Lehigh County Conference of Churches: Justice and Advocacy Fall Gathering

The Growing Economic Divide:
Which Side Are You On?

Saturday, October 29, 2011


and Parking

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Lehigh County
Conference of Churches

Justice & Advocacy

Biblical Roots of Economic Justice: Sabbath, Jubilee and God's Economy

Outline: (45 minutes)


Economics is one of the major themes of the Bible; it is full of stories and instructions that relate to economic issues. From the Growing Divide workshop, it is clear that we have a problem - although we may not all agree on exactly how to define that problem or what the solution looks like.

The question we would like to look at next, briefly, is whether the Bible provides any useful insights as to what alternatives there are to our current broken economic system. Does this collection of writings that dates back several thousand years, to cultures that were quite different from ours, have any relevance today?
Obviously, we think so, or we wouldn't waste your time talking about ancient history. But if so, are there some critical questions we can ask that reveal the important principles that transcend culture and time?

I want to start with a brief overview of some of the foundational stories of biblical economics; then we'll have some conversation about a few salient questions, such as, what does a fair economy look like. We've already seen what an unfair economy looks like, so let's turn that around.


The biblical narrative begins with a creation story in which God takes credit for creating the entire universe. God thus claims ownership of the world and everything in it, and therefore, as landlord, has the right to make some rules. So, on day six, after God has created humans, he tells them, [Genesis 1:29-30]. So the earth's natural resources are not just for the convenience of some particular humans, or even for all humans to share, but for the sustenance of all living creatures. This is a foundational principle of biblical economics.

Now, if you've spent any time studying the Bible, you know that some of the most interesting stories are about things that have gone wrong, big mistakes, people who have decided to go their own ways - and, like trying to defy the law of gravity, it usually doesn't work out very well.


About half way through Genesis - the first book of the Bible - we come to the story of Joseph who becomes a great capitalist entrepreneur. You remember that Joseph was the favorite son of his father Jacob. Joseph's step-brothers considered him a spoiled brat, and sold him to a band of slave traders headed for Egypt. Eventually Joseph comes to a position of great political power in Egypt - next in command to Pharaoh himself, and takes charge of storing and distribution of food during seven years of abundant harvest followed by seven years of drought and famine.

Joseph forgives his brothers for selling him into slavery; and because of the famine, Joseph brings his father, Jacob, to Egypt, along with his eleven brothers with their families. They all arrive to "sojourn," but Pharaoh invites them to "settle" and they do. The Hebrew people, who have been landless nomads, now possess land (in Goshen, northern Egypt, near the Nile delta). land owners for the first time, and one of their own, Joseph, has political power as well.

Famine is upon the land, and Joseph's intention is to preserve life, but as the Egyptian people come to him for emergency food assistance, he first takes the people's money; when their money runs out, he then takes their cattle, and finally their fields, with the people made slaves on their own land. Only the land of the priests does not become centralized under Pharaoh's control.

There is a great irony in this story: About 400 years later, the Hebrew people are themselves slaves in Egypt; God sighs, and assigns a new leader named Moses to lead them out of slavery - away from the fertile flood plane of the Nile River into the Sinai desert. (It's like moving from Pennsylvania to the Arizona desert.) In the Sinai desert, they once again become a nomadic people, re-learning desert spirituality, and economic practices that are radically different from the Egyptian empire and most of the other middle eastern kingdoms.

When they arrive in the desert, the people start complaining to Moses - why did you bring us to this desolate place? What are we going to drinK? What are we going to eat? At least food was plentiful in Egypt. Did you bring us out here to starve to death?

The Bible narrative in Exodus is probably a combination of at least two different oral traditions, blended in such a way that it should not be read as an exact historical account, but it conveys is an important economic principle. Listen to the story.


[Exodus 16:15-18] (Note: an Omer is about 2 U.S. dry quarts). So what is the economic principle here? There's such a thing as having too little, and such a thing as having too much - but in God's economy, there is enough for everyone.

There's more to the manna story, which I'm going to skip for now - but we'll see this principle again in New Testament stories.

So, while the Hebrews readapt to nomadic life in the desert, and as they prepare to return to Canaan, God makes a new Covenant with them. The common teaching about the Covenant is that it's about the "right relationship with God" and the "right way to worship." Yes, there are some rules about religious practices, but fundamentally that is not the emphasis. The major emphasis and the covenant content (in the books of Exodus through Deuteronomy) is on how people should treat each other and live together, according to how God wants people to treat each other and live together. And that necessarily includes extensive discussion of economic practices, such as Sabbath, Sabbatical, and Jubilee.


The instructions for Sabbath are not that you spend all day worshiping (in tabernacle or temple or in church), but that everyone gets a day off work once a week. [Exodus 23:12] God's abundance is sufficient that you don't need to do business seven days a week; you don't need to be a work-a-holic.

After forty years as nomadic people in the Sinai desert, the Hebrews entered Canaan, and the Israelite tribes were each allotted territorial lands. It is clear (from Josh. 13-19) that the land was allocated on a broadly equitable basis, so that each clan and each individual household had a right to a share in the inheritance.


And the Covenant contained some provisions that pertained to the land where they settled: [Exodus 23:10-11]. Also, every seventh year debts between neighbors were to be cancelled.


There were also a number of other instructions that give preference to protecting widows, orphans, aliens, and other poor or vulnerable people, for example: [Deuteronomy 15:7-11]


And then, every 50 years, the year following the seventh sabbatical year, would be a Jubilee year: [Leviticus 25:10] For people who had lost their land for whatever reason, the land would be restored to them; and conversely, anyone who had accumulated large land holdings would be relieved of the excess property. (cf. Lev. 25:8-12)

The Jubilee year, like the Sabbatical year before it was also designated a year of rest for the land: [Leviticus 25:10]

There are many details that have been glossed over in this brief commentary, but many more scripture texts are included in the references at the end of this commentary.

What is a "Fair" Economic System?

We turn now to the question, what does a "fair" or "just" economic system look like? Break into small groups of 4 or 5 people to work on this question, and here is one more resource to help think about that question:

See Table 1: Ten alternative standards of distributive justice on page 4 of MARKET OPERATION AND DISTRIBUTIVE JUSTICE: AN EVALUATION OF THE ACCRA CONFESSION, by Johan J. Graafland of Tilburg University, The Netherlands.

Christian Tradition

Parable of Vineyard (Matt. 20:1-16)

Let's take a look now at a New Testament parable - a story that Jesus tells. And, note that what Jesus teaches about economics really builds on the Old Testament laws and stories - like the Jubilee -- that came before him. The story (from Matthew 20) goes, like this. [Matthew 20:1-16]

The following commentary is adapted from the sermon on August 21, 2011 by Rev. Dr. Leslie Callahan at St. Paul's Baptist Church in Philadelphia.

Does that seem fair to you - that the laborers who worked all day got the same pay as the ones who worked just an hour? Let's take a closer look at this story - and we will come back to the question of fairness.

To begin with, the "Kingdom of Heaven" which you find mentioned many times throughout Jesus' teachings, is not just some pie in the sky bye and bye ideal. It is intended to be a model of how people should live together in community here and now. And there are at least a couple of important principles that we can glean from this story.

First of all, we should note how precarious are the lives of people in systems of economic disparity. What Jesus' hearers would have known at the outset when he started this story, when you talked to them about wages. What they would have known is that the people who stood in the marketplace trying to be hired at daybreak did so with the knowledge that if they didn't get hired that day they wouldn't eat. If you're working, then you're able to pay your bills; if you are not working, then the bills don't get paid.

And so underlying this whole story is the reality that people in these systems of economic disparity are always in a precarious situation - which is why the amount of payment was the denarius. The denarius is a unit of money used in the ancient world; and it, like most units of currency fluctuated in value, and the value of the denarius was set by the price of bread for a particular day So when the landowner contracted the laborers for a denarius, he was contracting them for their daily bread, and anything less than a full denarius would not be enough for the people to eat.

Is it wrong to provide a living wage for people who work part-time, when work is available, and even for people who can't or don't work? So that, no matter what, everyone is at least able to eat.

Second of all, consider how the 5:00 workers responded to the landlord: "no one would hire us." When the landowner found people still standing out there at the very close of the day, rather than simply sending them to work, he asked them a question , "why they aren't you already out working?" And the answer to the question is, "because no one would hire us." Today, right here in the Lehigh Valley, we live with high unemployment and under employment; and even within faith communities -- among people who have heard this story, it is often the case, that when we see the idle poor, we make assumptions about why they are unemployed. We ascribe to them some motivation, some purpose, some reason - I know why you're not working; I can tell.

We tell a young adult, "You're not working because you wear your pants too low." We tell older people, "You're not working because you don't move or think as well." We often tell people why they are not working; and we rarely ask them. When I think if we asked them, we might find they might say, I am a formerly incarcerated person, and when I check that box, I don't get hired. And if we asked, we might hear it from the person who went to school believing that there might be a guarantee of a job that they find, they might tell us, "When I tell people how many kids I actually have, they don't hire me."

If we asked somebody, we might find out, that while they were trained for one thing, they are not trained in the thing that get people hired now; and so while they worked very hard to get the skills that were meaningful at the time that they were acquiring them, now when they go for jobs, their skills and the jobs are mismatched, and so noone will hire them; too old, noone will hire you; too young, noone will hire you. If the name on the resume is indicative of racial or ethnic background, and without even being conscious of it there's already a negative bias toward that person. We can always come up with excuses why this person is less deserving or that one is more deserving

Finally, let's come back to the question of fairness. Let's be honest. All of us would share the feelings of the first hired hands when they saw that everyone was being paid the same amount. That's not fair; we worked ten hours; they worked one hour; but they got paid the same thing. That's not fair. Those texts give us the opportunity to raise the question, "but is it fair?"

Think about the word and the question of fairness. It is always interesting to see, not that someone raises it, but who raises it, and when. In the story, the men who worked all day didn't ask whether it was fair that they got hired in the first place, while so many others were left in the marketplace. No fairness questions there, when you're the one who made the cut.

When you're the one who got accepted into medical school. No question of fairness. But then, the truth is that none of us got there simply because of hard work - it takes family and teachers and mentors and so on. We are who we are and where we are and what we are in part because somebody hired us; somebody gave us the promotion; somebody invested with us; somebody was generous with us. It is interesting to me that the richest 1% don't lament the universe's unfairness of having more than everyone else, or even the legislative unfairness that structures our economy for the expansion of wealth at the top and the contraction of wealth of the people on the bottom.

I like the question of fairness, but I'm always suspicious of it, because we never ask that question when we're the one who benefits. From the point of view of the landlord (who represents God), it is not a matter of "fairness" or "justice" as we might generally understand those words, but rather does everyone have "enough"- not too little, not too much, but enough.

Hazel Henderson's Layer Cake Economic Model

As the U.S. struggles to recover from deep recession, and while the European economic system is also in crisis, it should be clear to most of us by now that there are some fundamental problems with the world economic system and the measures we use to characterize it's health, such as Gross Domestic Product (GDP) or Gross National Product (GNP).

Ecological economist Hazel Henderson has put together a model in the form of a layer cake that illustrates what is wrong with our customary economic measures. Kentucky farmer Wendell Berry speaks about "two economies," the "Great Economy" which encompasses all creation. Human systems, on the other hand, are "little economies" that depend upon and operate within the Great Economy. And these "little economies" are stable only when they respect the limits of the "Great Economy." So all "little economies" are build on the foundation of "Mother Nature" or "Creation" - the bottom layer of Hazel Henderson's cake.

So, first of all, GDP makes no accounting for the value of natural resources consumed or destroyed by economic activity.

GDP does not reflect:

  • depletion of non-renewable resources, such as coal, oil, natural gas, and uranium;
  • destruction of renewable resources, such as underground aquifers, lakes, streams, ocean fisheries, rain forests, and farm lands; and
  • GDP is not concerned with climate change or the long-term effects of current activities.
One example: Our dominant economic system prioritizes short-term financial gain at a terrible environmental cost - the endangerment and extinction of plant and animal species by the thousands . Just in the last few years, the Baiji Dolphin is gone; the West African Black Rhino, gone; the Golden Toad and the Pyrenean Ibex and the Spix's Macaw, all gone. The World Conservation Union maintains a Red List of Threatened Species, which now includes a quarter of all mammals studied across the globe, almost half of all fish, some 60 % of all flowering plants, almost three fourths of all insects, and over 90 percent of all mosses. (Source: International Union for Conservation of Nature, 2003).

The second layer of the cake, the social cooperative love economy reflects all of the beneficial human labor that is not financially compensated, but is essential to the existence of the monetary economy.

GDP generally does not:

  • count the work of nurturing children or caring for aging or disabled adults at home;
  • acknowledge the hours of unpaid volunteer work that provide many of our community services;
  • include subsistence farming, or commercial transactions that are "off the books."

GDP is not concerned with the number of hours worked or working conditions, nor how wealth is distributed among a nation's residents. If 1% of the population owns half the wealth, that is of no consequence, as long as the total GDP continues to increase.

GDP does, however, include the financial cost of non-productive and destructive activities, such as war, prisons, border patrol, nuclear weapons, spy satellites, predatory lending, and speculative investing. The cost of clean-up for the BP and Exxon oil spills is adds to the GDP.

In short, GDP is a bizarre measure of a nation's welfare.

Resources for Further Study

There are many resources for small group study that combine biblical framework with practical ideas.

These books and other resources are included on the Growing Economic Divide Resource Page.

Last Updated: 10/31/2011
Created: October 31, 2011