Part 2 of 2. Part 1 is found here.
Oh, how the Old Testament gets panned in modern day culture! Consider God’s instructions for deploying the ‘holy hand grenade’, as read by the Monty Python troupe from the fictitious Book of Armaments: “First, shalt thou take out the holy pin. Then, shalt thou count to three—no more, no less. Three shall be the number thou shalt count; and the number of the counting shall be three. Four shalt thou not count. Neither count thou two, excepting that thou then proceed to three….” Monty Python’s irreverent spoof is brilliant because it captures what so many non-Christians really do think about the Old Testament: It’s repetitive…It’s militaristic…And it’s completely irrelevant to my life today.
What a shame. I actually think the Old Testament offers deep insights into some pressing moral questions we face today—including economic questions. In a previous post I noted that a large amount of current rancor and recriminations about economic policy stems ultimately from a disagreement about the importance of income inequality. I think Christians simply must spend time together in thoughtful, theological reflection on God’s attitude toward the unequal possession of wealth.
I sketched very briefly in my previous post the kinds of economic arguments and theological arguments that can be used to support either of the following outcomes:
*Ensuring that the gap between the wealthy and poor does not become too great.
*Lifting the poor out of poverty.
Perhaps both outcomes are important. The real difficulty is when one outcome comes at the expense of the other. And a host of current economic policy questions—e.g., the minimum wage, tax codes—may demand that we prioritize between these two outcomes, so that our advocacy for economic policies line up with our commitment to Christian discipleship.
So, for Christians, which outcome should take priority? Is God more concerned with lifting the poor out of poverty or with ensuring that the gap between the wealthy and the poor does not become too great?
I think the Old Testament Law is one key resource for Christians in exploring this question. The Old Testament Law contains a huge amount of details about how God wanted his people to relate economically to one another—including the care God demanded for the poor and the marginalized. Although the specific requirements of these laws are not ones we should uncritically repeat in our modern economy, these laws nevertheless give us abundant insight into how God wants his people to live together. Here is a very quick overview of some of the details.
(1) There was to be no interest charged on loans (Lev. 25:26) This was a mechanism to prevent those with wealth from taking advantage of those who had pressing needs.
(2) Debts were cancelled every 7 years–even if the borrower hadn’t been able to repay it (Deut. 15:1) This mechanism ensured that, when a family fell on hard economic times, the downward spiral wouldn’t just continue and continue.
(3) The edges of crop fields were to be left unharvested (Lev. 19:9-10) Even though a landowner planted an entire field, he wasn’t allowed to harvest all the crops in his own field; some of the crops were automatically reserved for the poor who didn’t have fields with good harvests that year.
(4) One’s entire crop was to be left unharvested every 7 years (Exod. 23:10-11) Every 7 years, owners of a field couldn’t harvest any of the crops that grew in their own fields (as the fields rested from being intentionally sown). These crops were again reserved for those who hadn’t been able to produce enough goods for themselves over the previous years.
(5) Duties of the kinship redeemer (Lev. 25:25) If things got so bad for a family that they had to sell the land they owned, then relatives, or “kinsmen redeemers” were obligated to buy the land if they could afford to.
(6) Year of Jubilee: everything returned to original owners (Lev. 25:10) Every 50 years, no matter how bad things got and no matter how many things a clan or family had to sell, everything—every portion of land—had to be returned to its original owner. This was seemingly to ensure that, no matter how bad things got for a family or a clan, the next generation would have a chance to provide for themselves and prosper.
(7) Promised land given to families (Joshua 13-19) The book of Joshua spends 7 long chapters outlining all the individual portions of land that were to be allocated by tribe, clan, and family. Although these details may initially strike us as tedious, this land distribution stands in stark contrast with the other nations in the world at the time, where the king—or pharaoh, or emperor—owned everything, and allowed the people to use the land as the king saw fit. But God’s people were to live differently. Every person in every family was to have some means of producing wealth and prospering.
Despite what the Monty Python troupe thinks of the Old Testament Law, I don’t see how anyone can deny that the emerging picture from these passages is a beautiful one. It provides a framework for everyone to participate meaningfully and with dignity within a community.
But back to the question of prioritizing outcomes. The picture that emerges from these passages may suggest that God is both interested in lifting up the poor and in ensuring that the gap between the wealthy and poor does not become too great. But again, when a modern-day economic policy decision forces us to prioritize one outcome over the other, which priority is in keeping with the priorities that emerge from the Old Testament Law?
Seemingly, most if not all of the 7 mechanisms listed above can be plausibly interpreted as an effort to ensure that gaps don’t open up between very wealthy families/clans and very poor families/clans. But most if not all of these 7 mechanisms might also be interpreted as an effort simply to help the poor attain a certain level of means and opportunity. Both extreme poverty and an extreme gap between rich and poor undermine the kind of community in which people can live and contribute in meaningful, interdependent ways. Perhaps sometimes we should prioritize simply lifting up the poor (e.g., until a basic level of needs are met), and at other times we should prioritize the gap between the rich and the poor?
I for one would love to see Old Testament scholars discuss these points more fully. And there are of course broader theological points about wealth inequality for the Church to discuss, as I alluded to in my previous post. God’s revelation to us gives us a beautiful picture of what our economic life together can look like. We as Christians need to fix our gaze collectively on this picture until we have eyes to see how to realize it in our economic relationships today.