Biblical Reflections on Wealth and Poverty
“It is an issue of equality…”
Biblical Reflections on Wealth and Poverty by Ched Myers
Published in Priests and People (U.K.), May, 1999.
It is an issue of equality concerning your present abundance and
their need… As it is written, “Those who had much didn’t have
too much; those who had little had enough.” (II Cor 8:14f)
“WE READ THE GOSPEL as if we had no money,” laments American Jesuit
theologian John Haughey, “and we spend our money as if we know nothing of the
Gospel.” Indeed, the topic of economics is exceedingly difficult to talk about in most
churches, more taboo than politics or even than sex. Yet no aspect of our
individual and corporate lives is more determinative–and few subjects are more
frequently addressed in our scriptures.
The preeminent challenge to the human family today is the increasingly unequal
distribution of wealth and power. The United Nations reported in 1992 that income
disparities between the world’s richest and poorest have doubled since 1960. Today
the wealthiest 20% of the world’s population receives almost 83% of the world’s
income, while the poorest 20% receive less than 2%! Any theology that refuses to
reckon with these realities is both cruel and irrelevant. We Christians must talk
about economics, and talk about it in light of the gospel.
There are many good over views of the biblical witness concerning wealth and
poverty (see for example Elsa Tamez’ The Bible of the Oppressed, Orbis Books, 1982;
or Ron Sider’s Cry Justice: The Bible on Hunger and Poverty, Paulist Press, 1980). I
will here only summarize that witness by briefly examining what I believe to be its
three salient axioms:
1. The world as created by God is abundant, with enough for everyone—
provided that human communities restrain their appetites and live within
2. Disparities in wealth are not “natural” but the result of human sin, and
must be mitigated within the community of faith through the regular practice
of wealth redistribution;
3. The prophetic message calls people to the practice of such redistribution,
and is thus characterized as “good news” to the poor.
In a word, the Bible is about justice, not charity; as the apostle Paul puts it,
economic sharing is “an issue of equality.” I will illustrate each of these three
axioms below with a few representative texts from both testaments.
I. The Sabbath Principle of Equitable Distribution
“Those who gathered more had no surplus, and those who gathered less
had no shortage; they gathered as much as each of them needed.” (Ex 16:18)
The biblical standard of economic justice is grounded in God’s call to “keep the
Sabbath.” The Hebrew verb /Shabat/ first appears in the Bible as the culmination
of the story of Creation: “God rested on the seventh day from all the work God did”
(Gen 2:2). /Shabat/ is “blessed” (Gen 2:3), just like the creation itself (Gen 1:22,28). This
pattern captures the double theme of the creation story: abundance (the fruit of
creative, “good” work, Gen 1:31) and limits (stopping, rest).
Human beings are to imitate this divine pattern. The next place we encounter
the term Shabat is in the story of Israel’s first “test of character” in the wilderness
(Ex 16). Sprung from slavery in Egypt, the people must now face the harsh realities
of life outside the imperial system. The ancient Hebrews – like modern Christians –
had trouble imagining an economic system apart from Pharaoh’s military-industrial-
technological complex. “Would that we had died at the Lord’s hand in the land of
Egypt, as we sat by our fleshpots and ate our fill of bread!” (Ex 16:3).
The archetypal manna story is a parable that illustrates Yahweh’s alternative to
the Egyptian economy (Ex 16:6). Bread “raining from heaven” symbolizes
cultivation as a Divine gift, a process that begins with rain and ends with bread (see
Is 55:10, Josh 5:12).. The “moral” of this story concerns the three instructions on
how to “gather” (Ex 16:4). The people’s first lesson outside of Egypt concerns
alternative economic production and consumption!
First, every family is told to gather just enough bread for their needs (Ex 16:16–
18). In contrast to Israel’s Egyptian condition of oppression and need, here everyone
has enough. In God’s economy there is such a thing as “too much” and “too little”—
in contrast with modern capitalism’s infinite tolerance for wealth and poverty.
Second, this manna should not be “stored up” (Ex 16:19-20). Wealth and power in
Egypt was defined by surplus accumulation—after all, Israel’s forced labor consisted
of building “store-cities” into which the tribute of subject peoples was gathered
Israel is enjoined to keep wealth circulating through strategies of
redistribution, not concentrating through strategies of accumulation.
The third instruction introduces Sabbath discipline (Ex 16:22-30). “Six days
you shall gather; but on the seventh, which is a Sabbath, there will be none”
(Ex 16:5,26). The prescribed periodic rest for the land and for human labor—expanded
in the social justice code of Exodus 23:10-11 to a Sabbath year—functions to
disrupt human attempts to control nature and maximize the forces of production.
Because the earth belongs to God and its fruits are a gift, the people should justly
distribute those fruits, instead of seeking to own and hoard them.
“Sabbath economics” are fundamental to the identity of Israel. Shabat is
instituted before the Commandments at Sinai, then reiterated soberly at the
conclusion of the Covenant Code: if the people do not practice Sabbath, they will die
(Ex 31:12-17). Not only then is Shabat the crowning blessing of creation; it is also
the “beginning and end of the Law” (see Heb 9:4).
Throughout the gospels we find the echoes of this tradition in the teaching and
practice of Jesus of Nazareth. In Luke 12, for example, Jesus is approached by
someone who asks him to adjudicate a dispute over an estate (Lk 12:13-21).
Inheritance mechanisms represented (then as now) an important vehicle by which
wealth is preserved and consolidated from generation to generation. Jesus
responds with a reminder of the second “manna instruction,” couched in a parable
about the futility of a man who tries to guarantee his household’s security by
building “bigger barns” in which to store up his wealth.
Jesus follows this with his famous—and often sentimentalized—teaching about
the “lilies of the field” (Lk 12:22-34). This is hardly quaint transcendental poetry.
Rather, it is a concrete and polemical contrast between the “economy of grace”
intrinsic to creation, symbolized by the flower and the raven, with imperial
economies based upon accumulation and concentration, symbolized by Solomon’s
temple. The former promises “enough” to those willing to settle for sufficiency, the
latter delivers only a compulsive spiral of anxiety.
The Sabbath vision is diametrically opposed to our modern assumptions about
material security. Classical economics is based upon two suppositions: 1) the
natural condition of scarcity; and 2) the human propensity for unlimited appetite.
The first justifies inequality, the second fuels ideologies of unlimited economic
growth. Sabbath economics, however, teaches exactly the inverse: God’s gift is
natural abundance, and our response should be self restraint.
II. Redistribution and the Critique of Economic Disparity
“If there be any poor among you in the land I give you, do not harden your
hearts, nor refuse to stretch out your hand to them.” (Dt 15:7)
The Bible recognizes that inequalities inevitably arise in “fallen” society—a
realism it shares with the worldview of modern capitalism. Unlike the social
Darwinism of the latter, however, the biblical vision refuses to stipulate that
economic disparity is therefor a permanent or “natural” condition. Instead, God’s
people are instructed to dismantle, on a regular basis, the fundamental patterns
and structures of stratified wealth and power through communal mechanisms of
Deuteronomy 15 develops the notion of the Sabbath year to include debt
forgiveness (Deut 15:1-81). In agrarian societies such as biblical Israel (or parts of
the Third World today), the cycle of poverty began when a family fell into debt,
deepened when it had to sell off its land in order to service the debt, and reached its
conclusion when landless peasants could only sell their labor, becoming bond-
slaves. Since there were no banks in antiquity, it was larger land owners who acted
as creditors. When the Deuteronomist warns Israelites never to “harden their
hearts” against the poor, he is reminding them they are not immune to “Pharaoh’s
The Sabbath year debt release intended to safeguard both social justice (“there
will be no one in need among you”) and sound fiscal policy (“creditor nations will not
rule over you,” Deut 15:4-6). But anticipating human selfishness, the practical
Deuteronomist specifically forbids people from tightening credit in the years
immediately prior to the Sabbath remission (Deut 15:7-11). The remission applies to
debt-slaves as well, not only freeing them but demanding that they be sent away
with sufficient resources to make it on their own (Deut 15:12-17).
According to Leviticus 25, the Sabbath cycle was supposed to culminate in the
Jubilee, or “sabbath’s sabbath” (seven times seven years). The Jubilee sought to
dismantle inequality by redistributing the wealth through three mandates:
— releasing each community member from debt;
— returning all encumbered or forfeited land to its original owners;
— freeing all slaves.
The legislation included a prohibition against lending money at interest to the poor
(Lev 25:36f). The rationale for this unilateral restructuring of the community’s
wealth was not social utopianism, but to remind Israel of its identity as an Exodus
people who must never reproduce a system of slavery (Lev 25:55). The symbolism of
Jubilee was even structured into the annual harvest festival (Lev 23:9-25).
Israel’s betrayal of its Sabbath vocation became a central complaint of the
prophets. When Isaiah charged the nation’s leadership with robbery — “The spoil of
the poor is in your houses; what do you mean by crushing my people, by grinding
the face of the poor?” (Is 3:14f) – he was echoing the manna tradition’s censure of
stored wealth in the face of community need (see also Mal 3:5-12). He also rails
against wealthy creditors who foreclosed on indebted farmers, “adding house to
house and field to field until there is room for no one but you” (Is 5:8). Amos
accused the commercial classes of regarding /Shabat/ as an obstacle to market
profiteering instead of “keeping the Sabbath holy” (Am 8:5). When he castigates the
rich for “buying the poor for silver…and selling sweepings of the wheat” (Am 8:6), Amos
is referring to how the poor were being denied their Sabbath gleaning rights
(see Ex 23:10f; Lev 19:9; Mic 7:1).
Hosea laments that fidelity to international markets had replaced Israel’s
allegiance to God’s economy of grace: “I will go after my lovers; they give me my
bread and my water, my wool and my flax, my oil and my drink” (Hosea 2:5). Most
telling of all, however, is the tradition that attributed the downfall of Jerusalem to
the people’s failure to keep Sabbath: “God took into exile in Babylon those who had
escaped the sword… to fulfill the word of the Lord by the mouth of Jeremiah, until
the land had made up for its Sabbaths. All the days that it lay desolate it kept
Sabbath, to fulfill seventy years” (2 Chron 36:20f; see Lev 26:34f).
Jesus continued the prophetic critique of economic injustice. In his
reappropriation of Isaiah’s “lovesong for the vineyard” (compare Mk 12:1ff to Isa 5:1ff),
Jesus adds that the owner “let the land out to tenants” and then “went into
another country” (Mk 12:1). Thus he directs the tale to the Jewish ruling class of his
time, who were also absentee-landlords (Mk 12:12), challenging them to imagine life
from the bitter perspective of rebellious tenants.
These “tenants” feel the rage of having to hand over the fruits of their labor to the
absentee landlord, and so begin to violently resist (Mk 12:4-8). Two levels are
operating simultaneously here. At the social level the story is an accurate depiction
of the struggle between disenfranchised sharecroppers and oppressive overlords,
which often resulted in peasant revolts that were in turn inevitably crushed by the
owners (Mk 12:9).
At the allegorical level, however, the parable begs the question as to who is the
“true” owner of the land. According to Isaiah the vineyard belongs to God; similarly,
Leviticus insists that God alone holds title: “The land shall not be sold in perpetuity,
for the land is Mine; with me you are but aliens and tenants” (Lev 25:23). By
casting owners as tenants, the parable indicts the ruling class for the murder of all
those “sent by the true owner”—that is, the prophets. And it convicts them of
conspiring to “own” (for commercial profit) what is God’s gift to all.
III. Good News/Bad News
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to
preach good news for the poor” (Lk 4:18)
The word “evangelism” comes from the Greek /euangel/ we translate as
“gospel” or “good news.” In first century Hellenistic society it was a term associated
with the “secular media.” It was synonymous with imperial propaganda,
announcing the birth or ascension to power of an emperor or a Roman military
victory in the provinces.. It is extraordinary that the early Christians used this term
to describe both their story of Jesus (Mk 1:1) and Jesus’ own message (Mk 1:14).
In a world in which the power and the reach of the imperial media was unrivaled,
the early Christians expropriated the term specifically to challenge the dominant
Luke’s version of Jesus’ inaugural sermon announces “good news to the
poor,” citing Isaiah 61, which in turn is citing the Jubilee vision. Only real debt-
cancellation and land-restoration could represent /good/ news to real poor people.
Jesus seems to promote redistributive practices at every turn, such as in table
fellowship between debt-collectors and debtors (Mk 2:14-16), in his banquet
parables (Lk 14:1-14), or in his political principles of status-reversal in which the
“greatest” must become “servants” (Mk 10:38-45).
But a gospel that heralds that God “has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty” (Lk 1:53) was most likely unwelcome news to the
wealthy. We see this challenge in Jesus’ invitation to his first disciples to become
“fishers of people” (Mk 1:17). This image alludes to the prophetic censures of the
rich and powerful: “YHWH has sworn by his holiness: The time is surely coming
C. Myers, Bible, Wealth & Poverty, upon you [who oppress the poor and crush the needy],
when they shall take you away with hooks, even the last of you with fishooks.”
(Amos 4:2; see also Jer 16:16,
Ezek 29:3f, Hab 1:14-17). Jesus is summoning these common laborers to join him
in going after the “Big Fish”!
The Reign of God is defined explicitly in terms of redistributive economics in
two contrasting stories of Jesus’ call to the rich. In Luke 19 the chief tax collector
Zaccheus (representing the exploiter class in occupied Palestine) embraces a radical
program of wealth sharing, while in Mark 10:17-22 the alleged piety of a large land
owner is unmasked by his refusal to do the same. Jesus follows the latter episode
by concluding that the rich cannot enter the Reign of God (Mk 10:23-24). This long-
troubling statement simply stipulates that the Reign of God is that “social condition”
in which there are no rich and poor. The story ends with a positive illustration of
Jubilee, inviting “whosoever will” to share lands, estates and family assets in a
community of “abundant sufficiency” (Mark 10:28ff).
The early church appears to have practiced Sabbath economics. The most
obvious example is the Acts account of the coming of the Spirit at Pentecost, which
occasioned an experiment in wealth redistribution that echoed the manna story:
assets were “distributed to any as had need” (Acts 2:45; 4:35). Central to the
itinerant ministry of the apostle Paul was his appeal to the new Gentile churches to
learn Sabbath economics by practicing inter-church mutual aid (2 Cor 8). James is
perhaps most unequivocal on the subject of economic justice: “Weep, you rich, and
howl for the miseries that are coming…” (Jas 5:1-6). And John the Seer envisions
the divine overthrow of the imperial economy of oppression (Rev 18) and
establishment of a new social order in which abundance for all is ensured (Rev 21).
IV. A Vision That Haunts our History
The standard of economic justice is woven into the warp and weft of the Bible;
pull this strand, and the whole fabric unravels. Fortunately, the “subversive
memory” of Jubilee has kept erupting in church history, among early monks,
medieval communitarians and radical Reformers. Nor has it been extinguished
despite the hostility of modern capitalism; visions of biblical justice were preserved
in tracts by 18th century “Levelers” and in 19th century African slave spirituals. As
we approach the turning of the millennia, Sabbath economics is again firing the
imaginations of faith-based activists.
John Paul, in a 1994 apostolic letter entitled Tertio Millenio Adventiente, stated
that “a commitment to justice and peace in a world like ours, marked by so many
conflicts and intolerable social and economic inequalities, is a necessary condition
for the preparation and celebration of the jubilee. Thus, in the spirit of the book of
Leviticus (Lev 25:8-12), Christians will have to raise their voice on behalf of all the poor
of the world.” But those of us who insist that the Bible’s ancient socio-economic
vision remains relevant in our context have hard work to do.
The London-based “Jubilee 2000” Campaign (www.oneworld.org) is leading the growing
movement in support of debt-relief for impoverished Third World countries.
Ross and Gloria Kinsler (The Biblical Jubilee and the Struggle for
Life, Orbis, 1999) call for experimentation with small-scale, alternative business
practices, technologies, land uses, financial systems, trade patterns, consumption
habits, and income distribution schemes. Rabbi Arthur Waskow (Down to Earth
Judaism) recommends that people of faith focus on venture capital recycling and
neighborhood empowerment. Feminist community organizer Barbara Brandt (Whole
Life Economics) examines addictions to work and money and calls for their
The task is as imperative as it is daunting. The unaccountable markets of the
globalizing economy must be resisted and real relationships restored between
producers, distributors and consumers. In all of this, the church can help nurture
commitment and creativity by promoting “Sabbath literacy,” a spirituality of
forgiveness and reparation, and practical economic disciplines for individuals,
households and congregations. Christians should be supporting initiatives such as
credit unions that make capital available to the poor, the Community Supported
Agriculture movement, alternative investment strategies, community land trusts,
and cooperative business ventures.
“Who, then, can be saved?” (Mk 10:26). Mark’s epilogue to the call of the rich
man anticipates our incredulity. Does Jesus really expect the “haves” (that is, us)
to participate in wealth redistribution as a condition for discipleship? Can we
imagine a world in which there are no rich and poor? To the disciples’ skepticism,
and to ours, Jesus replies simply: “I know it seems impossible to you, but for God
all things are possible” (Mark 10:27). In other words, economics is ultimately a
Published in Priests and People (U.K.), May, 1999.
Matthew 19:23-30 KJV Then said Jesus unto his disciples, Verily I say unto you, That a rich man shall hardly enter into the kingdom of heaven. (24) And again I say unto you, It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God. (25) When his disciples heard it, they were exceedingly amazed, saying, Who then can be saved? (26) But Jesus beheld them, and said unto them, With men this is impossible; but with God all things are possible. (27) Then answered Peter and said unto him, Behold, we have forsaken all, and followed thee; what shall we have therefore? (28) And Jesus said unto them, Verily I say unto you, That ye which have followed me, in the regeneration when the Son of man shall sit in the throne of his glory, ye also shall sit upon twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. (29) And every one that hath forsaken houses, or brethren, or sisters, or father, or mother, or wife, or children, or lands, for my name’s sake, shall receive an hundredfold, and shall inherit everlasting life. (30) But many that are first shall be last; and the last shall be first.