As Americans, we seem obsessed with the concept of freedom from constraints. But how should Jesus’ followers practice freedom? Free to do what? Free to indulge our own desires, or free to obey and serve the one true God and those he has created?

In Jeremiah 5, the prophet gave a harsh description of the inhabitants of Judah. They had let their desires run amok – greedy to indulge themselves. Although poor and rich alike gave way to pleasure, the clever acted like fowlers – caging their fellow citizens like birds.

Indeed, there are wicked scoundrels among my people.
They lie in wait like bird catchers hiding in ambush.
They set deadly traps to catch people.
Like a cage filled with the birds that have been caught,
their houses are filled with the gains of their fraud and deceit.
That is how they have gotten so rich and powerful.
That is how they have grown fat and sleek.
There is no limit to the evil things they do.
They do not plead the cause of the fatherless in such a way as to win it.
They do not defend the rights of the poor. Jeremiah 5:26-28 NET

In my earlier years, I lived with a family in Chevy Chase, Maryland, a wealthy suburb located on the western border of our nation’s capital. I observed crosstown buses disgorging large groups of older, black women, each weekday morning. They cleaned houses for the wealthy and returned each evening to the poor side of the city. I had conversations with friends who came from other countries to act as au pair nannies to children of the affluent – for little pay to undergo near captivity. These inequities upset me.

Similar employment inequities came to national attention during a scandal called “Nannygate”. Although the talented, ambitious people involved were poised to assume high office in Washington, D.C., their opportunities vanished when their egregious employment schemes were reported. Did that unmasking prompt legislation ending the practice of taking advantage of vulnerable people for difficult and dirty tasks? Sadly, even if laws are enacted to curtail such oppression of the poor by the clever, they seem to have a built-in “whack-a-mole” feature.

So should we give up on stemming the tide of these injustices? As followers of Christ, how can we act to guard ourselves against the all-too-human inclination to cage others into service for our own ends? I suggest we do what Jesus’ followers have always done when social and political systems seem irretrievably corrupt. Ask the Holy Spirit to open our eyes and hearts to care for one person at a time.

Application: Practice generosity as a stopgap for greed.

If you already have ongoing relationships with those God has been calling you to serve – simply continue or expand those relationships – no guilt trips please. If someone whose cage needs opening comes to mind, try a dignifying “hand up” approach rather than a one-time, dismissive “handout”.

If you haven’t reached your full capacity for serving those in need, ask the Holy Spirit to lead you to someone unlikely to be spotlighted for help. Don’t seek publicity, payback or a tax write-off for yourself. Give attention to non-monetary ways to care.