Economic Inequality

We don’t know for certain what it’s like in heaven: whether we will have possessions or exist only as spiritual beings. But it seems certain, given all the biblical testimony, that inequalities and other injustices found on earth will not occur. Therefore, as we seek to live in God’s kingdom on earth, we are challenged to work for justice that reduces disparities of wealth and enhances fairness for everyone.

BIBLICAL PERSPECTIVE

The Bible offers perspectives on possession and use of wealth. And repeatedly the Scriptures express concern for the poor.

Wealth

The founding patriarchs of the Hebrew nation were all wealthy men: Abraham (Genesis 13:2), Isaac (Genesis 26:13), Jacob (Genesis 30:43). But their lives were not free of challenges, such as drought and famine in Canaan. In response Abraham and Isaac temporarily relocated their families elsewhere (Genesis 12:10-20; 26:1-6). Jacob’s son Joseph brought the family to Egypt where they stayed (Genesis 42:1-46:7). But some years later Jacob’s descendants were enslaved by a pharaoh who didn’t know Joseph (Exodus 1:8-14).

Raised with wealth in Pharaoh’s court, Moses gave up his position and led the Israelites out of Egypt into the wilderness. There God provided a daily supply of manna. Moses instructed the people to gather only what they could eat in a day except for two day’s supply on Sabbath eve. All had the same amount. In this manner they survived forty years of egalitarian existence in the wilderness (Exodus 16:4-35).

King David was incredibly rich (1 Chronicles 29:1-5). So was King Solomon (1 Kings 10:14-25). But not without suffering. In David’s adulterous affair with Bathsheba, their first son died (2 Samuel 12:15b-19). Solomon overindulged, married foreign wives, and worshipped their gods, resulting in his kingdom being split in half after his death (1 Kings 11:1-13).

Jesus didn’t reject wealthy persons outright. For instance, he accepted support from wealthy patrons such as Joanna, wife of Herod’s steward, Susanna, and others (Luke 8:3). But he knew that wealth could be a burden and an obstacle to complete fulfillment. He told a rich young man who knew and observed the commandments, “If you want to be complete, go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor” (Matthew 19:16-22). With hyperbole he explained to his disciples, “it’s easier for a camel to squeeze through an eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter God’s kingdom” (Matthew 19:24).

Jesus contrasted a wealthy man who lived in luxury with a poor beggar. Upon death the poor man “was carried by angels to Abraham’s side” while the rich man was “tormented in the place of the dead” (Luke 16:19-31). And Jesus told a parable about a man who decided to tear down his barns and build bigger ones to store more grain and goods. But God said, “Fool, tonight you will die.” Jesus commented, “This is the way it will be for those who hoard things for themselves and aren’t rich toward God” (Luke 12:16-21).

The First Epistle to Timothy states, “The love of money is the root of all kinds of evil” (1 Timothy 6:10). James penned a harsh warning to wealthy people (James 5:1-6).

Concern for the Poor

Throughout the Bible are expressions of concern for the poor.

The prophets regularly condemned the wealthy for their greed and for neglect of the poor. As an example, Amos, a shepherd of Tekoa, journeyed from the Southern Kingdom north to Israel and took the ruling class to task for their misdeeds. He exclaimed, “They crush the head of the poor into the dust of the earth, and push the afflicted out of the way” (Amos 2:7).

Psalm 140 reflects this concern.

I know that the LORD will take up the case of the poor
and will do what is right for the needy (Psalm 140:12).

When Hannah dedicated her son Samuel to service for the Lord, her prayer of thanksgiving included:

God raises the poor from the dust,
lifts up the needy from the garbage pile (1 Samuel 2:8).

And when Mary received the good news that she would give birth to Jesus, the Son of the Most High, she rejoiced and glorified the Lord, who among other things:

Has pulled the powerful down from their thrones
and lifted up the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things
and sent the rich away empty-handed (Luke 1:52-53).

Jesus in his inaugural sermon in Nazareth chose a text from Isaiah that expresses concern for the poor, prisoners, and the oppressed (Luke 4:16-21).

REMEDIES

How we acquire and use our wealth makes a difference as we seek to live in God’s kingdom on earth.  Furthermore, we are called to support efforts that seek to eliminate poverty.

Poverty Today

Many of today’s justice issues stem from poverty that plagues billions of people on earth. Many who are poor suffer from hunger, inadequate housing even homelessness, poor health, unemployment, illiteracy, and high death rates. This is a byproduct of inequality of wealth and income within nations and globally where some nations and regions are much wealthier than others.

This is not the place to lay out a comprehensive anti-poverty program, but we can note that proposed solutions include efforts to achieve full employment, job training, quality education, adequate wages, unemployment insurance, cash payments for persons unable to work, tax benefits for low income persons, food assistance, free or affordable health services, and subsidized housing.

These kinds of initiatives require action by both public and private sectors. They also require individual effort to take advantage of available opportunities by working hard. Equity requires measures that redistribute wealth and income in behalf of the poor. Accordingly, seeking to eliminate poverty should be a major concern in bringing forth God’s kingdom here and now.

What We Can Do Personally

This leads us to consider what we can do personally with our wealth, even those with modest possessions, as we seek to live in God’s kingdom on earth.

We can give particular attention to the needs of the poor. We can apply more generally the advice of John of the Baptist: “Whoever has two shirts must share with the one who has none, and whoever has food must do the same” (Luke 3:11). As a minimum we can tithe our income, giving at least one-tenth to the church and charitable enterprises. Wealthy persons can give even more. They might even follow Zacchaeus’ example and give away half of their wealth (Luke 19:8).

This applies Jesus’ teaching: “Much will be demanded from everyone who has been given much, and from one who has been entrusted with much, even more will be asked” (Luke 12:48b). And also his instruction on hoarding in the Sermon on the Mount: “Stop collecting treasures for your own benefit on earth….Instead, collect for yourself treasures in heaven….Where your treasure is, there your heart shall be also” (Matthew 6:19-21). We can imagine that these treasures in heaven include goodness and mercy as stated in the 23rd Psalm, but not fancy mansions.

Our contributions can go for acts of mercy described in Matthew 25: providing food, drink, and clothing, caring for the poor, visiting prisoners, welcoming strangers. We can add sheltering the homeless, providing health care, and fostering education and job training. We can also support efforts of institutional change that address the causes of poverty.

Corporate decision makers can examine the way business income is distributed. They can assure that workers earn a living wage. They can exercise restraint on huge executive salaries and resist practices that give stockholders an excessive share.

We can use government under our democratic control to facilitate redistribution of wealth and income through taxation based upon ability to pay. Revenues can be used for measures beneficial to the poor. We can be advocates for such policies.

This is what justice requires.