After a long hiatus, I’d like to revisit the idea of Christianity and the poor—something that’s much discussed today, though many stones remained to be unturned. Previously, I pointed out my own journey in this subject, which began in Ezek 16:49 (part 1). I then pointed out some things from Matt 25 (part 2); namely, that the “least of these brothers of mine” refers to poor Christians, not the poor in general.
For this post, I’d like to reach way back into some foreign territory—namely, the OT Law—to draw out 4 principles regarding the economic system in ancient Israel. The OT Law (scattered throughout Exodus—Deut) spelled out a fairly elaborate economic system for God’s people, and this is what it said.
1. There shall be shared access to economic resources.
Numbers 26:52-54 says that the land was divvied out according to the size of the tribe. In an agrarian context, this means that the ones with the greatest economic need were provided the most resources. (Interestingly, EBC’s pay-scale operates under the same principle.)
2. The ones who can work shall work
This is not spelled out explicitly in any one verse (though its roots are in the Garden; Gen 2:15), but it underlies all the economic commands in the Law. The “poor”—the ones in need of charity—were unable to work, due to old age, loss of land, or some physical ailment. If one was able to work, he should work.
3. Provisions shall be made for the poor
Again, this refers to real poor people; those who are unable (not unwilling) to work. There were two types of poor in ancient Israel. One, those who could normally provide for themselves, but fell upon hard times. Maybe someone owned a fig orchard and a bunch of starving monkeys ate up all the crops. Or, more realistically, there was little rain that year, which produced a famine. Either way, sometimes there’s an economic downturn (sound familiar?) that leaves people jobless. In this case, those who are not affected could give a compassion loan to the poor. Those who received the loan would pay it back for 6 years; the 7th year is the year of remission (no more payments! See Deut 15:1-11). The person giving the loan is not out to make a buck (did you hear that Sallie Mae?!), but is driven by compassion toward the poor.
Other legitimate poor people include those who could not work or own land: the elderly, orphan, widow, or sojourner who had no land rights. For these people, laws contained in Lev 19:9-10, 23:22, and Deut 24:19-21 say that farmers must leave some of the crops unharvested for the poor in the land (cf. Ruth). There’s also the “third year tithe” (cf. Deut 14:28-29), which was a grass roots welfare system designed to sustain the poor in our midst.
4. There shall be controlled economic growth.
In other words, maximizing profits is not the greatest goal. Laws concerning the Sabbath, Sabbath year, various festivals, and, most of all, the year of Jubilee, ensured that people would be more concerned about people—and even more concerned about God—than about maximizing profits. These economic regulations also helped prevent the rich from getting richer and the poor from getting poorer.
Take, for instance, the year of jubilee (Lev 25). Every 50 years, all the land that was sold (usually for economic reasons) would be returned back to its original owner. Again, think of what this means in an agrarian context. Everyone’s means of economic sustenance and prosperity would be returned. This would ensure two things: 1) that the business tycoon who’s buying field after field would end up giving it all back; and 2) that the family that has fallen into poverty would not see an endless cycle of poverty. It’s almost as if God wanted his people to live a middle-class life—all of them.
Give me neither poverty nor riches; feed me with the food that is needful for me, lest I be full and deny you and say, “Who is the LORD?”
or lest I be poor and steal and profane the name of my God. (Prov 30:8-9)
These OT economic laws bear witness to abiding ethical principles from which we as God’s people have much to learn. The underlying principles that ground these laws are the same ones that drive Jesus and Paul in their economic exhortations. And that’s for our next post.