (August 2021): <>; Matt Schulz and Julie Sherrier, “2021 Credit Card Debt Statistics,” LendingTree (9 September 2021): <>; Adam McCann, “Average Credit Card Interest Rates,” WalletHub (13 July 2021): <>.

9  Zach Friedman, “Student Loan Debt Statistics in 2021: A Record $1.7 Trillion,” Forbes (20 February 2021): <>.

10  Josh Mitchell, The Debt Trap: How Student Loans Became a National Catastrophe (Simon & Schuster, 2021).

11  Pseudo-Phocylides, Sentences §30 (in Old Testament Pseudepigrapha 2:575).

12  Preaching of Peter, fragment 6, in J. K. Elliott, The Apocryphal New Testament: A Collection of Apocryphal Christian Literature in an English Translation based on M. R. James (Clarendon Press, 1993), 23-24.

13  John Chrysostom, First Sermon on Lazarus and the Rich Man (in Popular Patristics 9:36).

14  Peter Chrysologus, Sermon 104.5 (in Fathers of the Church: A New Translation 110:129).

15  Basil of Caesarea, I Will Tear Down My Barns §7 (in Popular Patristics 38:69-70).

16  Basil of Caesarea, In Time of Famine and Drought §6 (in Popular Patristics 38:83).

17  Basil of Caesarea, I Will Tear Down My Barns §2 (in Popular Patristics 38:61).

18  Basil of Caesarea, I Will Tear Down My Barns §7 (in Popular Patristics 38:69).

19  Caesarius of Arles, Sermon 27.3 (in Fathers of the Church: A New Translation 31:138).

20  “Facts About Hunger in America,” Feeding America, <>; Feeding America, “The Impact of the Coronavirus on Local Food Insecurity in 2020 and 2021” (31 March 2021): 14.

21  Jeff Hawkes, “Lancaster County Homelessness Rose in Last 2 Years. What Will New Count Find?”, LNP (11 January 2020): <>.

22  Jeff Hawkes, “Why the Affordable Housing in 22 Municipalities Can't Meet Lancaster County's Demand,” LNP (22 November 2020), <>.

23  Philo of Alexandria, On Virtues §83.

24  Gary A. Anderson, Charity: The Place of the Poor in the Biblical Tradition (Yale University Press, 2013), 52, 106.

25  Marcianus Aristides, Apology §15

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