Thursday, February 28, 2013

Jesus & Economic Life (12) Village Restoration

The people of Israel were looking for a Messiah who would deliver them from the Romans. Jesus approach was different. He planned to renew economic life from the ground up. Most people still lived in villages. By applying the instructions for economic life, they could strengthen their communities.

God had given Israel an economic and social model for life together, but under the pressure of economic hardship, the people had stopped caring for each other. Most were so busy struggling to survive that they had no time to think about the situation of others. Caring and sharing had stopped and everyone was looking out for themselves. Cheating and stealing to get ahead were normal. People assumed that they had no other choice. Jesus challenged this view. He wanted the people to see that they would be better off if they adopted God’s way of living.

Jesus spent a lot of time in the villages of Galilee, challenging the people to restore the old way of life, as prescribed in the Torah. When he sent his apostles out on a mission, he told them to go to a village and stay with a person of peace. The aim was not just to get converts, but to restore village communities to God’s model for economic life. They were to focus on the person of influence or the person of peace, because this person would be essential for changing the way that people lived. The villages were a great place to re-learn giving and sharing. Jesus knew that the gospel and the instructions for economic life could restore the economic strength of village life and the Romans could not prevent this from happening.

The Kingdom will be like yeast spreading through the dough.

The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed into about sixty pounds of flour until it worked all through the dough (Matt 13:31-33).
Applying this to Israel where Jesus was speaking, the parable says that the Kingdom of God will be established as the gospel and the Spirit spread from village to village and economic life was restored.

Jesus warned about a different type of yeast.
Be careful. Be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees (Matt 16:6).
The Pharisees and the Sadducees ignored the instructions for economic life, but they collaborated with the Romans to protect their position and privilege. Jesus later warned that those who had collaborated with the Romans would be destroyed. The collaboration system would eventually be swept away (Matt 24.) When that happened, economic strength could shift to the villages, if they had prepared by applying the instructions for economic life that God had given to them.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Jesus & Economic Life (11) Jesus Jubilee

Jesus challenged the people to a new jubilee. This would involve cancellation of debt and restoration of land. Jesus preached a stark message on wealth and poverty:

Blessed are the poor. Woe to the rich
Blessed are you who hunger now. Woe to you who are well fed now (Luke 4:20-25).
These are strong words. He was promising that the poor would be blessed and the rich would experience woes. This is the reverse of the way things happen in the world, so what did Jesus mean? He was not referring to judgment. Judgement would destroy the rich, but it would also hurt the poor, so Jesus must have been talking about something different. He was prophesying a huge flow of of wealth/capital from the rich to the poor. Jesus was describing a different type of jubilee.

The exile to Babylon made it impossible to apply the Jubilee laws. The Jews returned from exile when the Persian Empire conquered Babylon, but it is not clear how many families were able to reclaim the land that their families had held before the exile. Jeremiah had redeemed a field at Anathoth, as a sign of eventual restoration (Jer 32), so someone from his family was probably able to claim it. However, I presume that most families were not able to reclaim their land when the returned from exile. Implementing a land-restoration Jubilee would not have been practical.

By Jesus time, most Jewish familys had no land. Even if a family re-gained their land after the exile, it would have been lost to the powerful families who collaborated with the Romans. Joseph’s family should have owned land near Bethlehem, because he had to go there for the census, but he had no land there, and did not even seem to have family members there that he could stay with. Being a carpenter or stonemason, he had probably moved to Nazareth to get work on one of Herod’s city building projects. Many families would be in a similar situation. Without access to land, they were dependent on casual work. Those with skills or a craft like Joseph would be in a slightly less precarious situation.

The ordinary people of Galilee and Judea were desperate for relief from their oppression, so when Jesus announced a new Jubilee, he would have created immense expectation.
The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent…to set the oppressed free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour (Luke 4:18-19).
Jesus promised that this Jubilee would be good news for the poor. It would provide a new freedom for people who were oppressed by the trials of life.

We tend to spiritualise this promise, but Jesus words must have meant something more real for his listeners. He was not promising to overthrow the Romans and take David’s throne in Jerusalem. This would not be practical. He was not even advocating a forced re-distribution of land back to the boundaries laid out by Joshua. That was not practical, because the Romans had used land to reward those who collaborated with them. The people who controlled the land in Israel were protected by Roman privilege.

Jesus was proclaiming a completely different type of jubilee. It would come about through ordinary people, applying the instructions for economic life laid out in the Torah. The land laws may not have been practical, but all the other instructions were still relevant. They did not need government intervention or consent. They could be applied by the ordinary people, despite the Roman control. Their application would bring a huge transformation to their society, as the practical sharing and caring was restored.

Returning to an equal distribution of land was not practical, because the Romans would not allow it, but that was less important, because for most people other forms of capital had become more essential. Jesus jubilee introduced a change that would create a more equal distribution of wealth/capital.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Jesus & Economic Life (10) Restore

The transfiguration confirmed the authority of the law and the prophets. After this event, Jesus gave an interesting response to a question about why Elijah must come first.

To be sure, Elijah comes and will restore all things. But I tell you, Elijah has already come, and they did not recognize him, but have done to him everything they wished. Then the disciples understood that he was talking to them about John the Baptist (Matt 17:11-13).
Jesus explained that John the Baptist fulfilled the prophecy that Elijah would come. His role was not to create something new, but to "restore all things". John could only restore something that had already existed. They only thing that he could restore in Galilee was the Torah, and especially the economic stuff that was most relevant to their daily lives. This is why John preached about economic issues. Jesus validated John’s message after the transfiguration.

Jesus preached a message of repentance. This was not repentance for general sin. Jesus demanded repentance for failure to obey the Torah. The ordinary people were not guilty of legalism: trying to achieve righteous by observing the cultural markers like the Pharisees. They needed to repent of neglecting the economic stuff that the law promised would keep them and their economies strong.

This full series of posts can be found at Jesus and Economic Life.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Jesus & Economic Life (9) Land

Jesus challenged those who had accumulated land to give it away. When he challenged a man who inquired about eternal life, the man claimed to have kept all the commandments since he was a boy.

Jesus looked at him and loved him. “One thing you lack,” he said. “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” At this the man’s face fell. He went away sad, because he had great wealth (Matt 8:21-23).
This man’s wealth would mostly be land. He would have had to collaborate with the Romans to have accumulated so much. He claimed to have kept the commandments since he was a boy (Matt 8:20). Jesus explained that the was wrong. He had honoured the Ten Commandments, but he had ignored God’s instructions for economic life. He was not entitled to accumulate land. To be righteous, he needed to sell his land and give it away. This would fulfil the land laws of Leviticus 25.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Jesus & Economic Life (8) Living Wage

Jesus taught employers that they should be considerate in the parable of the workers in the vineyard.

For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard. 2 He agreed to pay them a denarius for the day and sent them into his vineyard. About nine in the morning he went out and saw others standing in the marketplace doing nothing. He told them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right. So they went. He went out again about noon and about three in the afternoon and did the same thing. 6 About five in the afternoon he went out and found still others standing around. He asked them, ‘Why have you been standing here all day long doing nothing?’‘Because no one has hired us,’ they answered. “He said to them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard.’ “When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Call the workers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last ones hired and going on to the first.’ The workers who were hired about five in the afternoon came and each received a denarius. So when those came who were hired first, they expected to receive more. But each one of them also received a denarius. When they received it, they began to grumble against the landowner. ‘These who were hired last worked only one hour,’ they said, ‘and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the work and the heat of the day.’ But he answered one of them, ‘I am not being unfair to you, friend. Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius? Take your pay and go. I want to give the one who was hired last the same as I gave you.(Matt 20:1-16)
The employer promised to pay the employees who only worked for part of a day. "what is right"(v. 4,7). The Greek word is dikaion, which means righteous. This employer wanted to do the right thing. For Jesus listeners, what is right would be what is specified by the law. The workers who were employed for the whole day were offered a denarius. That was the standard pay for a days work at that time.

The employer paid every worker a denarius, even though some had only worked for a few hours, while others had worked for a whole day. The reason was that a person needed a denarius to buy a day’s rations. These people were on the poverty line, living from one day to the next. The employer was considerate. He decided to pay each person enough to buy food for the day. This was a generous application of the command to pay employs each evening (Deut 24:15). An employer has an obligation to give his neighbour enough food that he will be strong enough to work the next day.
Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous (Matt 20:15).
Being considerate and providing for a neighbour is more important than being fair.

At the present time, a debate is taking place about a the principle of a “living wage”. One social advocacy group has estimated that $NZ18.50 per hour would be enough to live on. The legal minimum wage is $NZ13.50 per hour. Several groups are urging employers to be good citizens by voluntarily paying a living wage, rather than just the legal minimum.

In Jesus time, a denarius per day was a living wage. The employer in the parable, who did “what is right” paid all his employees a denarius, regardless of how long they had worked. He knew when the end of the day had come that they would not be able to earn any more money until the next day. Most day labourers in that time lived from day to day. This employer paid a living wage by giving his employees enough to live on until the next day, when they would have the opportunity to earn some more.

A living wage is not something new, it is a New Testament concept, based on God’s Instructions for Economic Life.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Jesus & Economic Life (7) Giving

Jesus expected his followers to give to those in need, and to lend not expecting to be repaid.

And if you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners do that. And if you lend to those from whom you expect repayment, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, expecting to be repaid in full. But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back (Luke 6:33-34).
Bad people are quite happy to lend, if they know they will be repaid, especially if they can earn interest. Jesus expected his followers to be different. They must lend to the poor expecting nothing in return. This was not a new idea. This was the Torah principle of interest free loans to the poor.

This giving should not be done out of obligation. It should be motivated by the love of God.
Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful (Luke 6:35).
Those who love God will be merciful to be like him.

Jesus challenged his followers to feed people who were hungry.
For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me (Matt 25:35-36).
Followers of Jesus are expected to provide their neighbours with food, just as Boaz provided Ruth and Naomi with food by allowing Ruth to glean on his land.

Giving to the poor made economic sense.
Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal (Matt 6:19-21)
Storing up treasure was impossible in Galilee and Judea. If the moths and vermin did not destroy it, the soldiers and tax collectors. Maybe the moths and vermin were a cheeky reference to the Romans and their tax collectors.

Travelling Grub

After chewing his plant to bits, our travelling monarch butterfly grub has transformed himself into a chrysalis.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Jesus & Economic Life (6) Cancel Debt

Many of the people living in Galilee and Judea were in debt. Their debts were often owed to their countrymen. Jesus parable suggested a solution.

Two people owed money to a certain moneylender. One owed him five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. Neither of them had the money to pay him back, so he forgave the debts of both (Luke 7:41-42)?
This was not a revolutionary idea. It was what the Torah required. Debts were to be cancelled after seven years,

Cancellation of debt was the theme of another parable (Matt 18:21-31). A man who had been forgiven a huge debt refused to forgive someone who owed him a small amount that he owed and had him thrown in prison.
The master called the servant in. ‘You wicked servant,’ he said, ‘I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?’ In anger his master handed him over to the jailers (Matt 18:32-34)
In many ways, the sin of the servant was worse. The money he owed would have been a business loan. The loan to the second servant was a loan to someone in poverty. This loan should have been interest free, and should have been cancelled after seven years, if the person could not repay it. This was what the Torah required.

Jesus called for people to cancel debts.
Settle matters quickly with your adversary who is taking you to court. Do it while you are still together on the way, or your adversary may hand you over to the judge, and the judge may hand you over to the officer, and you may be thrown into prison. Truly I tell you, you will not get out until you have paid the last penny (Matt 5:25-26).
The people should not to go to court to enforce their debts. If they went to a Roman judge anything could happen. They could both end up in prison and poverty. It would be far more sensible to cancel debts after seven years as the Torah required. The ones going to the courts would be the creditors. If they followed God’s standards and cancelled the debts, they would not need to be going to the courts.

The Lord’s prayer contains a commitment to cancelling debts.
And forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors (Matt 6:12).
We do not notice this because we focus on God forgiving our sins, but Jesus just assumes that we will cancel the sins of our debtors. I doubt that many Christians praying the Lord’s prayer think about what that means for them.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Jesus & Economic Life (5)

Jesus teaching challenged the people to live according God’s instructions for economic life. These were rooted in love of God and love of neighbour (Lev 19:18).

  1. John the Baptist challenged people to share their food and clothing with those in need.

    Anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none, and anyone who has food should do the same (Luke 3:11).
    He challenged the soldiers to stop extorting taxes that they were not entitiled to take. This was common practice at the time.
    Don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely—be content with your pay (Luke 3:11-14).
    John was pushing the people back towards God’s principles for economic life.

  2. Jesus also challenged the people to give generously to those in need.

    Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back (Luke 6:30).
    Loving of neighbours required this.

  3. Jesus challenged the people to lend to those in need without expecting anything in return.

    Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you (Matt 5:42).
    This was an application of the poor law principles.
    If you lend to those from whom you expect repayment, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, expecting to be repaid in full. But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked (Luke 6:34-35).
    These words were a reference to providing interest free loans to the poor.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Jesus & Economic Life (4) Law

Jesus had strong words for those who teach about the law. He has not abolished the law. He came to fulfil the law, not to abolish it.

Anyone who teaches… others to set aside one of the least of these commands will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever teaches others to practice these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven (Matt 5:19).
I do not know anyone who has tried to “become great in the kingdom” by teaching people how to “obey the commands of the Torah”. Yet that is what Jesus seems to be encouraging. He expected his followers to teach people how to obey the commands given to Moses. An important part of this should be teaching about the instructions for economic life.

Jesus condemned the Teachers of the Law and the Pharisees, who had twisted the law in a burden by leaving out the love, and providing excuses for ignoring the instructions for economic life.Woe to you Pharisees, because you give God a tenth of your mint, rue and all other kinds of garden herbs, but you neglect justice and the love of God. You should have practiced the latter without leaving the former undone (Luke 11:42).
And you experts in the law, woe to you, because you load people down with burdens they can hardly carry, and you yourselves will not lift one finger to help them (Luke 11:46).
The Torah, and especially the book of Leviticus, prescribed cultural markers to distinguish Israel from the surrounding nations. The laws of justice and crime and the instructions for economic life could not distinguish Israel, because God intended the nations to copy them (Deut 4:5-7). The surrounding nations would not copy the cultural markers like the Sabbath and food laws.

Judging by Jesus challenges, the Pharisees and teachers of the law had focused on the cultural markers and neglected the more important aspects of the Torah. Jesus requires his followers to focus on justice and the love of God.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Jesus & Economic Life (3) Life Together

The Torah provided a way for a community of people together in peace. It included:

It did not need a king or political power, which meant:
Jesus came to bring about the restoration of Israel. The renewal of the Israel would be achieved through the renewal of life in villages and communities.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Creepy Crawler

A couple of weeks ago, when we were sitting in our garden enjoying the sunshine, a monarch butterfly flew by. I decided it would be good to get a swan plant, because that is what they like to la their eggs on.

Saturday week ago, when at the Warehouse (the NZ equivalent of Walmart) I purchased a swan plant. I planted it in the garden beside our patio.

On Wednesday when my wife was going out she saw a Monarch caterpillar on the concrete driveway at the front of our house. She did not want to drive over it, so she chucked it on the garden. The next day the caterpillar arrived, through the fence onto our patio, so she picked him up and put him on the swan plant. The photo shows him munching away happily. He is already fifty percent bigger than he was when he arrived.

I do not know where the caterpillar came from. If he came from a neighbour’s house, he must have travelled at least twenty metres across hard ground and concrete drives. Not a bad effort for a little bug. Maybe a bird dropped him on our drive. I understand the caterpillars get a nasty taste from eating the swan plant.

The bug seemed to be heading for our plant. Could he smell it from meters away. I don’t know, but it seemed like it.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Jesus & Economic Life (2) Repentance

When Jesus preached and taught in Galilee and Jerusalem, his message made sense in the local context. So when he and John called the people to repent, they were not challenging the people for their failure to produce the fruit of the Spirit. That was not possible, because the spirit had not yet been given.

The people were called to repent of their failure to obey the law and the prophets. They had not fulfilled the requirements of the mosaic covenant. Local communities had lost the right to judge and govern themselves, so they were not accountable for that. Roman law and government had been imposed upon them, so they could not repent of failure to implement God’s system of justice and law.

However, they could be challenged for their failure to implement the instructions for economic life. Despite Roman control, they were still free to voluntarily apply these instructions, so they needed to repent of this failure and begin living their economic life in accordance with God’s principles. The political situation was beyond their control. They had more control of their economic situation.

If the families of Galilee and Judea stood alone, the Romans soldiers and tax collectors could pick them off one at a time.

If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. If a house is divided against itself, that house cannot stand (Mark 3:24-25).
The households and families of Israel were divided from each other. The had stopped caring for each other. If they stood together in solidarity and supported each other, they could create a better life, despite the oppression of the Romans.

We interpret the Parable of the Sower as describing the response of people to the gospel. That make sense subsequent to the cross and resurrection, but it did not make sense to Jesus listeners. Jesus said “the seed is the word of God” (Luke 8:11). For his listeners, the word of God was the Law and the Prophets, including the instructions for economic life. They had been given the gift of the Law, but it has mostly been wasted. The devil stole it from some people’s hearts. Many received it gladly, but during a time or testing fell away. Others accepted God’s economic wisdom, but it was choked out by the “worries of life and the deceitfulness of riches” (Matt 13:22).

This was the situation in Israel when Jesus was teaching. The poor people were so beaten down that they did not think that it was practical to live by God’s instructions for economic life. The rich were so sucked in by their positions of wealth they were not interested either. It would disrupt their pleasure and comfort. Jesus sent his disciples out to preach repentance.
They went out and preached that people should repent (Mark 6:11).
The disciples could not preach in a vacuum. They would have to answer questions about why the people needed to repent. They would have challenged the people about their failure to live by the Torah, especially the economic stuff.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Jesus and Economic Life (1)

The coming of the Roman Empire destroyed the community-based economy that God had provided for the children of Israel.

  1. The Sadducees and the priestly families that collaborated with the Romans were rewarded with large land holdings. Many accumulate large blocks of land. The people who had previously owned them were turned tin to tenant farmer, who had to hand over at least of half of their crops to their landlords.
  2. The empire imposed exorbitant taxes on the ordinary people. This pushed most families into poverty. If taxes could not be paid, their property would be confiscated. The tax collectors got rich and the rest became tenant farmers or day labourers. Jesus saw the tax collectors as “sick” (Luke 5:31).
  3. For ordinary people, storing up wealth was impossible. If the Roman soldiers found coins or grain hidden in a house, they would smash the house.
  4. Debt was used to impoverish people and to steal their land. A person who was poor would be lent money at very high interest rates (50 percent) using their land as security. When they were unable to pay the interest or repay the loan, the interest would be added to the loan. In a few years, a small loan could grow to be worth more than the land given as security. The lender would demand the land to settle the debt.
  5. Herod built a Greek-styled temple in Jerusalem. His son Antipas built the new Roman cities at Deopolis and Tiberius. The governor of Judea built a new city of Caesar Philip in honour of Caesar. To pay for these building projects, the people had to pay tribute.
  6. Many people were hungry all the time.
    During those days another large crowd gathered. Since they had nothing to eat, Jesus called his disciples to him and said, “I have compassion for these people; they have already been with me three days and have nothing to eat. If I send them home hungry, they will collapse on the way (Mark 8:1-3)
    The state of people’s health was so bad that going without out food was debilitating.
  7. By Jesus time, most families in Israel had no land. Most of the land was controlled by a few powerful families and moneylenders. Tax collectors and soldiers would grab most of the crops that were grown and most money that was earned. The people were left with very little to live on. Most people were hungry most of the time. Many would have to find some work each day as a day labourer to buy their food for the day. That is why Jesus knew the people had followed him round the lake to listen to his teaching all day would be hungry. If they had not worked, they would have no food, and not be able to buy any.
For the people of Israel, the Roman Empire was a terrible place to live. Land was concentrated in the hands of a few. Capital was no longer distributed evenly. The people did not have money to lend to others, because all surpluses were taken by the Romans and the temple system. Life was brutal and extreme poverty was normal. No wonder people were looking for a Messiah who would break the shackles of Rome and free them from the burden of debt, tax and tribute.

This full series of posts can be found at Jesus and Economic Life.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Economic Life (18) Final Comments

The instructions for economic life provided economic security for everyone in society, without the need for a government or king. Economic strength was based in local communities.

The Torah promising great blessings for people who respect and obey these instructions. This blessing is not something magical/spiritual. The blessing comes because communities are stronger and more productive.

Modern politicians love to lecture the poor and tell them what to do. Most of the instructions for economic life are directed to people who are more prosperous. It is their response to God’s guidance that transforms community and liberates the poor and weak.

The motivations for acting on these instructions must be love: love of God and love of neighbour. If it is just a list of rules then the instructions will become a burden. We should see them as illustration of how life will change, if we get serious about loving one another and loving our neighbour.

In my next series of posts, I will look at the way Jesus interpreted and applied these instructions for economic life. He put a twist on some to make them relevant in a new situation.

This full series can be found at Instructions for Economic Life.

Economic Life (17) Consequences

By the time of Jeremiah, the instructions dealing with the jubilee and the seven-year release of bondservants and redemption of lands were being ignored in Judah. Jeremiah described the situation.

This is what the LORD, the God of Israel, says: I made a covenant with your ancestors when I brought them out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. I said, ‘Every seventh year each of you must free any fellow Hebrews who have sold themselves to you. After they have served you six years, you must let them go free.’ Your ancestors, however, did not listen to me or pay attention to me (Jer 34:13-14).
God’s instructions had been ignored. King Zedekiah and the leaders of the people must have realised this was a problem, because they decided to free all bondservants, but because they were under threat, rather than because it was the seventh year.
King Zedekiah had made a covenant with all the people in Jerusalem to proclaim freedom for all bondservants. Everyone was to free their Hebrew bondservants, both male and female; no one was to hold a fellow Hebrew in bondage. So all the officials and people who entered into this covenant agreed that they would free their male and female bondservants and no longer hold them in bondage. They agreed, and set them free (Jer 34:8-10).
This was a wonderful event, but unfortunately, the people quickly changed their minds and put those who had been set free back in bondage.
But afterward they changed their minds and took back the slaves they had freed and enslaved them again (Jer 34:11).
The word “enslaved” is a strong word (kabash). It means to “conquer, subjugate, or violate”. These people had bonded themselves, because they needed help to get out of debt. They had been set free (Kophshim). They were now being enslaved by force, so their situation was made worse. Jeremiah brought a strong word from the Lord.
Recently you repented and did what is right in my sight: Each of you proclaimed freedom to your own people. You even made a covenant before me in the house that bears my Name. But now you have turned around and profaned my name…. You have forced them to become your slaves. Therefore this is what the LORD says: You have not obeyed me; you have not proclaimed freedom to your own people. So I now proclaim ‘freedom’ for you, declares the LORD—‘freedom’ to fall by the sword, plague and famine. I will make you abhorrent to all the kingdoms of the earth (Jer 38:15-17)
Jeremiah explained that their failure to give people freedom as the instructions for economic life require would be the direct cause of their loss of freedom; in a fairly nasty way, by sword, plague and famine. They would become abhorrent to the kings of the earth, whereas if they had applied God’s instructions, they would have been held in awe by the nations.
Observe them carefully, for this will show your wisdom and understanding to the nations, who will hear about all these decrees and say, “Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people. What other nation is so great” (Deut 4:6-7)

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Economic Life (16) Extreme Poverty

If a person got into poverty, they would find someone to employ them for a season, so they could support their family. If they got even deeper into debt, they might need to bond themselves to a more prosperous person in return for that person paying off all their debts.

If any of your people—Hebrew men or women—sell themselves to you and serve you six years, in the seventh year you must let them go free. And when you release them, do not send them away empty-handed. Supply them liberally from your flock, your threshing floor and your winepress. Give to them as the LORD your God has blessed you. Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and the LORD your God redeemed you. That is why I give you this command today (Deut 15:12-15).
If you buy a Hebrew servant, he is to serve you for six years. But in the seventh year, he shall go free, without paying anything (Ex 21:2).
The prosperous person must settle all the debts. In return for that, they poor person would agree to work for them for seven years. They would hope to learn from working with someone who has managed better than they have. The bond is limited to seven years. God’s people must not give up their freedom permanently.

When the person is set free, they person who paid the debts must be generous towards the person they have helped. They should send the person away with some working capital, so they can get going again.
Do not consider it a hardship to set your servant free, because their service to you these six years has been worth twice as much as that of a hired hand. And the LORD your God will bless you in everything you do (Deut 15:19).
People who are perpetual mis-managers may decide they would be better to stay as a bondservant.
But if your servant says to you, “I do not want to leave you,” because he loves you and your family and is well off with you, then take an awl and push it through his earlobe into the door, and he will become your servant for life. Do the same for your female servant (Deut 15:16-17).
Some people who are hopeless incompetent may need someone to manage for them. They could choose someone who will take care of them and their family and bond themselves to them.

This bond service is voluntary. It is for the benefit of the bondservant, not for the person holding the bond. The servant freely decides to be a servant. Since they voluntarily became a servant bondservant for live, they are free to leave at any time, provided someone pays the debt for them

The bondservant concept sounds odd in modern ears, but it is no more a loss of freedom than taking on a thirty-year mortgage.
Chattel slavery was not permitted.
If a slave has taken refuge with you, do not hand them over to their master. Let them live among you wherever they like and in whatever town they choose. Do not oppress them (Deut 23:15-16).
If a slave escaped from a different jurisdiction and sought shelter in a community, they must not be returned to their owner. They are to be set free to live in the community. God’s people are called to set people free, not to enslave them.
They did not have the ability or authority to use force to set slaves free. That was the American mistake, which enslaved more people.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Economic Life (15) Land and Capital

Christians who dislike Leviticus miss out on one of the most important economic principles in the scriptures.

The land must not be sold permanently, because the land is mine and you reside in my land as foreigners and strangers. Throughout the land that you hold as a possession, you must provide for the redemption of the land.

If one of your fellow Israelites becomes poor and sells some of their property, their nearest relative is to come and redeem what they have sold. If, however, there is no one to redeem it for them but later on they prosper and acquire sufficient means to redeem it themselves, they are to determine the value for the years since they sold it and refund the balance to the one to whom they sold it; they can then go back to their own property. But if they do not acquire the means to repay, what was sold will remain in the possession of the buyer until the Year of Jubilee. It will be returned in the Jubilee, and they can then go back to their property…. Houses in villages without walls around them are to be considered as belonging to the open country. They can be redeemed, and they are to be returned in the Jubilee (Lev 25:23-28,31).
When Israel entered the Promised Land, land was the main form of capital. The land was divided up evenly between tribes and family groupings, so that every family had a piece of land. God organised the situation so that capital was evenly distributed. This is an important principle. God wants to see capital evenly distributed. In the Micah’s vision of the kingdom, every man has his own vine and his own fig tree (Mic 4:4). This is the same principle.

In an agricultural society, land was the main form of capital (in an economic sense). Distributing the land evenly ensure that every family had access to capital. It was distributed evenly, so that every family had an equal opportunity.

In reality, some people use their capital productively and do well. Others misuse their capital and get into financial difficulty. If a family gets into serious financial trouble, they might not need to sell their land to settle their debts. However the land could not be sold in perpetuity, because it belongs to God. All that could be sold was the crops that would be produced between the present day and the next jubilee. The jubilee occurred every fifty years.
If an debtor family has sold their land to a creditor to settle their debts, three things could happen.
  1. A relative or neighbour to come to the aid of the debtor family and buy back the land from the creditor to whom it had been sold. The redeemer will pay the full price that paid by the purchase. This was a sacrifice as the relative or neighbour would receive very little. They might get some crops while they were getting the debtor family prepared to look after it again, but they will never own the land they have bought. This was essentially a gift from one person to another. It is generous giving at its best. The only benefit he gets is the benefit of living in a strong community.

    The Good Samaritan helped a man who was in a hole, perhaps due to his stupidity, by going places he should not have gone alone. The parable extended the scope of who is our neighbour to everyone that we encounter. It does not limit the scope of assistance to caring for sick people. The Torah teaches that being a Good Samaritan means recovering the property of a neighbour who has been forced into selling it to pay debt.

  2. If no one redeems the land sold by a person in debt and he returns to prosperity again, he can buy his family property back at any time. The price will be set at the value of the crops that will be received between the sale day and the jubilee. He does not have to repay the full amount, because the buyer has received crops from the land.

  3. If there is no redeemer and the person in trouble never recovers sufficiently to buy it back, the buyer can hold the land until the jubilee. This will affect the price paid for the land. The buyer is not really buying the land. He cannot because it belongs to God. He is actually buying the harvests that will occur between the purchase date and the jubilee. If he pays more than that is worth, he might be reluctant to return the land when the Jubilee comes. The benefit the buyer gets is the confidence that comes from being part of a strong community.

There were no penalties attached to this instruction, so it could not be enforced. It does not justify compulsory land re-distribution as some have claimed. This was a voluntary instruction to ensure that wealth and capital did not become too unevenly distributed. If one generation got into trouble and lost their capital, the next generation would get it back, and have a fresh start.

The prophets spoke against those who accumulated land and houses.
Woe to you who add house to house and join field to field till no space is left and you live alone in the land (Is 5:8).
These people were breaching God’s principle that all capital land should be evenly distributed. They would not have been able to do this, if they understood and applied the principle of the Jubilee.

This was not an individualistic concept of property. Land was assigned to the family group. It is held in trust for the benefit of future generations of the family. Losing the land was a failure of trust that cursed later generations. God protected the family line be providing a way to remedy a mistake that could affect future generations.

The classical economists like Adam Smith were concerned about economic rent. They saw it as a problem, because the aristocratic families whose ancestors had fought on the winning side in ancient battles controlled large blocks of land. They collected rent from their tenants with no need to give anything in return. The classical economists wanted to tax economic rent away. If God owns the land, the basis for economic rent disappears.

This instruction and the jubilee ensured that capital continued to be equally distributed, but this it only works in an agricultural society. In the modern world, most capital is plant machinery and equipment and other assets. Jesus put a twist on the jubilee laws that ensure that these will be relatively equally distributed too, but that is a topic for another post in another series.

Saturday, February 09, 2013

Economic Life (14) Security

Some people might need a loan to get a business started or to expand an existing business. This should be rare, because debt is dangerous. Business should operate on equity. However, if a loan is necessary, interest is permissible, but the term should be limited to seven years. The lender was entitled to take some security for their loan, but they must not take anything that is needed for the borrowers livelihood or safety.

Do not take a pair of millstones—not even the upper one—as security for a debt, because that would be taking a man's livelihood as security (Deut 24:6).
Business equipment must not be taken as security, because it would prevent the person from operating their business.
If you take your neighbour’s cloak as a pledge, return it to him by sunset, because his cloak is the only covering he has for his body. What else will he sleep in? When he cries out to me, I will hear, for I am compassionate (Ex 22:26-27).
If the man is poor, do not go to sleep with his pledge in your possession. Return his cloak to him by sunset so that he may sleep in it. Then he will thank you, and it will be regarded as a righteous act in the sight of the LORD your God (Deut 24:12-13).
If personal effects are taken, they must be returned at the time they are needed.

Friday, February 08, 2013

Economic Life (13) Loans to the Poor

The level of help given to the poor depends on the seriousness of the situation. If the situation of the poor person is not too serious, then someone in their neighbourhood should lend them money to enable them to get back on their feet again. Loans to the poor have to critical conditions.

  1. A poor person must not be charged interest.
    If you lend money to one of my people among you who is needy, do not be like a moneylender; charge him no interest (Ex 22:25).
    Do not charge your brother interest, whether on money or food or anything else that may earn interest. You may charge a foreigner interest, but not a brother Israelite, so that the LORD your God may bless you in everything you put your hand to in the land you are entering to possess ( Deut 23:19-20).
    Interest is a killer for people, because if they fail pay to pay it, the interest is added to the principle with penalties. A small loan can turn into a huge debt in no time. Interest changes a loan from a blessing to a curse.

    An interest free loan may be enough to get some poor people going again. It gives them a strong incentive to work, so they can repay the loan. The ban on interest prevents their debt from growing unnecessarily, if life continues to be tough.
  2. Any loan to poor person that has not been repaid must be cancelled after seven years.
    At the end of every seven years you must cancel debts. This is how it is to be done: Every creditor shall cancel the loan he has made to his fellow Israelite. He shall not require payment from his fellow Israelite or brother, because the LORD's time for cancelling debts has been proclaimed (Deut 15:1-2).
    The aim of the loan is to help a poor person get back on their feet. If they fail to repay the loan, it must be wiped out after seven years. This means that the loan does not increase the burden being carried by the poor person, if they are unable to get on top of their problems.

    The reason for the seven-year limit is that we do not know the future. We should make commitments that we cannot meet. Any commitment beyond seven years is too risky, because we cannot know what our situation will be.

These loans are really a gift that must be repaid, if the person’s situation recovers. This is why Jesus told his followers to make loans without expecting to be repaid.
Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you (Matt 5:42).
Jesus principle of generosity was a restatement of a command in Deuteronomy.
If there is a poor man among your brothers in any of the towns of the land that the LORD your God is giving you, do not be hard-hearted or tight-fisted toward your poor brother. Rather be open-handed and freely lend him whatever he needs. Be careful not to harbour this wicked thought: "The seventh year, the year for cancelling debts, is near," so that you do not show ill will toward your needy brother and give him nothing. He may then appeal to the LORD against you, and you will be found guilty of sin. Give generously to him and do so without a grudging heart; then because of this the LORD your God will bless you in all your work and in everything you put your hand to. There will always be poor people in the land. Therefore I command you to be open-handed toward your brothers and toward the poor and needy in your land (Deut 15:7-11).
If someone gets into financial difficulty, another person in their neighbourhood who is better off should give them a loan to help them through a difficult time. No particular person was responsible for making the loan, but those who were closest to the person in trouble would be expected to come forward. Given that the loan might not be repaid, it would not be surprising if people were reluctant to make a loan to a person in trouble, but this is not acceptable to God. He expects people to be generous. He says that generosity to neighbours is a condition for receiving God’s economic blessing. This makes sense. A community in which everybody is contributing will be stronger than one in which many of the people are struggling with poverty. Making a loan to someone who is poor, knowing that it might not be repaid back is an example of loving our neighbour.

Lenders have power over borrowers. This power can be used to intimidate the weaker person, but it divides the community undermining its strength. The Torah requires a lender to treat a vulnerable person with respect.
When you make a loan of any kind to your neighbour, do not go into his house to get what he is offering as a pledge. Stay outside and let the man to whom you are making the loan bring the pledge out to you (Deut 24:10-13).
The person with power must not enter the poor person’s house to create fear among his family or looking for valuables that could be claimed.

Efforts to help poor people must no harm to them This is why the loans was interest free and cancelled at the end of seven years, if the person was still poor. This is the opposite of the world’s way. Poor people have no security so they have to go to loan sharks, who charge very high interest rates, often up to fifty percent per month. The poor person usually fails to pay the interest, so it is added to the loan. In a very short time, the loan is enormous. The lender seizes all of the property of the poor person to cover the debt and they are left destitute. God’s way is different. Poor people must not be forced deeper into debt. If they cannot repay the loan, they are left no worse off than before they received it.

This full series can be found at Instructions for Economic Life.

Thursday, February 07, 2013

Economic Life (12) Duty to the Poor

In every community, some people do well and others do badly. God’s instructions for economic life provide safeguards for the poor.

When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap to the very edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest. Do not go over your vineyard a second time or pick up the grapes that have fallen. Leave them for the poor and the foreigner. I am the LORD your God (Lev 19:9-10).
When you are harvesting in your field and you overlook a sheaf, do not go back to get it. Leave it for the foreigner, the fatherless and the widow, so that the LORD your God may bless you in all the work of your hands. When you beat the olives from your trees, do not go over the branches a second time. Leave what remains for the foreigner, the fatherless and the widow. When you harvest the grapes in your vineyard, do not go over the vines again. Leave what remains for the foreigner, the fatherless and the widow (Deut 24:19-21).
The people in a neighbourhood are to leave some of their crops for the poor to harvest. This is not a hand out, because the poor have to work to get the produce.

This assistance is not just for immediate neighbours. It must be offered to foreigners who have chosen to live in the neighbourhood. Ruth was a Moabite (Moab was an enemy of Israel) yet Boaz allowed her to glean on his fields.

Gleaning only works in agricultural societies, but the principle applies everywhere. God expects his people to find ways to give some of what they have produced to the poor. Giving to relief organisations is not enough. God prefers that we find ways to emulate gleaning by blessing the poor living around us in our neighbourhoods. People in business have an obligation to assist the people in their neighbourhood. Much is expected from those who have been given more. This is what loving your neighbour means.

The command about gleaning does not mean that everyone has a free hand to reap other people’s crops. A duty of care remains.
If you enter your neighbour’s vineyard, you may eat all the grapes you want, but do not put any in your basket. If you enter your neighbour’s grainfield, you may pick kernels with your hands, but you must not put a sickle to their standing grain (Deut 23:24-25).
A hungry person walking past a vineyard can take a few grapes, but they are not to use a container. A person walking through a wheat field can take a few grains in their hands to calm their hunger, but they must not use a sickle to cut the grain. Jesus and his disciples were acting this command when they were challenged by the Pharisees for working on the sabbath.
He was passing through the grainfields on the Sabbath, and His disciples began to make their way along while picking the heads of grain. The Pharisees were saying to Him, “Look, why are they doing what is not lawful on the Sabbath” (Mark 2:23-24)?
The Pharisees were wrong, because the disciples were not harvesting. The command that permitted them to eat grains, explicitly forbade the use of sickles, so it was not harvesting.

Wednesday, February 06, 2013

Economic Life (11) Widows and Orphans

Some people get into bad situations through no fault of their own.

Do not take advantage of the widow or the fatherless. If you do and they cry out to me, I will certainly hear their cry. My anger will be aroused, and I will kill you with the sword; your wives will become widows and your children fatherless (Ex 22:22-24).
Woman whose husbands die young while their children are dependent are left in a vulnerable situation. They will have to earn enough to support their family, while not neglecting their children. Children who lose their parents while they are young are left in a helpless position. God expects the people in a neighbourhood to voluntarily care for the widows and orphans living among them.

God is very serious about this obligation. He warned that a community that does not care for their orphans and widows bring judgment on themselves. This judgment will come in attacks of with violent weapons.

I wonder if the communities that have been struck by school shootings have been willingly and generously caring for the widows and orphans among them.

Waitangi Day

Today is Waitangi Day in New Zealand. Our nation was founded by a covenant, not an invasion. The best way to celebrate the Treaty of Waitangi is to honour and fulfil it.

Tuesday, February 05, 2013

Economic Life (10) Coveting

For a community to be strong, people must satisfied with what they have got, even if others have more.

You shall not covet your neighbour’s house. You shall not covet your neighbour’s wife, or his male or female servant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbour (Ex 20:17).
You shall not covet your neighbour’s wife. You shall not set your desire on your neighbour’s house or land, his male or female servant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbour (Deut 5:21).
This command has no penalties, because coveting is something that takes place in a person’s heart, so there are no witnesses who can testify against it. However, it is a really important command, because coveting can tear a community apart. We must not look at any of the things that a person in our neighbourhood owns, and wish that it were ours. Adultery is often rooted in coveting other men’s wives.

Modern television advertising is based on persuading people to covet the things that the person in the advert who looks like their neighbour is flaunting.

Monday, February 04, 2013

Economic Life (9) Honest Trade

All buying and selling must be done honestly.

Do not have two differing weights in your bag—one heavy, one light. Do not have two differing measures in your house—one large, one small. You must have accurate and honest weights and measures, so that you may live long in the land the LORD your God is giving you. For the LORD your God detests anyone who does these things, anyone who deals dishonestly (Deut 25:13-16).
This command was given in a context where coins were not available for trade. Payments for purchases and sales were made by weighing out gold or silver. A clever way to defraud people was to use scales that weighed light when making payments and a different set of scales that weighed heavy when getting paid.

The command applies to everyone who is selling goods or services. They must represent the stuff that they are selling. Selling flawed goods as if they are good quality is wrong, because “God detests anyone who deals dishonestly”. There should be no “rip-offs” among God’s people. They should be known as honest traders giving "value for money".

We are not entitled to take whatever price we can get, even if it is greater than we think that the goods are worth. Nor are we entitled to pay the lowest price possible, if less than we thing the good is worth. We cannot buy goods from China and just ignore the fact that the people who made them were paid a pittance.

Two comments are common in business:
  1. 1. Let the buyer beware.
  2. 2. What the market will bear.
They have no place amongst God’s people.

This command has a broader application. It means that bank policies that inflate the currency are immoral. In biblical times, kings devalued their coins by mixing silver into gold coins and other cheaper metals into silver coins. The coin appears to have the same value, so people still use it, but the king has stolen some of their gold or silver. This is immoral. In modern times, currencies are deflated by central bank policy, but the consequences are the same. People holding the currency are robbed of some of their wealth. Inflation is always immoral, regardless of means used.

The person with the scales has the power. Most people dealing with them would have to trust their honesty, because they would not be able to afford their own scales. God gets really upset when people with power use it dishonestly.

Kings and central banks have power. God detests counterfeiting coins and he detests central bank money creation because they are the same economic transaction in different form.

Sunday, February 03, 2013

Love the Law

The verses I reference in these posts on Economic Life were not cherry picked or pulled out randomly. Several years ago, I grasped the implications of Psalm 119:97-100.

Oh, how I love your law!
I meditate on it all day long.
Your commands are always with me
and make me wiser than my enemies.
I have more insight than all my teachers,
for I meditate on your statutes.
I have more understanding than the elders,
for I obey your precepts.
I had never loved the law. I simply did not care about it. I knew that Jesus was very clear that it had not been set aside, but it did not seem to be relevant to the economic and political issues that I was studying. When I discovered that love of the law is the key to wisdom, I realised that I needed to study the law in detail.

Since I gained that understanding, I have studied the Torah quite seriously. I did a course in the Hebrew language to assist. I would not say that I love it yet, but I have found it to be a rich treasure of wisdom, particularly on economic and political issues.

To support my detailed study of the law, I copied all the laws and commands in Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy into a spreadsheet. I left out those that referred to the sacrifices and the priesthood, because I assumed that they had been fulfilled in Jesus and no longer needed to be obeyed. This left me with about 250 commands that I grouped together into about twenty-five categories. One of my categories was Economic Life. More than thirty commands fell into this category. I will cover them all in this series of posts. So what I am doing is quite systematic.

Saturday, February 02, 2013

Economic Life (8) Employment

People employed to do work are to be treated well.

Do not take advantage of a hired worker who is poor and needy, whether that worker is a fellow Israelite or a foreigner residing in one of your towns. Pay them their wages each day before sunset, because they are poor and are counting on it. Otherwise they may cry to the LORD against you, and you will be guilty of sin (Deut 24:14-15).
A person who needs to work for wages must be treated well. This applies to people living in the neighbourhood and foreigners who are there temporarily. When Jesus told the story of the Good Samaritan, he was illustrating this principle. Neighbours are not just those who live around you. The foreigner that is encountered is also a neighbour.

A critical part of being a good neighbours is to pay generous wages. God’s people should not be satisfied with paying the minimum wage. God expects more than that. They should pay the person enough for them to live on.

The employer should not just think about their convenience. They must do what is best for the employee. If the person is really poor, they would not be able to wait until the end of the week for their money, because they would be without food. Even though it is inconvenient for the employer, the poor person should be paid each day. They have done the work, so they are entitled to the pay. In the modern world, weekly or fortnightly pay has become the standard, but that makes life really hard for some people.
Do not defraud or rob your neighbor. Do not hold back the wages of a hired worker overnight (Lev 19:13).
God’s guidance for economic life says that holding back the wages of a hired worker overnight is the same as defrauding them.

The requirement of this command is more general, as it is an aspect of loving neighbours. An employer must treat their employees in the same way as they would treat someone they love. They cannot just pay the minimum they can get away with and leave their employees to fend for themselves. They must treat their employees the same way as they would treat their family members. Employees should be paid promptly and generously.

Employees are not disconnected people. They are neighbours that employers must love and care for.

Friday, February 01, 2013

Economic Life (7) Animal Welfare

Humans are allowed to use animals to assist with their work.

Do not muzzle an ox while it is treading out the grain (Deut 25:4).
In Moses time, oxen were an important part of the harvest. When the wheat what cut it was laid on a an area of hard ground called the threshing floor. Oxen would be made to walk in a circle on the threshing floor, and the pressure of the hooves would break the grain off the stalks to which it was attached. The next step took place on a windy day. The farm would toss the trampled wheat into the air with a winnowing fork. The wind would blow the chaff away while the grain would fall to the ground.

The message of Deuteronomy is that it is legitimate to use animals to provide mechanical power. However, the owner has a duty to care for the working animal really well. For example, a team of horses pulling a plough needed to be fed three times a day.