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The coming of the Roman Empire destroyed the community-based economy that God had provided for the children of Israel.
- The Sadducees and the priestly families that collaborated with the Romans were rewarded with large land holdings. Many accumulate large blocks of land. The people who had previously owned them were turned tin to tenant farmer, who had to hand over at least of half of their crops to their landlords.
- The empire imposed exorbitant taxes on the ordinary people. This pushed most families into poverty. If taxes could not be paid, their property would be confiscated. The tax collectors got rich and the rest became tenant farmers or day labourers. Jesus saw the tax collectors as “sick” (Luke 5:31).
- For ordinary people, storing up wealth was impossible. If the Roman soldiers found coins or grain hidden in a house, they would smash the house.
- Debt was used to impoverish people and to steal their land. A person who was poor would be lent money at very high interest rates (50 percent) using their land as security. When they were unable to pay the interest or repay the loan, the interest would be added to the loan. In a few years, a small loan could grow to be worth more than the land given as security. The lender would demand the land to settle the debt.
- Herod built a Greek-styled temple in Jerusalem. His son Antipas built the new Roman cities at Deopolis and Tiberius. The governor of Judea built a new city of Caesar Philip in honour of Caesar. To pay for these building projects, the people had to pay tribute.
- People were hungry all the time.
„During those days another large crowd gathered. Since they had nothing to eat, Jesus called his disciples to him and said, “I have compassion for these people; they have already been with me three days and have nothing to eat. If I send them home hungry, they will collapse on the way” (Mark 8:1-3).
The state of people’s health was so bad that going without out food was debilitating.
- By Jesus time, most families in Israel had no land. Most of the land was controlled by a few powerful families and moneylenders. Tax collectors and soldiers would grab most of the crops that were grown and most money that was earned. The people were left with very little to live on. Most people were hungry most of the time. Many would have to find some work each day as a day labourer to buy their food for the day. That is why Jesus knew the people had followed him round the lake to listen to his teaching all day would be hungry. If they had not worked, they would have no food, and not be able to buy any.
For the people of Israel, the Roman Empire was a terrible place to live. Land was concentrated in the hands of a few. Capital was no longer distributed evenly. The people did not have money to lend to others, because all surpluses were taken by the Romans and the temple system. Life was brutal and extreme poverty was normal. No wonder people were looking for a Messiah who would break the shackles of Rome and free them from the burden of debt, tax and tribute.
When Jesus preached and taught in Galilee and Jerusalem, his message made sense in the local context. So when he and John called the people to repent, they were not challenging the people for their failure to produce the fruit of the Spirit. That was not possible, because the spirit had not yet been given.
The people were called to repent of their failure to obey the law and the prophets. They had not fulfilled the requirements of the mosaic covenant. Local communities had lost the right to judge and govern themselves, so they were not accountable for that. Roman law and government had been imposed upon them, so they could not repent of failure to implement God’s system of justice and law.
However, they could be challenged for their failure to implement the instructions for economic life. Despite Roman control, they were still free to voluntarily apply these instructions, so they needed to repent of this failure and begin living their economic life in accordance with God’s principles. The political situation was beyond their control. They had more control of their economic situation.
If the families of Galilee and Judea stood alone, the Romans soldiers and tax collectors could pick them off one at a time.
„If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. If a house is divided against itself, that house cannot stand” (Mark 3:24-25).
The households and families of Israel were divided from each other. They had stopped caring for each other. If they stood together in solidarity and supported each other, they could create a better life, despite the oppression of the Romans.
We interpret the Parable of the Sower as describing the response of people to the gospel. That make sense subsequent to the cross and resurrection, but it did not make sense to Jesus listeners. Jesus said “the seed is the word of God” (Luke 8:11). For his listeners, the word of God was the Law and the Prophets, including the instructions for economic life. They had been given the gift of the Law, but it has mostly been wasted. The devil stole it from some people’s hearts. Many received it gladly, but during a time or testing fell away. Others accepted God’s economic wisdom, but it was choked out by the “worries of life and the deceitfulness of riches” (Matt 13:22).
This was the situation in Israel when Jesus was teaching. The poor people were so beaten down that they did not think that it was practical to live by God’s instructions for economic life. The rich were so sucked in by their positions of wealth they were not interested either. It would disrupt their pleasure and comfort. Jesus sent his disciples out to preach repentance.
„They went out and preached that people should repent” (Mark 6:11).
The disciples could not preach in a vacuum. They would have to answer questions about why the people needed to repent. They would have challenged the people about their failure to live by the Torah, especially the economic stuff.
The Torah provided a way for a community of people together in peace. It included:
- A system of law dealing with crime and punishment
- A system of justice and judges
- A system of defence
- An economic system
It did not need a king or political power, which meant:
- No taxation
- No tribute.
Jesus came to bring about the restoration of Israel. The renewal of the Israel would be achieved through the renewal of life in villages and communities.
Jesus and the Law
Jesus had strong words for those who teach about the law. He has not abolished the law. He came to fulfil the law, not to abolish it.
„Anyone who teaches others to set aside one of the least of these commands will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever teaches others to practice these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven” (Matt 5:19).
I do not know anyone who has tried to “become great in the kingdom” by teaching people how to “obey the commands of the Torah”. Yet that is what Jesus seems to be encouraging. He expected his followers to teach people how to obey the commands given to Moses. An important part of this should be teaching about the instructions for economic life.
Jesus condemned the Teachers of the Law and the Pharisees, who had twisted the law in a burden by leaving out the love, and providing excuses for ignoring the instructions for economic life.
„Woe to you Pharisees, because you give God a tenth of your mint, rue and all other kinds of garden herbs, but you neglect justice and the love of God. You should have practiced the latter without leaving the former undone” (Luke 11:42).
„And you experts in the law, woe to you, because you load people down with burdens they can hardly carry, and you yourselves will not lift one finger to help them” (Luke 11:46).
The Torah, and especially the book of Leviticus, prescribed cultural markers to distinguish Israel from the surrounding nations. The laws of justice and crime and the instructions for economic life could not distinguish Israel, because God intended the nations to copy them (Deut 4:5-7). The surrounding nations would not copy the cultural markers like the Sabbath and food laws.
Judging by Jesus challenges, the Pharisees and teachers of the law had focused on the cultural markers and neglected the more important aspects of the Torah. Jesus requires his followers to focus on justice and the love of God.
Instructions for Economic Life
Jesus teaching challenged the people to live according God’s instructions for economic life. These were rooted in love of God and love of neighbour (Lev 19:18).
- John the Baptist challenged people to share their food and clothing with those in need.
„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).
He challenged the soldiers to stop extorting taxes that they were not entitiled to take. This was common practice at the time.
„Don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely-be content with your pay” (Luke 3:11-14).
John was pushing the people Back towards God’s principles for economic life.
- Jesus also challenged the people to give generously to those in need.
„Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back” (Luke 6:30).
Loving of neighbours required this.
- Jesus challenged the people to lend to those in need without expecting anything in return.
„Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you” (Matt 5:42).
This was an application of the poor law principles.
„If you lend to those from whom you expect repayment, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, expecting to be repaid in full. But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked” (Luke 6:34-35).
These words were a reference to providing interest free loans to the poor.
- Many of the people living in Galilee and Judea were in debt. Their debts were often owed to their countrymen. Jesus parable suggested a solution.
„Two people owed money to a certain moneylender. One owed him five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. Neither of them had the money to pay him back, so he forgave the debts of both” (Luke 7:41-42)?
This was not a revolutionary idea. It was what the Torah required. Debts were to be cancelled after seven years,
Cancellation of debt was the theme of another parable (Matt 18:21-31). A man who had been forgiven a huge debt refused to forgive someone who owed him a small amount that he owed and had him thrown in prison.
„The master called the servant in. ‘You wicked servant,’ he said, ‘I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?’ In anger his master handed him over to the jailers” (Matt 18:32-34)
In many ways, the sin of the servant was worse. The money he owed would have been a business loan. The loan to the second servant was a loan to someone in poverty. This loan should have been interest free, and should have been cancelled after seven years, if the person could not repay it. This was what the Torah required.
- Jesus called for people to cancel debts.
„Settle matters quickly with your adversary who is taking you to court. Do it while you are still together on the way, or your adversary may hand you over to the judge, and the judge may hand you over to the officer, and you may be thrown into prison. Truly I tell you, you will not get out until you have paid the last penny” (Matt 5:25-26).
The people should not to go to court to enforce their debts. If they went to a Roman judge anything could happen. They could both end up in prison and poverty. It would be far more sensible to cancel debts after seven years as the Torah required. The ones going to the courts would be the creditors. If they followed God’s standards and cancelled the debts, they would not need to be going to the courts.
- The Lord’s prayer contained a commitment to cancelling debts.
„And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors” (Matt 6:12).
We do not notice this because we focus on God forgiving our sins, but Jesus just assumes that we will cancel the sins of our debtors. I doubt that many Christians praying the Lord’s prayer think about what that means for them.
- Jesus expected his followers to give to those in need, and to lend not expecting to be repaid.
„And if you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners do that. And if you lend to those from whom you expect repayment, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, expecting to be repaid in full. But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back” (Luke 6:33-34).
Bad people are quite happy to lend, if they know they will be repaid, especially if they can earn interest. Jesus expected his followers to be different. They must lend to the poor expecting nothing in return. This was not a new idea. This was the Torah principle of interest free loans to the poor.
This giving should not be done out of obligation. It should be motivated by the love of God.
„Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful” (Luke 6:35).
Those who love God will be merciful to be like him.
- Jesus challenged his followers to feed people who were hungry.
„For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me” (Matt 25:35-36).
Followers of Jesus are expected to provide their neighbours with food, just as Boaz provided Ruth and Naomi with food by allowing Ruth to glean on his land.
- Giving to the poor made economic sense.
„Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal” (Matt 6:19-21).
Storing up treasure was impossible in Galilee and Judea. If the moths and vermin did not destroy it, the soldiers and tax collectors. Maybe the moths and vermin were a cheeky reference to the Romans and their tax collectors.
- Jesus told employers that they should be considerate in the parable of the workers in the vineyard (Matt 20:1-16). The employer promised to pay the employees who only worked for part of a day “what is right”(v 4,7). The Greek word is dikaion, which means righteous. This employer wanted to do the right thing. For Jesus listeners, what is right would be what is specified by the law. The workers who were employed for the whole day were offered a denarius. That was the standard pay for a day’s work at that time.
The employer paid every worker a denarius, even though some had only worked for a few hours, while others had worked for a whole day. The reason was that a person needed a denarius to buy a day’s rations. These people were on the poverty line, living from one day to the next. The employer was considerate. He decided to pay each person enough to buy food for the day. This was a generous application of the command to pay employs each evening (Deut 24:15). An employer has an obligation to give his neighbour enough food that he will be strong enough to work the next day.
„Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous” (Matt 20:15).
Being considerate and providing for a neighbour is more important than being fair.
A debate is taking place about the principle of a “living wage”. In Jesus time, a denarius per day was a living wage. The employer in the parable, who did “what is right” paid all his employees a denarius, regardless of how long they had worked. He knew when the end of the day had come that they would not be able to earn any more money until the next day. Most day labourers in that time lived from day to day. This employer paid a living wage by giving his employees enough to live on until the next day, when they would have the opportunity to earn some more. A living wage is not something new, it is a New Testament concept, based on God’s Instructions for Economic Life.
- Jesus challenged those who had accumulated land to give it away. When he challenged a man who enquired about eternal life, the man claimed to have kept all the commandments since he was a boy.
Jesus looked at him and loved him. “One thing you lack,” he said. “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” At this the man’s face fell. He went away sad, because he had great wealth (Matt 8:21-23).
This man’s wealth would mostly be land. He would have had to collaborate with the Romans to have accumulated so much. He claimed to have kept the commandments since he was a boy (Matt 8:20). Jesus explained that the was wrong. He had honoured the Ten Commandments, but he had ignored God’s instructions for economic life. He was not entitled to accumulate land. To be righteous, he needed to sell his land and give it away. This would fulfil the land laws of Leviticus 25.
- The transfiguration confirmed the authority of the law and the prophets. After this event, Jesus gave an interesting response to a question about why Elijah must come first.
„To be sure, Elijah comes and will restore all things. But I tell you, Elijah has already come, and they did not recognize him, but have done to him everything they wished. Then the disciples understood that he was talking to them about John the Baptist” (Matt 17:11-13).
Jesus explained that John the Baptist fulfilled the prophecy that Elijah would come. His role was not to create something new, but to restore all things. John could only restore something that had already existed. They only thing that he could restore in Galilee was the Torah, and especially the economic stuff that was most relevant to their daily lives. This is why John preached about economic issues. Jesus validated John’s message after the transfiguration.
Jesus preached a message of repentance. This was not repentance for general sin. Jesus demanded repentance for failure to obey the Torah. The ordinary people were not guilty of legalism: trying to achieve righteous by observing the cultural markers like the Pharisees. They needed to repent of neglecting the economic stuff that the law promised would keep their economies strong.
Jesus challenged the people to a new jubilee. This would involve cancellation of debt and restoration of land. Jesus preached a stark message on wealth and poverty:
„Blessed are the poor. Woe to the rich Blessed are you who hunger now.
Woe to you who are well fed now” (Luke 4:20-25).
These are strong words. He was promising that the poor would be blessed and the rich would experience woes. This is the reverse of the way things happen in the world, so what did Jesus mean? He was not referring to judgment. Judgement would destroy the rich, but it would also hurt the poor, so Jesus must have been talking about something different. He was prophesying a huge flow of of wealth/capital from the rich to the poor. Jesus was describing a different type of jubilee.
The exile to Babylon made it impossible to apply the Jubilee laws. The Jews returned from exile when the Persian Empire conquered Babylon, but it is not clear how many families were able to reclaim the land that their families had held before the exile. Jeremiah had redeemed a field at Anathoth, as a sign of eventual restoration (Jer 32), so someone from his family was probably able to claim it. However, I presume that most families were not able to reclaim their land when the returned from exile. Implementing a land-restoration Jubilee would not have been practical.
By Jesus time, most Jewish family had no land. Even if a family re-gained their land after the exile, it would have been lost to the powerful families who collaborated with the Romans. Joseph’s family should have owned land near Bethlehem, because he had to go there for the census, but he had no land there, and did not even seem to have family members there that he could stay with. Being a carpenter or stonemason, he had probably moved to Nazareth to get work on one of Herod’s city building projects. Many families would be in a similar situation. Without access to land, they were dependent on casual work. Those with skills or a craft like Joseph would be in a slightly less precarious situation.
The ordinary people of Galilee and Judea were desperate for relief from their oppression, so when Jesus announced a new Jubilee, he would have created immense expectation.
„The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sentto set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour” (Luke 4:18-19).
Jesus promised that this Jubilee would be good news for the poor. It would provide a new freedom for people who were oppressed by the trials of life.
We tend to spiritualise this promise, but Jesus words must have meant something more real for his listeners. He was not promising to overthrow the Romans and take David’s throne in Jerusalem. This would not be practical. He was not even advocating a forced re-distribution of land Back to the boundaries laid out by Joshua. That was not practical, because the Romans had used land to reward those who collaborated with them. The people who controlled the land in Israel were protected by Roman privilege.
Jesus was proclaiming a completely different type of jubilee. It would come about through ordinary people, applying the instructions for economic life laid out in the Torah. The land laws may not have been practical, but all the other instructions were still relevant. They did not need government intervention or consent. They could be applied by the ordinary people, despite the Roman control. Their application would bring a huge transformation to their society, as the practical sharing and caring was restored.
Returning to an equal distribution of land was not practical, because the Romans would not allow it, but that was less important, because for most people other forms of capital had become more essential. Jesus jubilee introduced a change that would create a more equal distribution of wealth/capital.
The people of Israel were looking for a Messiah who would deliver them from the Romans. Jesus approach was different. He planned to renew economic life from the ground up. Most people still lived in villages. By applying the instructions for economic life, they could strengthen their communities.
God had given Israel an economic and social model for life together, but under the pressure of economic hardship, the people had stopped caring for each other. Most were so busy struggling to survive that they had no time to think about the situation of others. Caring and sharing had stopped and everyone was looking out for themselves. Cheating and stealing to get ahead were normal. People assumed that they had no other choice. Jesus challenged this view. He wanted the people to see that they would be better off if they adopted God’s way of living.
Jesus spent a lot of time in the villages of Galilee, challenging the people to restore the old way of life, as prescribed in the Torah. When he sent his apostles out on a mission, he told them to go to a village and stay with a person of peace. The aim was not just to get converts, but to restore village communities to God’s model for economic life. They were to focus on the person of influence or the person of peace, because this person would be essential for changing the way that people lived. The villages were a great place to re-learn giving and sharing. Jesus knew that the gospel and the instructions for economic life could restore the economic strength of village life and the Romans could not prevent this from happening.
The Kingdom will be like yeast spreading through the dough.
„The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed into about sixty pounds of flour until it worked all through the dough” (Matt 13:31-33).
Applying this to Israel where Jesus was speaking, the parable says that the Kingdom of God will be established as the gospel and the Spirit spread from village to village and economic life was restored.
Jesus warned about a different type of yeast.
„Be careful. Be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees” (Matt 16:6).
The Pharisees and the Sadducees ignored the instructions for economic life, but they collaborated with the Romans to protect their position and privilege. Jesus later warned that those who had collaborated with the Romans would be destroyed. The collaboration system would eventually be swept away (Matt 24.) When that happened, economic strength could shift to the villages, if they had prepared by applying the instructions for economic life that God had given to them.
Love One Another
Jesus agreed that loving God was the greatest commandment
The most important one is this: ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’. There is no commandment greater than these (Mark 12:29-31).
Love of neighbour was the second greatest commandment. It was the heart of the Torah teaching and energised the instructions for economic life.
Jesus gave a new commandment.
„A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another” (John 13:34).
Giving a new commandment would be a little strange, as Jesus had already affirmed the two greatest commandments. However, he was not really giving a new commandment, but was shifting the old one into a new environment. The Torah commanded us to love our neighbour. This made sense in a tribal culture in an agricultural economy. In the promised land, a neighbour would usually be a relative or another member of the tribal group. The people were also required to be kind to foreigners living among them, but a person from another nation was not a neighbour.
By New Testament times, the world had changed and it was impossible to go Back to the tribal culture that Moses lived in. Jesus acknowledged this with the parable of the Good Samaritan when he extended the definition of a neighbour to include any person encountered during daily life. This updated the commandment to the world where many people lived in cities in isolation from their tribal and family groups.
Jesus put another subtle twist on the second greatest command when he refocused love your neighbour into love one another. Love continued, but the object of love changed. This made the commandment relevant because “Love one another” can be applied anywhere, including cities and industrial societies. Jesus was shifting the fulfilment of the law from families and tribes to families and groups of people brought together by the gospel. The tens and hundreds of Deuteronomy 1:15-17 would be replaced by the Twelve and One Hundred and Twenty in Acts 1:15.
We think about loving one another in an abstract way. It would have been different for Jesus listeners. They understood what loving one another meant, because it was no different form loving your neighbour, and they knew what that meant, because it was the heart of the Torah that Jesus had taught them in their synagogues. Loving your neighbour .encompassed all the instructions for economic life contained in the law. Loving one another should be the same.
Changing the object from “neighbour” to “one another shifted the application of the instructions for economic life and the judicial laws of crime and punishment from the tribal groups of Israel to groups of people who chose to follow Jesus. And the shift of love from neighbour to one another would mean that the “one anothers” would have to become “neighbours” to make the instructions for economic life real.
The church in Jerusalem described in Acts was not a new form of proto communism. It was an attempt to restore God’s social model in a city by applying the instructions for economic life, taking into account the the resurrection and ascension, Jesus becoming king, and the Holy Spirit being sent to establish the Kingdom.
When Jesus us told us to love one another, he extended our social and economic responsibility to everyone in our neighbourhood. Those who are not “one anothers”, are neighbours. The “one anothers” need to become “neighbours” to fulfil the new commandment.
Jesus introduced the concept of “unrighteous wealth.
„So if you have not been trustworthy in handling unrighteous wealth, who will trust you with true riches” (Luke 16:11)?
People hanging onto unrighteous wealth will not be trusted with spiritual blessing. This is a blunt message. A key part of Jesus jubilee message was that unrighteous wealth should be given away.
„Sell your possessions and give to the poor. Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out, a treasure in heaven that will never fail, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys” (Luke 12:33).
Jesus did not define unrighteous wealth, because this had already been done in the Law and the Prophets. When his listeners heard the expression, they knew what he meant. He was referring to wealth held contrary to theinstructions for economic life. The following are the main categories of unrighteous wealth.
- Wealth that had been obtained by practices that were forbidden in the Torah is unrighteous wealth.
„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 4:36-37).
Barnabas was a Levite and Levites were not entitled to own land in Israel (Num 26:62). When he came to faith in Jesus, the illegal ownership of land would have weighed on his conscious. He probably could not return the land to its rightful owner (Lev 25:13), so he sold the land and gave the money to the apostles for distribution to those in need.
- Land and other possessions that have been stolen are unrighteous wealth. The word used for possessions in Acts 2:45, 4:34 and Acts 5:1 is “ktema” or “ktetor” This is not the word generally used for possessions in the New Testament (uparxis). These nouns are derived from the verb “ktaomai”. It means “acquire” or “gain control over”. It refers to property that has been acquired, not bought. “Ktema” refers to unrighteous wealth that has been acquired by wickedness. Some of the property sold by Christians like Barnabas and Ananias may have been acquired as a reward for wickedness.
- The accumulation of houses is unrighteous wealth. The prophets spoke against those who accumulated land and houses.
„Woe to you who add house to house and join field to field till no space is left and you live alone in the land” (Is 5:8).
In the modern world, residential housing is a popular investment. This demand pushes up the price of dwellings, which makes it difficult for young people to buy a house. Investment in housing is unproductive. It does not increase the productivity of the economy. People who are saving for their retirement should invest in productivity activities not residential dwellings.
- Land and property received through collusion with political powers is unrighteous wealth. People with political power often protect their positions by providing land and property to their supporters. The people who had become rich in Jesus times gained their wealth through their place in the Roman political system. It was unrighteous wealth. Once these people had chosen Jesus as their King, they could not retain land and property that represented loyalty to King Herod or Caesar, so they sold it. They would probably have lost their property anyway, once their new loyalty became clear.
- In the modern world, governments often give a group of people monopoly power over an aspect of the economy. Then enables them to become very wealthy, but this is unrighteous wealth.
- Limited liability laws allow business to take excessive risks and then leave their creditors (often small contractors) carrying the burden when they default. Wealth gained through limited liability is unrighteous wealth.
- Wealth obtained through debasing the currency is unrighteous wealth, whether it is done by a counterfeiter or a government.
„See how the faithful city has become a prostitute! She once was full of justice;
righteousness used to dwell in her-but now… your silver has become dross” (Is 1:21-22).
Those who become wealth through debasing or inflating the currency are creating unrighteous wealth for themselves.
In the modern world, people have found less direct ways to take advantage of the debasement of the currency. Many people have become wealthy through investing in real estate to benefit from the capital gains that come through inflation of property prices. These gains are often amplified by using borrowed money to pay for the properties. Large returns are earned through an activity that produces very little for the economy. The high returns are dependent on continued price inflation that is caused by the government manipulating the currency. Collecting capital gains caused by inflation is sharing in the deceitful activities of currency manipulators. Wealth obtained from capital gains obtained by highly leveraged investments in real estate is unrighteous wealth.
- If the Holy Spirit is prompting someone to assist a neighbour in financial difficulty by giving them an interest-free loan and they refuse, the money that should have been lent probably becomes unrighteous wealth.
- If the Holy Spirit is prompting someone to assist a neighbour in financial difficulty by redeeming their property and they refuse to assist, the wealth that they cling to probably becomes unrighteous wealth.
- Wealth that has been obtained by taking property pledged by as security by people who are defaulting on interest bearing loans is unrighteous wealth. This has been an easy way to gain wealth in every age.
The prescribed treatment of unrighteous wealth is to give it away. If it is known who it was stolen from, restitutions should be fourfold as required by Exodus 22:1. If it was general conniving, the response is extremely generous giving, particularly to the class of people who have suffered. Zacchaeus is an example of new believer giving away his unrighteous wealth.
Zacchaeus stood up and said to the Lord, “Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount (Luke 19:8)
He gave away half of his wealth and promised to pay fourfold restitution to anyone who had stolen from. Zacchaeus did not need to ask Jesus what to do. Being a good Jew, he would be familiar with the message of the Torah and understand the instructions for economic life. When he realised that Jesus loved him, he spontaneously put these instructions into practice. He made fourfold restitution for money that was stolen. He gave generously from money that had been obtained through general conniving.
The giving that Jesus was expected was not in discriminant giving. That would be pointless. The wealth should be given to neighbours and “one anothers”, who need help to get back on their feet. The giving should be designed to help struggling people get into a place where they can manage for themselves.
The ministry of the deacon was established to facilitate this giving. Deacons were people who were skilled in managing their households and their work. They channelled much of the giving because they and their spouses were able to teach others how to manage their households better, so that they did not get into trouble again.
Discerning Unrighteous Wealth
Unrighteous wealth is not an objective standard so it cannot be decided by a judge. Nor can it be decided by other Christian or elders. Only the person who holds the wealth knows how it was obtained, so they must decide whether it was unrighteous wealth or not. An elder can explain to new Christian what it means, but they must assess their own wealth an decide its status. Only the property owner can decide how much of their wealth is unrighteous. This is a personal issue. Zacchaeus decided that half of his wealth was unrighteous wealth and gave it away. Likewise, the property owner must decide themselves what they will do with their unrighteous wealth. They can ask Christian elders for advice. They can ask deacons for assistance, but their response must be a personal choice, not compulsion.
Most unrighteous wealth will be obvious. If it is not obvious, we can leave it to the Holy Spirit. He will convict the new Christian, if his wealth is unrighteous and needs to be “got shot of”. We can trust the Spirit to do this task. Christian elders must not get into the business of forcing new Christians to give away their wealth, whether it unrighteous or not. (The Ananias and Saphira incident probably occurred because people were coming under inappropriate pressure to give wealth away (Acts 5:1-10) This teaching is not the basis for compulsory income redistribution either by the church or by political power.
Unrighteous wealth can usually be discerned by examining the way it was acquired. It will have been obtained through deception, theft, manipulation or dishonesty. In Jesus time, it was often acquired through collusion with the political and religious powers. That problem has not changed, but the form will be different.
Jesus announced a new jubilee that would transform economic life in the villages of Galilee and Judea, as people began applying the instructions for economic life. The most dramatic change would come when wealthy people gave away their unrighteous wealth. The poor would be lifted up, as Mary had prophesied before Jesus was born.
„He has performed mighty deeds with his arm. He has lifted up the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty” (Luke 1:51-53).
This was a promise that God would lift up the humble and fill the hungry people with good things through the ministry of Jesus. This would happen when people began to act on the instructions for economic life and give away their unrighteous wealth to put right the damage done by ignoring them in the past. Zacchaeus showed how this could happen. The New Testament does not the record what happened in Galilee and Judea as a result of the teachings of Jesus and his disciples, because it focused on events around Jesus. Given that the people wanted to make him king, it can be assumed that the impact was dramatic, as Mary had prophesied. Some rich people would have discovered that all their wealth was unrighteous. If they chose to follow Jesus teaching, they would find themselves “empty” as the prophecy had warned, but they would have a new group of neighbours and “one anothers”.
The early church carried on the practicing the instructions for economic life after Jesus had ascended. People like Barnabas sold their unrighteous wealth and gave it to those in need.
„They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need” (Acts 2:43).
The church provided food and care for widows, orphans and others who were poor.
„Hellenistic Jews among them complained against the Hebraic Jews because their widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food.” (Acts 6:1).
„Paul built on this with teaching about caring for widows” (1 Tim 5:3-15).
The early church provided clothing for those who were in need.
In Joppa, there was a disciple named Tabitha (in Greek her name is Dorcas); she was always doing good and helping the poor. All the widows stood around him, crying and showing him the robes and other clothing that Dorcas had made (Acts 9:36-39).
A great miracle occurred when Dorcas was raised from the dead. The incident is also recorded, because it reminds us that the Christians continued to provide for people in need, as the instructions for economic life required. The motivation was love, but the instructions put shape around the practice of love.
The modern world has accumulated a huge amount of unrighteous wealth, and Christians are not immune. If God’s people took the instructions for economic life serious, and dealt with unrighteous wealth by giving it away, a dramatic jubilee would occur. Wealth would flow from the rich to the poor. Some rich Christians would find themselves empty, and many poor would be raised up. Communities would be greatly strengthened.
Paul confirmed this in his letter to Timothy.
„Command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth, which is so uncertain, but to put their hope in God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. Command them to do good, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share. In this way they will lay up treasures for themselves as a firm foundation” (1 Tim 6:17-19).
If Christians applied the Jubilee that Jesus commanded and Paul confirmed, an amazing economic transformation would occur.
God’s goal is equality. Joshua divided the land equally between families.
„Joshua cast lots for them in Shiloh in the presence of the LORD, and he distributed the land to the Israelites according to their tribal divisions” (Joshua 18:10).
Leviticus provided a method for ensuring that it remained equally distributed. When the Israelites gathered manna, some gathered more than others, but each one got what they needed.
„The Israelites did as they were told; some gathered much, some little. And when they measured it by the omer, the one who gathered much did not have too much, and the one who gathered little did not have too little. Everyone had gathered just as much as they needed” (Ex 16:17-18).
Everyone one got what they needed. Paul continued this pattern of equality continues into his New Testament letters.
„Our desire is not that others might be relieved while you are hard pressed, but that there might be equality” (2 Cor 8:13).
This is a radical vision. Paul encouraged serious giving and sharing according to the instructions for economic life would produce equality. We are a long way from Paul’s vision, because we have not understood that sharing wealth is a normal response to Jesus death on the cross.
Jesus confirmed the importance of equality in his parable of the workers in the vineyard.
„The workers who were hired about five in the afternoon each received a denarius. So when those came who were hired first, they expected to receive more. But each one of them also received a denarius. When they received it, they began to grumble against the landowner. These who were hired last worked only one hour,’ they said, ‘and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the work and the heat of the day’ (Matt 20:1-16).
This employer had promised to pay “whatever is right”. The parable actions to increase equality are right/just (dikaios).
Jesus gave a solution to the problems caused by inequality of capital.
„Sell your possessions and give to the poor” (Luke 12:33)
Generous giving and sharing should be normal for Christians, particularly sharing of capital. Those who have plenty of capital should give to those who don’t have much. The outcome will be greater equality.
„At the present time your plenty will supply what they need, so that in turn their plenty will supply what you need. Then there will be equality” (2 Cor 8:14).
When helping people give away unrighteous wealth, deacons should channel capital to poor people who have the capability to use it responsibly to be more productive. They will need training in conserving capital and using it wisely. Transferring capital to the poor by giving and sharing will move the world closer to equality.
People like equality, but few know how it can be achieved. Robin Hood tried to achieve it, by robbing the rich and giving to the poor. Modern governments use compulsory taxation to transfer income and wealth from the rich to the poor. This makes the rich angry and leaves the poor still poor. God also wants equality, but his way is by giving, sharing and giving away of unrighteous wealth.
God’s objective is equality, but his solution is unique as it does not require force or coercion. His solution to inequality is love, compassion and repentance that puts things right. God’s requires people with plenty to give generously to those who are hard pressed. He expects people who have prospered to demonstrate compassion for those who have not done so well. Compassion and sharing can create equality.
Copy Right – Ron McKenzie, New Zealand
This writing may be freely published without changes: http://kingwatch.co.nz/