When God gave instructions in the Old Testament for the flourishing of his people, he laid out not only moral and ceremonial laws but civic laws as well, including specific economic principles that would characterize his people. The economic laws God established were designed to keep the gap between rich and poor very small. It included debt forgiveness on a seven year cycle and a radical redistribution of land every fifty years. He meant for the leaders of his people to insure that the poor were protected and cared for and not taken advantage of. There were strict penalties for exploitation of the poor and dire warnings of his judgment should these laws be ignored. In fact, it is as easy to trace God’s judgment of Israel to the exploitation of the poor and vulnerable as it is to the worship of foreign gods.
The LORD takes his place in court;
he rises to judge the people.
The LORD enters into judgment
against the elders and leaders of his people:
“It is you who have ruined my vineyard;
the plunder from the poor is in your houses.
What do you mean by crushing my people
and grinding the faces of the poor?”
declares the Lord, the LORD Almighty.
Israel disregarded the economic laws of God, they enslaved others, paid unfair wages, allowed the rich to accumulate land and disregarded the cry of the poor, therefore God sent them into exile. In fact the number of years of exile correspond to the number of sabbatical years that Israel ignored.
The Jew and the Gentile
This expectation that Israel would operate an economy which was good for the poor did not only apply to the “insider,” the poor Jew. The foreign, non-Jew living in Israel is singled out by God in the Old Testament law to be especially careful not to exploit. That is to say God is not only concerned with the economic well-being of his people, but for those Gentiles among his people.
God, in fact, told Abraham that his intention was for Israel to be a blessing to all nations. God’s flourishing State would not only reveal his character and glory as his people lived out a standard of justice and economic health, but this flourishing would spill over to surrounding nations. Even in exile God commanded his people in Jeremiah 29 to seek the prosperity of their enemy, for in the prosperity of Babylon, they would find their own prosperity.
So the flourishing of the nations would be advanced by an obedient Israel and God’s judgment would be aroused by Israel’s disregard for economic justice.
It is not only God’s people who are judged for injustice, oppression and exploitation. Both Jonah and Nahum preach against the evil of Nineveh, capital of the ancient Assyrian Empire. It was a city of incredible wealth gained through violent warfare, slavery and oppressing a class of serfs who kept the elite in finery. God’s judgment (not just of his people but his judgment of the nations) is a picture of his white hot passion for those who are economically excluded and exploited.
Even in the New Testament, James writes to believers in his epistle that the rich should weep and wail because the wages withheld from the laborer had reached the ears of the Lord. The simple fact is that God will judge and oppose those who exploit the poor – whether they know him or not.
God’s “will on earth as it is in heaven” does not include hundreds of millions suffering malnutrition while hundreds of millions suffer obesity. It does not include nine year old girls who are forced by to lie down underneath ten men a day just so their families can eat. And it does not include men and women made in his image who labor 12 or more hours a day and are still unable to earn enough to live on. This is not a picture of “his kingdom and its righteousness.”
In 1972 the University of Chicago dropped the requirement for a history of Economics course for its graduate students of Economics believing that Economics is a hard science and has little to do with the humanities. Many others followed suit. This shift marked the conclusion of hundreds of years of the field of Economics drifting away from its relationship to philosophy, sociology, or ethics and becoming what it is today – mathematical utilitarianism: the multiplication of wealth without regard to what is just and good and fair for all.
The results of this divorce of ethics from economics can be seen in the US debt crisis as well as the ballooning gap between rich and poor. We have taken Economics out of the school of the Humanities and in so doing we’ve made the field less humane. We have given our governments and banks and corporations freedom to multiply and spend wealth without any ethic.
For those who are in right relationship to the Creator of the universe, for those who have the mind of Christ, for those who are filled with the Holy Spirit, there is a responsibility to strive for the just rule of God on earth even before our own welfare. Economic justice is a sign of the kingdom of God, which is why news of this kingdom is so good to the poor.
How Should We Then Live?
So where is the “plunder of the poor” today? Is it in our houses, the houses of both believers and unbelievers (after all, judgment must begin with the house of God – I Peter 4:17)? Is it in our wardrobes or our retirement accounts? What does it mean for us to adopt God’s heart for the poor and to strive for kingdom righteousness in our world? What does it mean for us to suffer as a result of pressing these kingdom issues in a twisted world?
For the IFES student movement in Sierra Leone, it has meant graduates giving one or two years of voluntary service in poor rural communities, taking jobs in education or health care that few others want. For some InterVarsity US students it has meant saying no to the American dream of a large home and multiple cars and moving into the high crime, high poverty neighborhoods of US cities or slum communities of the developing world. In making their homes among the marginalized, these young graduates have not only seen many come to know Jesus and helped to usher in kingdom change to their neighborhoods by adding their voices to the voices of their poor friends, but they have encountered deep transformation in their own walk with Christ. It has been an act of worship and an experience of sanctification.
For others it has meant moving into the halls of economic power to stand up for the excluded. Dr. Marek Panfil is a graduate of the Warsaw School of Economics and came to Christ as a student. He was worried that to be a faithful Christian might not be compatible with his pursuit of economics, that he should pursue more noble, spiritual causes.
Then, in Romans 16 Marek came across Erastus, the Treasurer for the city of Corinth who sent his greetings to the brothers and sisters in Rome. Here in the Bible was a high ranking economic official. Perhaps his faith might apply to his field. Marek, has a very strategic role in the economics of copper and silver in the country of Poland. His Christian faith allows him to challenge a debt mentality among corporate and government leaders and to champion corporate social responsibility. He is striving to see kingdom righteousness brought to bear in the economics of metal.
Which of us are willing to strive for the kingdom as residents inside the neighborhoods of the poor, forsaking the good life as defined by your culture? Which of us are willing to strive for the kingdom inside the boardrooms and government offices of the powerful, forsaking bribes, corruption and the lure of wealth?
We as believers must bring the redeeming message of Christ’s salvation to rich and poor, turning men and women from evil and selfishness and calling wickedness to account. We must walk alongside those who are uneducated, marginalized and oppressed and those who are educated, powerful and oppressors (whether witting or unwitting). We must seek kingdom justice both at the level of the human heart and the level of the city treasury, presenting to the world an economic ethic that reflects a just God and his righteous kingdom.