June 29 – Right to Wealth or Care for the Poor?

June 29 – Right to Wealth or Care for the Poor?

Luke 16:13-14

“ ‘No servant can serve two masters. . . . You cannot serve God and mammon.’ The Pharisees, who were lovers of money, heard all this, and they scoffed at him.” (Luke 16:13-14)

True, “freedom” is important in Scripture, but the freedom advocated, especially in the New Testament, is primarily spiritual and only minimally political. Economic freedom to make unlimited amounts of money is not presented in Scripture at all; the only economic freedom addressed is freedom from poverty and oppression. Legislation can make citizens free to accumulate, but freedom to do so does not make it happen. “Economic freedom” can mean freedom to get (capitalism) or freedom to subsist (socialism). Since freedom to get always works to the advantage of the smart, ruthless, or economically powerful, it is only proper that the biblical emphasis should be on protecting the weak and less fortunate.

Whose freedom is more violated, a wealthy person prohibited from becoming more wealthy (or compelled to become less wealthy) or a poor person who is trapped in poverty? Who is in greater bondage, the one who has and is prohibited from getting more, or the one who has not and is prohibited by his circumstances from getting at all? On which kind of freedom does the Bible lay emphasis?

Since Scripture is strong on setting free those oppressed economically, the crucial question becomes whether the right of private property in Scripture is the right to unlimited accumulation and possession. The law of Jubilee (Leviticus 25) clearly presents strict limitations to permanent accumulation on the part of the strong at the expense of the weak or unfortunate. The concept of taxation also clearly sets limits. So it would seem impossible, on biblical grounds, to make the right of private property an unlimited right.

Though it is difficult to prove from Scripture that civil government must guarantee the right to accumulate unlimited wealth, it is replete with strong teaching on the obligation of a society to protect and provide for the poor. “Give justice to the weak and the fatherless; maintain the right of the afflicted and the destitute. Rescue the weak and the needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked” (Psalm 82:3-4).

Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover him? . . . If you take away from the midst of you the yoke, . . . pour yourself out for the hungry and satisfy the desire of the afflicted, then shall your light rise in the darkness” (Isaiah 58:6-10).

For three sins of Israel, even for four, I will not turn back my wrath. They sell the righteous for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals. They trample on the heads of the poor as upon the dust of the ground and deny justice to the oppressed” (Amos 2:6-7, NIV).

Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me” (Matthew 25:41-43).

The Bible has a great deal more to say to the capitalist about how his behavior must be modified than it does to the socialist. But since an economic system cannot be imposed without political sanctions, and since human beings are radically self-oriented, thus subverting any economic system, I conclude that neither system has a biblical mandate for imposition. Either will founder on the shoals of human nature.

Therefore, the Christian in either system should work toward change to bring it increasingly into conformity with the great biblical principles of justice and mercy. If freedom can be combined with these far more basic concepts, all the better. Perhaps, in a fallen society, the freedom won through the painful balancing of the rights of one group against those of another is the only hope for some measure of justice. Regardless, let us remember personal integrity in any economic system demands honesty, complete freedom from any form of cheating, stealing, or taking advantage of others.

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