Economic Justice

John C. Rankin (2008)

John Wesley, the eighteenth century Anglican preacher, in whose name the Methodist Church was founded posthumously, ministered extensively to the poor and needy. He spoke of economics this way: “Earn all you can, save all you can, give away all you can.” I would modify it this way: “Earn all you can, save all you can, employ (or invest) all you can, give away all you can.”

Not everyone is an employer, but if we regained the entrepreneurial spirit which began this country, and its biblical nature, far more of us would be self-employed, able to employ others, able to employ the working poor to greater satisfaction on their parts, and thus able to better give charity to the needy poor – orphans, widows, the disabled, the infirm and the aged.

A biblical understanding of economics begins with an understanding that is it part of the stewardship given to Adam and Eve to “fill and subdue” the earth (Genesis 1:26-28). “Economics,” from the Greek word oikonomos, literally means the “manager or steward of the household.” Economics refers to the production and consumption of goods necessary for the family and society at large. To operate successfully, it requires the quality of trust, of nephesh, in human relationships, and thus, it is the family unit which is the most essential ingredient to a successful economy, and it is the entrepreneurial risk taken by the family unit that is most necessary.

Or, to put it another way, financial transactions equal the exchange of trust for work done or services provided. When trust in the social order is lost. money loses its value.

As we walk through the pages of Genesis, we see various economic relationships in profile. Abel keeps flocks and Cain tills the soil – a shepherd and a farmer (4:3-5). They acknowledge that their production of goods is a stewardship given by God, and thus Yahweh is due to be thanked. Abel does so cheerfully and gives God his best, but Cain does so grudgingly and gives God a mediocrity. In Cain’s lineage, we see references made to the making of tents, musical instruments and tools of bronze and iron (4:20-22). But Cain’s lineage uses material prosperity for the pursuit of wickedness, and Yahweh starts all over with Noah. Noah builds the ark to preserve the necessary components of an economy in service to mankind, and as he emerges after the flood, Yahweh promises the seasons necessary for seedtime and harvest. The command and promise to “fill and subdue” is again given to Noah (9:1,7), and he starts right off with the planting of a vineyard.

The Tower of Babel represents an economic structure based on sorcery (11:1-9), as Revelation 18 highlights in retrospect on the whole history of Babylon. Yahweh then sets aside Abraham and his descendants to be the remnant people through whom the Messiah would come, and with the Jews he sets into place specific economic structures to separate them from the pagan nations. We see how Abraham is blessed greatly by Yahweh (13:2ff), and becomes wealthy, tithes (14:17-20), and how he makes certain contracts and how he deals honestly (e.g., 23:7-20). We see how sin messes up economic relationships as well (cf. Jacob and Esau, Jacob and Laban, chapters 27-31), and how slavery comes into the mix (37:12ff). We also see how redemption comes into the equation as Joseph is redeemed and saves the economy of Egypt as he became its manager by Yahweh’s design (chapter 41). We then see how it is the economic despair of Jacob’s sons that leads them to go to Egypt to buy grain, and how God redeems Abraham’s seed through Joseph (42-48). As Jacob blesses his sons at the end of Genesis, we see many economic metaphors in place (49). Namely, the blessings of God always involve financial prosperity. He blesses us in hardship and trial and in poverty if we seek him, and usually in order to teach us not to make an idol out of that which is good, not to place our trust in goods, but in the Giver of the goods.

And though redemptively we each may have different stewardships in this life, we all aim for the wealth of the new Jerusalem, and the new heavens and earth in eternal life. When I speak of the POSH Ls of the image of God (peace, order, stability and hope; to live, to love, to laugh and to learn) in the order of creation, the very acronym of POSH comes from a word that refers to material wealth. In the order of creation, Yahweh ordained wealth for all of us – to reap the fruit and produce the goods with uninterrupted success so long as we obey Yahweh’s goodness. Only the reversal hinders this prosperity, thus any economic model the Bible brings up thereafter takes the tension between the order of creation and its reversal into view.

The exodus is based on the economic reality of redemption – “buying back” the Hebrews out of slavery, so they could regain their own stewardship to “fill and subdue” the land Yahweh gave them – a land filled with “milk and honey.” In the actual exodus itself, before an economy could be permanently put in place, the Jews learned how to depend upon Yahweh for their provision – the water from the rock and the manna from heaven (Exodus 16:1-17:7), the protection from the searing heat of the day and the biting cold of the night, the sustaining of their clothes and sandals so that they did not wear out. With these economic provisions being supernaturally provided, the Hebrews had been tutored to have the same dependency on and thankfulness to Yahweh when they came into the promised land itself. With the Ten Commandments, the Jews had a moral order that was the basis of a sound economy. The worship of Yahweh and keeping of the Sabbath provided the balance between productive work and satisfying rest; and the honoring of parents, and the elements of love and honesty in all relationships, provided the trusting security that economic transactions need to succeed.

Then the book of Exodus looks at laws regarding the nature, morality and economics of slavery in the ancient near east, which we examined in Chapter Sixteen. Following that, sections in Exodus 22 and 23 define how property rights are to be protected, and the balance of the Bible repeatedly affirms property as an unalienable right of the individual in family context, a right given us by Yahweh as stewards of his good earth. Then the balance of Exodus largely consists of Moses giving Yahweh’s instructions for setting up the tabernacle for worship, where material wealth is highlighted in the beauty of constructing a place where the goodness of the Creator and covenant-making God is profiled. The tabernacle, and later the temple, are supported by the tithes and freewill offerings of God’s people.

In the book of Leviticus, the theme is holiness – what it means for the Jews to be morally and culturally separated from the sins and idolatry of the pagan nations. Moses walks the Jews through the regulations of worship and atonement for sin in the tabernacle, and how the priests are to conduct themselves and be provided for economically. Some of the Levitical laws also touch on various economic considerations such as we looked at in Chapter Sixteen, especially in terms of the Year of Jubilee. In the book of Numbers, we see many elements about the exodus event itself, and then the book of Deuteronomy centers on the final sermon Moses gives the Jews before they possess the land of Canaan, where he repeats and flushes out the Mosaic covenant more thoroughly. Various economic concerns are again reiterated, especially in terms of the tithe, non-usury laws, and the sabbatical year to cancel debts as we also looked at in Chapter Sixteen. It also underscores the duty of employers to pay their employees in a timely fashion (24:14-15), to thus honor their employee status and need for daily bread.

On this basis, as the Old Testament traces the subsequent history of the Jews, through their seasons of obedience and disobedience, the economic considerations are always of central concern. How work and money are regarded is part and parcel with whether or not Yahweh is worshiped. When Israel rejected Samuel and the system of the judges (1 Samuel 8), they did so because they yearned for their money to buy another idol, just like when they gave their gold to Aaron to make the golden calf to worship when Moses was delayed on Mount Sinai, receiving the Ten Commandments (Exodus 32). This time, as they forsook trust in Yahweh, they did so to become like the pagan nations, where their wealth was deposited in the idol of a totalitarian king who enslaved them. When Yahweh redeemed their situation and raised up David as king, and Solomon after him, he entrusted to them great wealth. In their seasons of faithfulness, David and Solomon regarded it not as their own, but as Yahweh’s stewardship to them by which to govern the covenant nation with justice and mercy. David had envisioned building the temple for Yahweh, but it was Solomon who built it. At the end of his life, David donated his entire personal wealth, worth somewhere between one and two billion dollars (in current American dollars), to the building of the temple, and this inspired all the Israelites to give voluntarily as well (cf. 1 Chronicles 29:1-9).

Economic issues are never removed from consideration in the Old Testament, and always tied in with matters of political justice and mercy. It is well beyond my purview in these pages, but a whole book could be devoted to trace these economic matters. The Psalms and Proverbs are especially rich in specific applications, and the prophets speak repeatedly about judgment on Israel and Judah because of their unfaithful use of money. They also prophesy about how eschatological fulfillment involves economic security, and the joy of having private property by which to extend hospitality to each other (cf. 1 Kings 4:25; Micah 4:4; Zechariah 3:10 – relaxing at home underneath our own vines and fig trees). The Old Testament concludes with Malachi calling the Jews to be faithful to its tithe, if they want to see a restoration of Yahweh’s blessings.

In the gospels, the majority of Jesus’s parables deal with economic concerns, and thus with matters of social justice. In the parable of the workers in the vineyard (Matthew 20:1-16), Jesus ratifies the gift of private property – that the owner can do with his own money and property what he pleases. The beauty here is that this vineyard owner acts like a steward of God as the Giver, and uses his property not against workers, but for the equal inclusion of all who want to work. The power to give. In the parable of the talents (Matthew 25:14-30), Jesus likens the investment of our lives in pursuit of eternal life to wise investments in work and business. The parable of the Good Samaritan addresses attitudes about personal wealth head on (Luke 10:25-37), as do the parable of the rich fool (Luke 12:13-21) and the parable of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31). In the parable of the shrewd manager (Luke 16:1-15), Jesus teaches us how to use worldly money for eternal purposes. And this is but a sampling of how often Jesus addresses the issue of money and how we are to regard it and handle it – and as I have, in prior pages, contextually touched upon many other places in the Bible where the subject is in view. Paul speaks about contentment in poverty or wealth (Philippians 4:12), having no debts except the debt of love (Romans 13:8; cf. forgiveness of debts central in the Lord’s Prayer in Matthew 6:12), cheerful giving as opposed to legalistic giving (2 Corinthians 8:1-15), and he talks about how pastors (or teaching elders – same ministry) are worth a double wage for the work they do (1 Timothy 5:17-18). When we arrive at the new Jerusalem, the new heavens and earth at the end of the book of Revelation (18-22), we see the reversal of the reversal fulfilled, and all the wealth of the POSH Ls is restored to the believers.

A full examination of economic concerns in the Bible will yield certain assumptions:

  1. The power to give is the starting point of biblical economics.
  2. The serving of nephesh (the Hebrew term for the human soul originally created in God’s image, and needfulness for his good creation) with the goodness of the material world in the order of creation and the assumption of trust in the family unit, equal the basis for a healthy economy.
  3. Redemption is both a moral and economic concept.
  4. Ownership of property, as stewards of God’s grace, is an unalienable right.
  5. Entrepreneurial risk, in the “filling and subduing” of the earth, is central to the image of God.
  6. The moral order of the Ten Commandments, and sabbatical rest, are necessary to sustain an honest and productive economy.
  7. To support the work of the church is central for Christian financial prosperity.
  8. A godly free-market economy is based on “earn all you can, save all you can, employ all you can, and give away all you can.” It sums up biblical economics.
  9. The Protestant work ethic, rooted in the biblical Hebrew work ethic, and upon which this country was founded, incorporated many of these realities well, but we have since forsaken much of it.

There are many ways, in the priority of first the Gospel, then politics…, in which our current economic structures need redemption. Apart from public policy reforms (addressed elsewhere) two areas of my focus include health insurance and banking.