Exploring the Biblical meaning of 'Loving Our Neighbors’


Chapter 12

Homes and Land

"What we need is more people who specialize in the impossible." – Theodore Roethke.

 

Our two small children were securely strapped into the back seat of our little car as Santa Maria, California, receded in our rear-view mirror. Orlando, Florida, my new assignment, would be the sixth city we’d lived in during eight years of marriage: three in California, three more in Florida. (One result: Yvette was conceived in Florida and born in California; Bill conceived in California and born in Florida).

Now, for the first time, we’d own our own home.

Christmas was less than three weeks past, and the holidays were fresh in our minds. So, to pass the time, Bill and Yvette sang Christmas songs. They sang them all across the seemingly unending deserts of southern California, Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas; through the lush swamps of Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama; and into the freshness of Florida’s pines and cypresses.

Bill, then 4, had his own version of one carol. Over and over, day after day, from one coast to the other, he sang it:

"Joy—to—the---worrrrrld, the house is come!"

 

God wants our "neighbors" to have homes. We glimpse it in Scripture:

"‘And after that,’ the Lord Almighty declares, ‘you will all live in peace and prosperity, and each of you will own a home of your own where you can invite your neighbors’" (Zech. 3:10; also read Ps. 69:35-36; 107:4-7).

 

Friends of ours felt led to move from Seattle to south-central Washington. They had no leads on property, but left anyway, by faith. It was dark by the time they reached a small town the Columbia River Gorge. But one real estate agency was still lighted and looked busy, so they went in.

They talked with a young realtor. He told them, "I know the perfect property for you!" He drew them a detailed, turn-by-turn map of the 49 remaining miles. He told them to park their RV on the property overnight, and see the owner in the morning.

Soon after parking, they saw headlights bouncing across the field toward them. It was the owner. "What are you doing on my property?" he challenged. Doug told him about the agency and showed him the map. "He’s wrong," the owner said. "This property hasn’t been for sale for years." But finally he said "Come over for breakfast, and we’ll discuss it." They did. And the owner sold them the property!

On Doug’s next trip through the town, the agency was boarded up. Puzzled, he asked a resident why. The answer? "Oh, that agency closed years ago. It’s never been open a day since!"

 

Who owns our land?

When Israel entered the Promised Land, every family received acreage, free and clear. No mortgage payments! They could build homes, grow food, and raise cattle. But who really owned it?

During most of the 20th century, the Free World and the Communist Bloc argued whether private individuals or the State owned land. God’s response is like the brain-teaser that asks "Is the capital of Florida pronounced MYami or MEEami?" The answer? "Neither. It’s pronounced Tallahassee." The Lord told Israel that neither individuals nor the government owned the land.

Then who did? God explained: "The land is mine ... You are merely my tenants and sharecroppers!" (Lev. 25:23.)

For details, read: Num. 32:1-42; 33:53-54; 34:1-29; Deut. 3:12-20; Josh. 13:7-19:51; Ezek. 47:13-48:29.

So those beautiful passages like Psalms 24:1 that say "The earth belongs to God! Everything in all the world is his!" mean it. Literally. He does own the world. We, the bank, and the government are just caretakers of "our" pieces of it. We must give account to him for how we use it. That’s total accountability. God holds us responsible for how attractive his land looks, how well it produces, and the condition we leave it in.

Also read: Ex. 19:5; Deut. 10:14; 1 Chron. 29:11; Ps. 50: 10-12.

 

How was land "ownership" protected in Bible times?

"I don’t want my people losing their property and having to move away" (Ezekiel 46:18). Even as "tenants and sharecroppers," Mosaic law prevented most "landowners" from losing their land permanently. Sales had time limits and escape clauses. Today we’d consider them long-term leases. Most (though not all) property eventually reverted to the original owners or their heirs.

"Every fiftieth year ... all the family estates sold to others shall be returned to the original owners or their heirs.

"Yes, during the Year of Jubilee everyone shall return home to his original family possession!

"Land can be redeemed at any time by the seller. If anyone becomes poor and sells some of his land, then his nearest relatives may redeem it ... he may always buy it back ... But if the original owner is not able to redeem it, then it shall belong to the new owner until the Year of Jubilee.

"If a man sells a house in the city, he has up to one year to redeem it ... But if it is not redeemed within the year, then it will belong permanently to the new owner--it does not return to the original owner in the Year of Jubilee. But village houses--a village is a settlement without fortifying walls around it--are like farmland, redeemable at any time, and are always returned to the original owner in the Year of Jubilee.

"The homes of the Levites, even though in walled cities, may be redeemed at any time, and must be returned to the original owners in the Year of Jubilee; for the Levites will not be given farmland like the other tribes, but will receive only houses in their cities, and the surrounding fields. The Levites are not permitted to sell the fields of common land surrounding their cities, for these are their permanent possession, and they must belong to no one else" (Lev. 25:8-10; 25:13; 25:24-34; also read Ezek. 44:28; 45:1-9; 46:16-18; 47:13-23; 48:1-35).

 

A land sale illustrated a prophecy of hope and restoration in Jeremiah 32:6-15. Jerusalem was being besieged by the Babylonian army, and Judah’s King Zedekiah had imprisoned Jeremiah for prophesying that the city would fall and for advising Zedekiah to surrender.

"Then this message from the Lord came to Jeremiah: ‘Your cousin Hanamel ... will soon arrive to ask you to buy the farm he owns in Anathoth, for by law you have a chance to buy before it is offered to anyone else.

"So Hanamel came, as the Lord had said he would, and visited me in the prison. ‘Buy my field in Anathoth,’ ... he said, ‘for the law gives you the first right to purchase it.’ Then I knew for sure that the message I had heard was really from the Lord.

"So I bought the field, paying Hanamel seventeen pieces of silver. I signed and sealed the deed of purchase before witnesses, weighed out the silver, and paid him. Then I took the sealed deed ... and also the unsealed copy, and publicly, in the presence of my cousin Hanamel and the witnesses who had signed the deed ... I handed the papers to Baruch. And I said to him as they all listened:

"The Lord, God of Israel, says: ‘Take both this sealed deed and the copy and put them into a pottery jar to preserve them for a long time.’ For the Lord, God of Israel, says, ‘In the future these papers will be valuable. Someday people will again own property here in this country and will be buying and selling houses and vineyards and fields’."

When my family pursues our hobby of hunting minerals, we’re careful to respect land ownership. In the East, where most land is private, our samples usually come from public right-of-way where roads cross streams. When we want to enter private land, we ask permission first (and have made a heartwarming number of new friends that way).

Conversely, much Western land is publicly owned. But even there we buy land ownership maps and, when appropriate, visit courthouses to check records.

We care for land in other ways too. We close gates. We rarely build fires, tend them carefully, and never leave litter.

And, as a "bonus," we get to create names. That’s fun.

Why make up names? Actually, we use official names whenever they exist. But in much of the West only the largest creeks, hills, and canyons have names. And we soon learned it didn’t work well to keep saying "let’s go to that meadow two miles up the side track five miles off the main highway." So we called it "Trees-By-The-Water." Another, nearby, became "Angels’ Song."

A hill where a wind-twisted juniper looked just like a dinosaur? "T-Rex." A mineral bed perfectly capped by yellow flowers? "Crown of Gold." A site that deeply moved Yvette’s spirit? "Tears of Joy." A clay-covered ridge that reminded us of a huge lizard? "Sleeping Dinosaur." A site where I persisted in losing everything from my pockets? "Las Vegas."

Two names especially tickled my sense of humor. As Yvette and I made our way down one remote canyon, a brown bunny hopped out from behind a sagebush. Yvette greeted it: "Hello, Geoffrey!" So "Geoffrey’s Canyon" got its name, from a rabbit!

My favorite? On a parching dry, 95-degree-hot August day, Yvette followed a series of colorful sedimentary beds deeper and deeper into a steep-sided gorge. Finally, 300 vertical feet down, she collected a bag of rocks and started back up. Descending had been easy. Climbing out wasn’t! Finally she staggered over the 7000-foot-high rim, collapsed exhausted on the barren rocks, and exclaimed "What was I thinking?" And, on our maps, that’s now "What Was I Thinking?" Canyon!

 

Did God control land prices?

"If the land is sold or bought ... a fair price shall be arrived at by counting the number of years until the Jubilee. If the Jubilee is many years away, the price will be high; if few years, the price will be low; for what you are really doing is selling the number of crops the new owner will get from the land before it is returned to you.

"[The seller] may always buy it back ... at a price proportionate to the number of harvests until the Jubilee, and the owner must accept the money and return the land to him" (Lev. 25:14-16; 25:27).

The value of land dedicated to God was set in an unusual, interesting way - not by the plot’s size, but by the amount of seed required to plant it, combined with the number of years until the next Jubilee (Lev. 27: 16-18).

Jeremiah 32:6-15 shows us that at least some of these laws were still being followed hundreds of years later. God’s intent was clear: He did not plan that land would ever be an investment. The price of land would never go up. Short-term, it went down. Long-term, it stayed level. It remained affordable. And no one was ever caught owning a home on which he owed more than its current value. Poverty and homelessness were reduced.

When I worked at Kennedy Space Center in the early 1980’s, home prices along Florida’s Space Coast were moderate. Less than ten years earlier, they’d been extremely low. Congress had cancelled the last part of the Apollo moon program, and most workers had to leave the area. Home prices plunged. Many homeowners had to give their property back to the bank. (Around 1980 that let my cousin’s family buy a lovely two-story residence directly on a golf course for $5,000 – yes, $5,000)! (The same things happened again at the end of the Shuttle program in 2010.)

When we moved from KSC to California, we felt the impact of that state’s higher home prices strongly.

 

Our budget was strained.

I had a good job, and got a 25% raise for going to California, but I’d have had to earn 2 times as much to buy even the smallest home in Santa Maria. One vacant lot boasted a large sign saying "Will build to suit" – and was filled with Army tents! We rented the least expensive home we could find, but even that was barely affordable and left very little of my paycheck.

 

Family life was affected.

High home prices left most wives with no choice but to work. Children were left with babysitters or became "latchkey kids," often with saddening results. Many one-income families were forced into poor neighborhoods with run-down homes and high crime rates. To find affordable homes, many other parents had to commute one to two hours to work every day, leaving their children with sitters that much longer.

 

Businesses were hurt.

Owners needed higher sales to cover their own higher rents. But customers like us had less money left after paying our rent, which reduced sales.

 

We couldn’t save.

Covering our rent and essential expenses took everything I earned. In two years of very determined saving, we put aside exactly $75!

We did get our own home when we were transferred back to Florida, but not thanks to saving money in California. My company paid us generous "per diems" for meals and lodging while driving cross-country and while our Orlando home was being finished. We traveled economically (often eating from grocery stores), and saved most of the money. That gave us our down payment. Our homemade furniture provided the collateral.

Most of us believe it’s good for home prices to keep rising. Indeed, until recently, many people did benefit. We knew one humble pastor whose small home near Los Angeles sold for enough money to let him buy a lovely, comfortable home near Santa Maria. And we all appreciate that money.

But have we asked ourselves how hard we’re making it for our children to buy homes? And whether our grandchildren will be able to own homes at all? And whether the results of forcing both parents to be absentees is worth it? Those aren’t hypothetical questions. They’re very real. They’re affecting us today. We need to face them.

The question’s not whether we need real estate agents. Their services will always be necessary. The question is, how much can we and our children afford to pay?

Canadian writer Phil Callaway asks it well: "what culture of any worth loves its economy more than its children?" (Family Squeeze, Multnomah Books, 2008, p. 106,)

The laws God gave Israel solved those problems.

Former Arizona senator Barry Goldwater, author of The Conscience of a Conservative, said that being conservative means learning from the past and keeping what’s worked well.. By his definition, whose laws were more conservative? Ours? Or ancient Israel’s?

 

In Bible times, why were people supposed to give their "neighbors" lodging?

My first family and I once camped our way from Seattle to northern Michigan. In one Minnesota town our map didn’t show a campground, so we asked at a gas station. The attendant didn’t know of one either, but asked another customer – the city’s public works director!

That gentleman welcomed us warmly, and insisted that the town wanted us to camp in its public park (a bit like the village squares of Bible days). He personally led us there and showed us where to erect our tent.

But not everyone shared his friendliness. During the night teenagers hanging out in the park made fun of the tent and loudly debated throwing rocks at us. My wife got little rest that night. (I slept through everything.)

 

In Bible days, if towns didn’t have inns, or they were full (as when Jesus was born), travelers had to sleep outdoors unless townspeople invited them in.

The risks travelers faced stand out in two stories. The first describes the men (actually angels) who visited Lot in Sodom the night before its destruction:

"When [Lot] saw them he ... welcomed them.

"‘Sirs,’ he said, ‘come to my home as my guests for the night; you can get up as early as you like and be on your way again.’

"‘Oh, no thanks,’ they said, ‘we’ll just stretch out here along the street.’

"But he was very urgent, until at last they went home with him, and he set a great feast before them, complete with freshly baked unleavened bread" (Gen. 19:1-3).

Later that night the city’s homosexuals tried to gang-rape the "men." Had they been ordinary travelers, and had Lot not insisted they stay with him, the Sodomites would undoubtedly have succeeded.

The second account tells of a couple traveling across Israel in the time of the Judges.

"The sun was setting just as they came to Gibeah ... so they went there for the night. But as no one invited them in, they camped in the village square. Just then an old man came by on his way home from his work in the fields ... When he saw the travelers camped in the square, he asked them where they were from and where they were going.

"‘We’re on the way home from Bethlehem, in Judah,’ the man replied. ‘I live on the far edge of the Ephraim hill country, near Shiloh. But no one has taken us in for the night.’

"‘Don’t worry,’ the old man said, ‘be my guests; for you mustn’t stay here in the square. It’s too dangerous.’

"So he took them home with him. He fed their donkeys while they rested, and afterward they had supper together" (Judg. 19: 14-21).

But that story didn’t end well. Despite the old man’s attempt to help, the woman was gang-raped and died. In revenge, Israel almost exterminated the tribe of Benjamin. (Judg. 19:22-30; 20:1-48).

 

Who were some Bible characters who gave others lodging?

"One day Elisha went to Shunem. A prominent woman of the city invited him in to eat, and afterwards, whenever he passed that way, he stopped for dinner.

"She said to her husband, ‘I’m sure this man who stops in from time to time is a holy prophet. Let’s make a little room for him on the roof; we can put in a bed, a table, a chair, and a lamp, and he will have a place to stay whenever he comes by’" (2 Kings 4:8-10).

"[Lydia] was baptized along with all her household and asked us to be her guests. ‘If you agree that I am faithful to the Lord,’ she said, ‘come and stay at my home.’ And she urged us until we did" (Acts 16:15).

More Scriptures: Gen. 24:23-32; Luke 10:37-38; 24:13-16; 24:28-29; John 19:27; Acts 21:8; 21:15-17; Philem. v. 22.

 

How should we help people who have no place to live?

While my wife Yvonne was pregnant with Yvette, we moved from Florida to San Diego. Both boys from my first marriage joined us. But when we looked for an apartment, no one would rent to us. Why? Because we had children! It jolted us. We remembered "let the little children come to me, and don’t prevent them" (Matt. 19:14; also Mark 10:14 and Luke 18:16).

We came within a hairsbreadth of homelessness because of that no-children policy. We wondered how many families had in fact been forced onto the street. At the proverbial last minute we found a small cottage half a block from the beach.

Trouble struck the next summer. The couple in a neighboring cottage moved out, and the landlady decided to rent it to tourists at a more-than-doubled rate. But, at that price, there were no takers. She grew impatient. Finally a vacationing couple moved in, only to find that, while empty, the cottage had become overrun with fleas! To justify breaking their lease, they complained that we kept them awake (though we were easily the quietest people on the block).

The couple was very nice to us. They explained, apologized, and said they hoped it didn’t cause us any trouble. But our landlady was furious, and gave us three days to get out! We couldn’t find another place that quickly. We appealed for an extension, and asked our pastor to intercede, all to no avail.

Then a young couple from our church invited us into their home. They didn’t have much room, but they made us welcome for two weeks until we could find another apartment. Without their love, we’d have been living on the street with a 13-year-old boy and 5-month-old girl.

Today, problems like widespread drug use mean we must be very careful when we help people find lodging. Sometimes it’s dangerous, or financially risky. Friends of ours who once rented their house out of sympathy had it virtually destroyed. Unless we know people well, it’s wisest to contact an organization that can provide assistance. Yet helping in a meaningful way is a firm Biblical teaching!

"When God's children are in need, you be the one to help them out. And get into the habit of inviting guests home for dinner, or, if they need lodging, for the night" (Rom. 12:13).

Also read: Lev. 25:35-35; Job 31:32; Isa. 58:6-8; Matt. 25:31-46; 1 Pet. 4:9; 3 John v. 5-11. 2 John v. 10 contains an exception for false teachers.

 

Does God approve of depriving people of homes?

"Woe to you ...You want a certain piece of land or someone else’s house (though it is all he has); you take it by fraud and threats and violence.

"But the Lord God says, ‘I will reward your evil with evil; nothing can stop me; never again will you be proud and haughty after I am through with you’" (Mic. 2:1-3).

In the early 1990’s large-scale US government budget cuts, done "to cut taxes and protect family values," took a devastating toll on defense workers’ jobs and homes. Reports said that over a million families lost their jobs, and three-quarters (plus many renters) lost their homes. Many laid-off workers and their families slept in cars or huddled under bridges. My family and I lived in a tent trailer in a long series of campgrounds.

Those budget cuts were popular. But did all those who voted for them picture real families huddled around fires at night in the cold rain, in front of makeshift shelters? That happened. Did they hear young children ask why they’d lost their homes? Could you convince those children we’d helped their family values?

Society has choices. Depriving people of homes doesn’t have to be ours!

More Scriptures: Deut. 19:14; Neh. 5:16; Job 20:6-7; 20:19; 31:38-40; Prov. 22:28; 23:10-11; Isa. 5:8-9; Ezek. 45:9; Matt. 23:13-14; Mark 12:38-40; Luke 20:46-47.

 

How can we reduce homelessness?

No one knows the whole answer. It’ll take determination and persistence. Yet God will judge us by how well we succeed. Are these some starting points?

 

Reform our treatment of the mentally ill

I remember politicians arguing for "empowering" the mentally ill to lead independent lives, not institutionalizing them. It was an appealing catch-phrase. So officials sharply reduced money for those institutions (California closed most state mental facilities in 1970). But no one funded a support system that might have made the decision work.

Hundreds of thousands of those mentally ill ended up on the street. A 1999 study by the Urban Institute found that the mentally ill made up almost 40 per cent of the nation’s homeless. Another 750,000 were in jail or on probation. Except for the "empowerment" budget cuts, very few of those mentally ill would have been homeless or in prison.

In a detailed survey of Los Angeles County’s homeless in 2005, 34% of the 90,000 homeless people counted were "severely mentally ill" (Los Angeles Times, June 16, 2005).

After reading Barry Goldwater, It disturbs me deeply that I’ve never heard a single conservative (and few liberals, for that matter) speak up about what we did to the mentally ill and say "We tried this. It was a disaster. We need to change it." Certainly we do need to! I believe God will judge us severely if we don’t.

 

Re-think the cost of housing.

Should we ask whether it’s more important for us to profit from a home, or for our children and grandchildren to have one? Should we, like ancient Israel, discipline ourselves to earn money from other sources than real estate?

Important questions. No easy answers!

Thousands of families have known the joy of owning homes thanks to Habitat for Humanity.

Founded by former US President Jimmy Carter, Habitat is a wonderful example of "loving our neighbors." It’s like the old rural tradition of barn-raising, where neighbors built barns for each other. It’s helped break the cycle of high cost that stops families from owning homes. Pray for its expansion!

 

Provide better protection against personal disasters.

Most of the hundreds of "newly poor" we met living in campgrounds were there for one of three reasons: layoffs, illness, or divorce.

Before that, we didn’t know any "good" people had to live that way. But we met them in every one of the more-than-40 campgrounds we ourselves lived in!

A graphic series of articles by LA Times columnist Steve Lopez (October 16-20, 2005) described the lives of those who lost homes because of accidents or illness – not drinking or drugs. He wrote "it looked as though a hospital had shut down and dumped its patients on skid row." "Wheelchairs are everywhere on skid row streets. Sometimes when darkness falls and downtown empties out, wheelchairs own the road."

Many of these people had suffered illnesses like strokes or kidney failure. They couldn’t earn their own way; had no one to help, and welfare didn’t provide enough to keep a roof over their heads.

Lopez asks, "What kind of country treats its disabled and mentally ill this way? How can we look the other way when the sick and the lame, the disabled vets and mangled castoffs are sleeping in wheelchairs on trashed and stinking skid row streets?"

Must this be? Can’t we create a better safety net? The real question is: do we want to? And how harshly will God judge us if we don’t?

 

Improve homeless shelters.

A community leader in a California city of 100,000+ population told me his city had one shelter, with just over 40 beds. But 30 were earmarked for a single program. Only 10 beds were available for the bulk of the city’s homeless. Many times that number slept in the open country outside town every night, summer and winter.

Some communities only have shelters during the winter. Others close before the last spring snowstorms; or are only for men; or don’t accept families with children.

In one town with a severe housing shortage, I called a minister to see if he knew where we could refer a young man who’d just lost his home. He said, "You’ve asked me the $64,000 question! We must get two dozen calls a day asking that: for the homeless, for wives, single mothers, children, single men. But there is no place here at all. We know we need a shelter. But every time we suggest a place downtown, businessmen come to the city council and say "Not there. It’ll drive customers away." And every time we look at a residential location, the neighbors say "Not there. We have children." He went on, "I hate to be cynical, but I’m afraid someone will have to die before we’ll act."

For an excellent summary of the reasons for homelessness, see the National Coalition for the Homeless’ Fact Sheet #1, "Why Are People Homeless?" (www.nationalhomeless.org).

Shouldn’t we take these problems seriously? Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Amos, Micah, and Zechariah all warned Israel that it would be taken captive unless it took care of its needy, including the homeless. The nation didn’t listen. God’s judgment fell!

What should we expect if we do the same things?

 

"The beginning is the most important part of any work." – Plato.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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