What did the prophets have to say about wealth and justice? It is frequently preached today that the prophets condemned economic inequities and proclaimed God’s desire for an equalization of wealth. Is this true?
First, we need to recognize that there are there aspects to economic justice.Li
- Distributive Justice – Addresses how capital and goods are distributed throughout the society.
- Commutative Justice – Addresses the truthfulness of parties to an economic exchange.
- Remedial Justice – Addresses just compensation and punitive action when there has been malicious or careless damage done to life, liberty or property.
If you go to the prophets and read what they are crying out against it is overwhelming commutative and remedial justice, combined with disregard for the poor. The poor are denied remedial justice in the appropriation of their land. There is callousness toward the plight of the poor. It is not addressing wealth distribution per se.
Look at the specific indictments that led up to Amos’ famous “let justice role down” prophecy in Amos 5:18-24.
Amos 5:10-12, 15
10 They hate the one who reproves in the gate, and they abhor the one who speaks the truth. 11 Therefore because you trample on the poor and take from them levies of grain, you have built houses of hewn stone, but you shall not live in them; you have planted pleasant vineyards, but you shall not drink their wine. 12 For I know how many are your transgressions, and how great are your sins– you who afflict the righteous, who take a bribe, and push aside the needy in the gate. …
15 Hate evil and love good, and establish justice in the gate; …
The “city gate” was the place where disputes where heard and settled. The poor were being denied remedial justice. In verse 12 we see bribes mentioned, which is commutative justice. In other passages we read about dishonest scales and measures (Micah 6:11) I’m not aware of any passages that call upon Israel to redistribute the wealth so all will be of approximately of the same economic status. The prophets are damning the callousness to the plight of the poor and the perversion of commutative and remedial justice.
There are condemnations like this one from Isaiah:
Ah, you who join house to house,
who add field to field,
until there is room for no one but you,
and you are left to live alone
in the midst of the land!
Joining land to land contravenes the jubilee code. The poor have not received justice and the powerful have driven them off the land. There needs to be redistribution. But it is a redistribution of “stolen property” back to its rightful owner, not an attempt to create social equality in wealth distribution. The latter is an anachronistic reading of communitarian Modernist agendas back into the text. Remedial justice has been denied the powerless and needs to be restored.
Some theologians today, many using a Marxist and liberationist hermeneutics, use Old Testament prophecy to condemn the accumulation of wealth because it violates an equal distribution of property principle they project back into jubilee and into the message of the prophets. In fact, the prophets railed against the abrogation of property rights, unjust means of exchange, lack of remedial justice, and callousness toward the poor. In other words, precisely the conditions we find today in nearly every developing nation today! The presence of these realities prevented prosperity from emerging then every bit as much as it does now.
It is beyond the scope of this series to delve deeply into why this state of affairs exists in so many countries and to examine the complicity of the developed nations with these injustices. The larger point is that with justice in place, sufficient freedom is created for people to become productive and prosperous. They have the resources to extend mercy to those in need around them. Developed nations can extend relief but commutative justice and remedial justice are essential if aid is to have a lasting impact. Distributive justice can then emerge in each culture’s struggle to balance how they care for the indigent while respecting personal property and the fruits of employing that property productively.
In short, the prophets were crying out for justice against people who had turned their focus from God. The prophets’ endless refrain was a call to simplicity; it was a call to singleness of focus on God and living by his covenant. When that singleness of focus was realized, matters of economic justice and mercy fall into proper order.
We turn now to Jesus and the topic of wealth.