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Biblical Economics

February 24, 2016

This is a chapter from a book that I wrote a number of years ago but never was able to get published.  I believe that it is still as relevant today as when I wrote it.

ECONOMICS

If there is among you a poor man, one of your brethren, in any of your towns within your land which the Lord your God gives you, you shall not harden your heart or shut your hand against your poor brother, but you shall open your hand to him, and lend him sufficient for his need, whatever it may be.  Take heed lest there be a base thought in your heart, and you say, “The seventh year, the year of release in near,” and your eye be hostile to your poor brother, and you give him nothing, and he cry to the Lord against you, and it be sin in you.                    Deuteronomy 15: 7-9

I do not mean that others should be eased and you burdened, but that as a matter of equality your abundance should supply their want, so that their abundance may supply your want, that there may be equality.  As it is written, “He who gathered much had nothing over, and he who gathered little had no lack.              I Corinthians 8: 13-15

There is no area of life in twentieth century America where we are more protective of what is ours than in the area of our economic resources.  Christians have assumed that as long as they put enough into the offering plate, what they do with the rest of their resources in on one else’s business.  In recent years, we have been even more victimized by the false teachers who have risen to the surface with their, “God wants you to be rich” theology.  This is very attractive in an affluent culture.  Even more, traditional teaching on tithing has led to the conclusion in many circles that, “As long as I give ten per cent, I can do what I want with the rest.”  In the world it is popular thinking among the “haves” that the “have nots” are that way because they are lazy or lack the basic motivation to take care of themselves.  The Bible is far from silent on the issue of economics among God’s people, but there is very little attempt on the part of Christians to understand what it has to say, much less to apply it.

WHAT DOES THE BIBLE SAY?

In order to adequately deal with this subject it is necessary to trace the consistency of Biblical teaching from the early part of the Old Testament on through the New Testament.  To make the transition from the Old to the New, we must understand that in the Old, the nation of Israel was the chosen people of God and He shared a unique relationship with them.  Because He revealed Himself and His will to them in special ways, He had expectations of them that He did not have for other nations.  From the New Testament era forward, the Church has shared that same kind of relationship with God.  Because God has revealed Himself to us, He has expectations of us that He does not have of the rest of our society.  We would make a serious mistake if we thought that we could apply all of these teachings to American society as a whole.  We must see them as teachings for the Church.  Also, I believe that we must see that the principles involved in God’s will for His people in Israel are applicable to the Church as well.  God has not changed and there is consistency that flows throughout the whole of Scripture.

THE OLD TESTAMENT

We cannot in this context look at every passage that deals with economic issues, but we will look at several that are representative and will allow us to see that pattern that God desires is clear and consistent.  In Leviticus 19, God commanded that the people of Israel not harvest their fields all the way to the borders or go back after the initial harvest to glean what was missed the first time.  This was so that there would be left overs for the poor and the sojourner.  No good businessman today would be so wasteful; it just would not make good business sense.

In Leviticus 25, God explains that every fifty years there was to be a Year of Jubilee.  When Israel occupied the Promised Land, the land was to be apportioned equally to all of the people.  Everyone was to start on an even basis.  Over time God knew that the land would be bought and sold and that some would accumulate wealth, while others would lose what they had.  When the Year of Jubilee came around all of the land was to revert to the descendants of the original owners at the time of the distribution.  In other words every fifty years everyone was to start over economically.  Neither wealth nor poverty was to be handed down generation after generation.

Not only was the land to revert to original ownership every fifty years, but also in Deuteronomy 15, God commanded that all debts were to be forgiven every seventh year.  Because He knew how people think, He specifically warned that they should not avoid loaning to someone in need because the seventh year was coming up and they would not be repaid.  It was God’s will that there should be no poor among His people and He promised that there would be sufficient for everyone if they would obey His will.  In Deuteronomy 23: 10, the people are told that they are not to charge interest on loans made to their fellow Israelites.  God promised blessings if they would obey this prohibition.

These are only some of the laws of God pertaining to economics, but they are sufficient to give us a sense of His will.  If you turn back to the prophetic books of the Old Testament, it is very clear that God did not take His people’s disobedience in economic matters lightly.  Isaiah, Jeremiah, Amos and Micah all address these issues and declare that God will judge His people for their failures.  They make it clear that these failures make the people’s acts of religion meaningless to God.

THE NEW TESTAMENT

To begin with in the New Testament, consider just two things which Jesus, had to say.  In Mark 10: 17-22, a man comes to Jesus and asks what he must do to inherit eternal life.  After the man tells Jesus that he has followed the Law all of his life, Jesus tells him that the one thing remaining for him to do is to sell his possessions, give to the poor and follow Jesus.  We are told that the man went away sorrowful because he had great possessions.  We are not told what he might have done later.  Jesus goes on to teach his disciples that it will be very difficult for those with wealth to enter heaven.

In my lifetime in the Church I have heard far more teaching which attempts to explain away this passage than I have heard clarifying it.  It is true that Jesus did not make disposing of all possessions a requisite for all who sought to follow Him.  It would therefore be a mistake for us to suggest that this mandate is universal.  However, the care for possessions is a definite obstacle to the commitment to follow Christ for many people today and we do injustice to the message of Christ if we simply remove that obstacle.

In Matthew 25: 31-46, Jesus speaks of a judgment day when He will judge the nations.  The standard for the judgment is surprisingly clear, what was done to meet the physical need of people who were encountered during life.  Jesus does not say that He will judge based on worship attendance, giving to the Church, or any other standard of our religious practice.  The question instead will be, “What have you done for the hungry, thirsty, sick, naked, and imprisoned?”

We are told, in Acts 4: 32-35, that in the very early days of the Church in Jerusalem, there was not a needy person in their number because no one claimed his possessions as his own.  The resources that were available were used to meet whatever needs existed and each individual made their resources available.  There are some who have taught that the sin of Ananias and Saphira, in chapter 5, demonstrated that this was a failed experiment.  This makes no sense since in chapter 6 the Church works out a solution to make distribution fair.

Paul, in II Corinthians 8, discusses the need for wealth to be redistributed to meet needs.  He says that where there is surplus it should naturally flow to where there is need.  At some time in the future the roles may be reversed.  If this is done no one in the Church will need to live in poverty while others live in luxury.

WHAT DOES IT MEAN TODAY?

It seems clear to me that the continuous view throughout the whole of Scripture is that God does not desire for there to be any physical need among his people, whether it was the nation of Israel or the Church.  The means of accomplishing this is for those who have more than they need to support those who have less than they need.  This is a very difficult thing for us to accept, because we all want to hang on to what we feel we have earned.  It is significant that while we have God’s will clearly spelled out in the Old Testament for the Year of Jubilee, we have no record indicating that the nation of Israel ever practiced it.  It is likely that they found the whole idea as difficult as we do.

We must also acknowledge that God takes the matter of our fiscal responsibility very seriously.  As we have already indicated, it is a major subject in the indictments of the Old Testament prophets.  Jesus gave clear indication that how we respond to physical needs is subject to His judgment.  James 2: 15-17 says, “If a brother or sister is ill-clad and in lack of daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, be warmed and filled’, without giving them the things needed for the body, what does it profit?  So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.”  If the whole counsel of Scripture is so consistent in this regard, we must begin to take it far more seriously than we do.

We must begin by recognizing that what we have is not ours because we earned it.  We only have anything because God has allowed us to have it.  Anything that we have is a gift of His goodness.  We must regard ourselves as stewards and not as owners.  When we begin to truly see the resources in our care as belonging to God and not to us, then we can begin to hold them far more loosely.  As stewards we must take good care of the resources that God has entrusted to us and not dispose of them carelessly.  It is important to ascertain the true nature of needs and not to over-react by throwing money in the direction of every perceived need.  Stewardship demands responsibility.

There is nothing at all wrong with having a large income.  There is something seriously wrong with accumulating wealth while others within the Body are in need.  Tony Campollo received a lot of negative reaction when he questioned the legitimacy of some Christians spending $50,000 or more on a BMW while others have no car at all.  This is a legitimate question that needs to be considered.  A very dear brother, who has income substantially above what I am ever likely to have, put it this way, God wants us to be conduits not reservoirs.

We have created an atmosphere where it is very difficult for people to let their needs be known.  To have needs, in many congregations, is to be treated as a spiritual failure.  Other congregations just don’t have a viable mechanism for sharing needs.  This has led to something of a contrived ignorance.  We cannot be expected to meet needs that we do not know about.  So, we make it a point not to know.  The clear desire of God is for there to be a flow of resources, from mountain tops of excess to valleys of need.  This is to provide a leveling effect within the Body.  Does this mean that everyone should be exactly equal?  Paul does use that word.  I believe that right now we are so far away from anything approaching that point that we will need to be working in the right direction for quite some time before we need to draw any firm conclusions on that particular point.  I do believe that when we start moving in the right direction, God will make His will clear to His Body.  For now we need to acknowledge our past failures in this regard, pray God for forgiveness of this sin of selfishness, and begin making serious strides in the right direction.

SUGGESTED READING:  Leviticus 25

Deuteronomy 15

Isaiah 58

Amos

`Matthew 25

II Corinthians 8

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