Jesus and Economics: Radical and Refreshing

Introduction

Most of my blog readers know that I strive to follow Jesus and that I try to apply his ethical teaching to all areas of human existence. Economics is one of the more important arenas of human life where we desperately need to hear a word from the Lord. Decades ago, I wrote my Master´s thesis at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School on the Bible and economics. Biblical teaching on economic issues is both radical and refreshing. I am the first one to admit that I do not live up to the standards that God desires. I also recognize that it is not easy to apply Biblical principles from thousands of years ago to our current and complex economic challenges. Nevertheless, given that the creation and distribution of wealth is going to play an important role in this year´s election campaigns, I submit for your analysis the following article in which I try to summarize the Biblical teaching.

Does God want a redistribution of resources?

In modern democracies questions frequently arise about the appropriate role of government in economic spheres, especially regarding the redistribution of wealth. Although the United States is generally considered to be capitalistic, our government intervenes in the ¨free market¨ in many different ways (Social Security, government subsidies to the oil industry, the U.S. Postal Service, huge budgetary expenditures for the military and the associated military-industrial complex, etc.) It is right to raise questions about which of these economic interventions by governments are good and useful and which are not.

In this brief article I will try to demonstrate that God, because of his immense love for humanity, is strongly in favor of resources flowing from those who have more than enough to those who have dire need. I believe that the Bible clearly indicates that this redistribution should take place at a personal level, within and between congregations, as well as implemented by governmental legislation. Here are some of the most pertinent Biblical passages to support that position.

Individual Redistribution of Wealth

God is portrayed in the Bible as a loving Father who gives good gifts to his children. He is often described as the Defender of the orphan, the widow, and foreigner because they frequently did not receive fair treatment under the law. (Psalm 68:5, Leviticus 19:10, Isaiah 41:17, James 1:27) All of humanity bears God’s image and, therefore, all people are of immense value. God does not want people to suffer from hunger or homelessness. As a consequence, God frequently uses people to accomplish his goal of everyone having enough. He urges believers to share their possessions as a demonstration of  divine love.

John the Baptist came preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. When asked by the people what they should do, he answered “Anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none, and anyone who has food should do the same.” (Luke 3:11). The dire need of people leads to a sharing of resources by true believers who see that need.  This teaching was later reaffirmed throughout the New Testament. The Apostle Paul taught about work and the goal of labor. “Anyone who has been stealing must steal no longer, but must work, doing something useful with their own hands, that they may have something to share with those in need.” (Ephesians 4:28) The Apostle John is even clearer. “If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person? Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth.” (1 John 3:17-18) The Epistle from James is just as straightforward. “What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them? Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.”  (James 2:14-17)

That believers represent God’s love is seen in the affirmation of James, “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress….” (James 1:27a)

The Redistribution of Resources within the Church (both locally and internationally)

The redistribution of wealth was a characteristic of the New Testament church. On the day of Pentecost when the Holy Spirit came upon the disciples, there was a sharing of possessions. “All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need.” (Acts 2:44-45) This practice of the early church was inspired by God and had divine blessing as God added daily to the church those that were being saved.

Two chapters later there was another description of congregational life. “All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had. With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. And God’s grace was so powerfully at work in them all that there were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned land or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone who had need. Joseph, a Levite from Cyprus, whom the apostles called Barnabas (which means “son of encouragement”), sold a field he owned and brought the money and put it at the apostles’ feet.” (Acts 4:32-27)It is important to recognize that meeting each other’s needs was praised as evidence of God’s great and powerful grace.

A problem arose in the in the distribution of food to meet the needs of the widows in the congregation. The “Hebrew” widows were served well, but the “Hellenistic” widows were being neglected. Instead of scrapping the whole program, the church leadership chose seven Hellenistic “deacons” to oversee the distribution. (Acts 6:1-7) The apostles “bent over backwards” to make sure the needs of the Hellenistic widows would be fully met.

This practice of koinonia or resource transfer from those with more possessions to those with great need began to extend beyond the boundaries of the local church in Jerusalem. In Acts 11 we see that a significant offering was sent from the Christians in Antioch to believers in Judea. “During this time some prophets came down from Jerusalem to Antioch. One of them, named Agabus, stood up and through the Spirit predicted that a severe famine would spread over the entire Roman world. (This happened during the reign of Claudius.) The disciples, as each one was able, decided to provide help for the brothers and sisters living in Judea. This they did, sending their gift to the elders by Barnabas and Saul.” (Acts 11: 27-30)

At the international church “summit” in Jerusalem (Acts 15), the Holy Spirit led the apostles to a wise decision of division of responsibilities of gospel ministry to the Jews and to the Gentiles. Paul summarizes this decision in his letter to the Galatians. “James, Cephas (Peter) and John, those esteemed as pillars, gave me and Barnabas the right hand of fellowship when they recognized the grace given to me. They agreed that we should go to the Gentiles, and they to the circumcised. All they asked was that we should continue to remember the poor, the very thing I had been eager to do all along.” (Galatians 2:9-10)

This inter-church economic fellowship led to Paul’s Third Missionary Journey (Most Christians today wrongly think that Paul’s journey was primarily evangelistic, when, in fact, it was a five- year project to raise a collection from among the Gentile churches to share with the persecuted Christians in Jerusalem. He mentioned this collection to the relatively affluent church in Corinth. “Now about the collection for the Lord’s people: Do what I told the Galatian churches to do. On the first day of every week, each one of you should set aside a sum of money in keeping with your income, saving it up, so that when I come no collections will have to be made. Then, when I arrive, I will give letters of introduction to the men you approve and send them with your gift to Jerusalem.” (I Corinthians 16:1-3)

The Corinthian Christians responded and boasted they could contribute generously to the collection. Nevertheless, their actions did not correspond to their boasting. Paul wrote two whole chapters in his Second Letter to the Corinthians in which he laid out a strong case for why they should participate in this divine redistribution of wealth. “And now, brothers and sisters, we want you to know about the grace that God has given the Macedonian churches. In the midst of a very severe trial, their overflowing joy and their extreme poverty welled up in rich generosity. For I testify that they gave as much as they were able, and even beyond their ability. Entirely on their own, they urgently pleaded with us for the privilege of sharing in this service to the Lord’s people. And they exceeded our expectations: They gave themselves first of all to the Lord, and then by the will of God also to us. So, we urged Titus, just as he had earlier made a beginning, to bring also to completion this act of grace on your part. But since you excel in everything—in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in complete earnestness and in the love we have kindled in you—see that you also excel in this grace of giving.

 I am not commanding you, but I want to test the sincerity of your love by comparing it with the earnestness of others. For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich.

And here is my judgment about what is best for you in this matter. Last year you were the first not only to give but also to have the desire to do so. Now finish the work, so that your eager willingness to do it may be matched by your completion of it, according to your means. For if the willingness is there, the gift is acceptable according to what one has, not according to what one does not have.

Our desire is not that others might be relieved while you are hard pressed, but that there might be equality. At the present time your plenty will supply what they need, so that in turn their plenty will supply what you need. The goal is equality, as it is written: “The one who gathered much did not have too much, and the one who gathered little did not have too little.

Thanks be to God, who put into the heart of Titus the same concern I have for you. For Titus not only welcomed our appeal, but he is coming to you with much enthusiasm and on his own initiative. And we are sending along with him the brother who is praised by all the churches for his service to the gospel. What is more, he was chosen by the churches to accompany us as we carry the offering, which we administer in order to honor the Lord himself and to show our eagerness to help. We want to avoid any criticism of the way we administer this liberal gift. For we are taking pains to do what is right, not only in the eyes of the Lord but also in the eyes of man.

In addition, we are sending with them our brother who has often proved to us in many ways that he is zealous, and now even more so because of his great confidence in you. As for Titus, he is my partner and co-worker among you; as for our brothers, they are representatives of the churches and an honor to Christ. Therefore, show these men the proof of your love and the reason for our pride in you, so that the churches can see it.” (II Corinthians 8:1-24; we can see the importance that God gives to this collection because Paul continues urging the Corinthians to participate throughout the entire chapter 9)

Given that it is frequently said we should limit the sharing of our wealth to our closest neighbors, it is important to note that this collection was international and intercultural. It was destined for the Jewish Christians in Jerusalem who generally looked down upon the Gentile Christians as “second-class” believers who didn’t live up to the fullness of divine teaching (such as dietary laws and circumcision). We who are followers of Jesus have a responsibility with our neighbors…both near and far.

Governmental Legislation for the Redistribution of Resources

God was so concerned that people had sufficient food and other basic necessities that He did not leave this concern up to the “voluntary generosity” of believers. He issued legislation that would guarantee that the most vulnerable people in society (widows, orphans, foreigners, the poor) would have a dignified life with their most basic needs met.  Here is a small sample of the Old Testament legislation that God instituted to demonstrate his love. Given the fact that Israel was to be a “light unto the nations”, the principles illustrated in the Old Testament should be adapted and applied to modern societies.

The Law of Gleaning

Many Christians wrongly believe that the Bible defends private property as if it were an absolute right. In fact, the Bible clearly teaches that God is the only “owner” of everything. We humans are mere “stewards” to administer God’s property according to divine priorities. A good example is the law of gleaning. God legislated that in the harvest of the crops, a portion should be left in the field so that the poor and the strangers could harvest (=glean) the crop and thereby feed their families. “When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap to the very edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest. Do not go over your vineyard a second time or pick up the grapes that have fallen. Leave them for the poor and the foreigner. I am the Lord your God. (Leviticus 19:9-10). This legislation was very important for the Jewish people and provides the necessary background for the survival of Ruth and Naomi. Possessions do not belong absolutely to their human “owners”. We are stewards of God’s possessions and should administer them accordingly.

(See an excellent recent article “The Book of Ruth Can Transform the Way We Do Business Today:What companies might learn from the Old Testament practice of gleaning” in Christianity Today that shows creative, contemporary applications of the law of gleaning at https://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2019/july-august/gleaning-business-csr-bible.html?utm_source=ctdirect-html&utm_medium=Newsletter&utm_term=9478920&utm_content=664804534&utm_campaign=email)

The Year of Jubilee

            The Old Testament is quite radical in its understanding that God is the only true ¨owner” of the earth. Every seventh year there would be a sabbath rest. The land would lie fallow and God would provide enough food for the people.

After the 49th year (seven times seven sabbath rest years), there would be a special celebration, a Jubilee. Land that had been “sold” during those 50 years would be returned to the original “owners” and/or to their descendants. This is quite radical. What this really means is that land is not truly bought or sold. What is actually bought/sold is the use of the land until the fiftieth year.

“Consecrate the fiftieth year and proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you; each of you is to return to your family property and to your own clan…. In this Year of Jubilee everyone is to return to their own property. If you sell land to any of your own people or buy land from them, do not take advantage of each other. You are to buy from your own people on the basis of the number of years since the Jubilee. And they are to sell to you on the basis of the number of years left for harvesting crops. When the years are many, you are to increase the price, and when the years are few, you are to decrease the price, because what is really being sold to you is the number of crops. Do not take advantage of each other, but fear your God. I am the Lord your God.” (Leviticus 25:10, 13-17)

This is like playing Monopoly, but it is more just, because we play according to God’s rules. Usually when you play Monopoly, after an hour or so, one player has accumulated most of the properties and the others have gone bankrupt. But according to the divine mandate, every fiftieth year we start all over again. Everyone is treated equally and is given a new beginning.

The Second Tithe

Most Christians do not realize that part of the Old Testament tithe included the redistribution of resources. Moses told the Israelites “When you have finished setting aside a tenth of all your produce in the third year, the year of the tithe, you shall give it to the Levite, the foreigner, the fatherless and the widow, so that they may eat in your towns and be satisfied. Then say to the Lord your God: “I have removed from my house the sacred portion and have given it to the Levite, the foreigner, the fatherless and the widow, according to all you commanded. I have not turned aside from your commands nor have I forgotten any of them.”  (Deut 26:12-13) It is important to note that the “sacred portion” which was destined for God, was, in fact, to be given to the most vulnerable in society.

God and “Non Jewish” Governments

The Bible gives many insights on what He expects from all governments, even “secular” ones. God raised up the prophet Amos to speak to the government of his time. God judges the religious theocracy of Israel because “they sell the innocent for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals. They trample on the heads of the poor as on the dust of the ground and deny justice to the oppressed.” (Amos 2:6b-7a) Nevertheless, God (through the prophet Amos) also judges the neighboring “secular” governments of Moab, Edom, Ammon, Tyre and Gaza. Their greed and desire to “extend their boundaries” led them to oppress the poor and sell them into slavery, instead of meeting their needs.

Slavery in the Bible

Many Christians (including myself) are uncomfortable with the fact that slavery seems to be authorized in the Old Testament. Nevertheless, under closer scrutiny, slavery in the Bible was more like “indentured servitude”. It was not permanent slavery. Frequently, poor people would sell themselves into this “servitude” because they owed debts. After serving six years, they would become free. “If you buy a Hebrew servant, he is to serve you for six years. But in the seventh year, he shall go free, without paying anything. If he comes alone, he is to go free alone; but if he has a wife when he comes, she is to go with him.” (Exodus 21:2-3)

Advice for a King

There is important, but little recognized, advice given to King Lemuel by his wise mother. Much of this advice deals with the redistribution of resources to take care of those in need. “Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute. Speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and needy.” (Proverbs 31:8-9) This legal defense of the poor and needy meant that they receive their assigned portions according to the legislation regarding gleanings, the tithe, and the jubilee.

Governments and the Fallenness of Humanity

All of life is fallen and societies need to be redeemed and changed, especially in economic areas. Those who have political power tend to use that power for their own economic benefit at the expense of the poor. Jesus said to his followers, “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those who exercise authority over them call themselves Benefactors.” (Luke 22:25) This criticism is quite relevant. Rulers call themselves “benefactors”, which means “doers of good”. In fact, they enrich themselves at the expense of their subjects, all the while claiming to be doing good. Jesus rightly denounces the hypocrisy of the politicians of his day…and of ours.

John the Baptist spoke clearly to this kind of abuse of power. He told the corrupt tax collectors who took advantage of their positions, “Don’t collect any more than you are required to”. In a similar fashion, he told soldiers, “Don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely—be content with your pay.” (Luke 3:12-14)

            It is obvious that our government leaders and laws favor the wealthy. The IRS has so many loopholes that a lot of rich people and corporations (like Amazon) pay no taxes at all. An obvious example is illustrated by the release of President Trump´s income tax reports from 1985-1994. Although he was very rich, he paid no income tax at all for eight of those ten years.

Why do Some Christians Oppose a Redistribution of Resources?

Although most Christians in the United States do not practice a significant Biblically prescribed redistribution of resources at either the individual nor congregational level, they don’t usually oppose it in principle. They just treat it as “voluntary generosity” that does not have to be put into practice. Nevertheless, many “Bible-believing” Christians actively oppose a redistribution of resources at a governmental level as if it were anti Christian. Why is this? Here are some possible reasons.

  1. Sin is universal. Greed and selfishness are basic elements of this sin as we have put our own interests and desires as the highest priority of our lives. We are all naturally greedy and selfish, yet we are frequently blinded to this reality. The Bible is pretty clear that the “love of money is the root of all evil” (1 Timothy 6:10), but roots are not usually visible, because they are buried underground. Greed is deceptive and we don’t always recognize it, especially when it is buried within ourselves. Paul had to highlight the fact that greed was, in effect, idolatry (Colossians 3:5).
  2. Faithful presentations of the gospel strive to remove the root of greed, as seen in John the Baptist’s tough call to repentance (mentioned above). The rich young ruler was characterized by this root of selfishness.  He was a religious man and thought that he had kept God’s commandments. Jesus told him, “One thing you lack. Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” (Mark 10:21b) The young man chose to keep his possessions and he rejected Jesus’ message. Jesus did not lower his standards to lure him in. He needed tough love and that is what Jesus gave him.
  3. Even after they have begun their walk with God, Christians still struggle with greed and selfishness. In fact, the first sin recorded in the early church happened when Ananias and Sapphira sold a property and offered it to the church, but lied about the amount (Acts 5:1-11). Those who lead the church should be people who are not lovers of money nor those who pursue dishonest gain (Titus 1:7; I Peter 5:2; I Timothy 3:3,8)
  4. We are deeply shaped by our culture. Although some of that shaping is fairly neutral (I speak American English with an Ohio accent), many of our cultural elements pose ethical challenges. Commercials on tv and elsewhere constantly try to convince me that my value is based on what I possess in contrast with Jesus’ warning: “Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; life does not consist in an abundance of possessions.” (Luke 12:15)Overeating, lying, competition, addictions have ethical dimensions. The Apostle Paul urges Christians: Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will. (Romans 12:2).

What Happens if the Transfer of Resources Leads to Negative Results?

Is it possible that the transfer of resources produces bad results. In the early church in Thessalonika, some of the Christians expected Jesus to return within days or weeks. Such was the depth of their belief, that they stopped working and dedicated their time to waiting for Jesus´ return. The other Christians had to provide them with food. In his Second Letter to the church of the Thessalonians, Paul told the Christians not to ¨enable¨ these believers in their ¨holy laziness¨. For even when we were with you, we gave you this rule: “The one who is unwilling to work shall not eat.” (2 Thessalonians 3:10) This “tough love” approach is the basis for contemporary policies of unemployment compensation. When citizens are out of work, they are allowed to receive financial compensation, but they have to demonstrate that they are actively seeking employment. Tough questions arise.

  1. Should orphans and widows be supported by the state if family members or communities of faith don’t step up?
  2. Should a single mother (widowed or abandoned by her partner) be supported by the government given the fact that she is working (=parenting) or should she put her child in a day care center and look for employment outside of the home?
  3. How can communites of faith recover their previous roles of caring for the sick, taking care of the poor, showing hospitality to strangers, and serving the homeless in ways that truly minister to the vulnerable and empower them at the same time?

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