Many advocates of “social justice” claim that the Bible requires equalization through wealth redistribution. Some people, thinking that would be unjust, reject the Bible’s authority for that very reason. Libertarian economist Robert Higgs, for instance, in listing proponents of communism, wrote, “Jesus told his disciples to sell all that they owned and give the proceeds to the poor.” A little more careful reading of Jesus’ words and their context (Luke 18:18–30) reveals, however, that Jesus did not tell His disciples to do that. He was speaking to a particular man—the rich young ruler.
The ruler was full of pride and confident that he’d fulfilled God’s commandments from his youth up, though really he had broken the very first, “You shall have no other gods before Me,” by making his riches his god. Jesus recognized that this man had a particular problem, and He prescribed a particular cure, one targeted directly at the problem. The prescription didn’t apply to everyone.
In the very next chapter we read (Luke 19:1–10) that Jesus encountered another person, Zacchaeus. The tax collector was detested by his neighbors for cooperating with the oppressive Romans. He implicitly admitted that he’d overcharged some of his countrymen on their taxes to enrich himself. Zacchaeus came to Jesus humbly, confessing his sin, and announced his willingness to repent by repaying anyone he’d wronged and then giving half of the remainder to the poor. How did Jesus respond? By saying, “Oh, no, Zacchaeus, you must give all you have to the poor”? No. He said, “Today salvation has come to this house”—not, by the way, because Zacchaeus had bought his way into Heaven but “because he, too, is a son of Abraham,” i.e., his actions manifested his faith in God’s covenant with Abraham (Romans 4:9–17, 24–29; 9:1–9).
Contrary to Higgs, then, Jesus didn’t tell His disciples to sell all they had and give everything to the poor.
But there are others—advocates of “social justice”—who still claim the Bible requires equality through at least periodic redistribution of wealth. Unlike Higgs, they profess to accept the Bible’s authority. They claim to find support for wealth redistribution and equalization from four teachings in Scripture.
The Sabbatical Year Law
The first Biblical teaching to which Progressives and other advocates of “social justice” appeal is the Mosaic law’s requirement regarding debts in the Sabbatical year: “At the end of every seven years you must cancel debts” (Deuteronomy 15:1, niv). That seems pretty clear. Or is it? Another translation puts it differently: “At the end of every seven years you shall grant a release” (esv). Do they mean the same thing? More important, what does the underlying Hebrew mean?
The Hebrew translated cancel by the niv and grant a release by the esv is the verb’asah, meaning “to make” or “do,” followed by the noun shemittah, “a letting drop of exactions, a (temporary) remitting.” The word temporary interests us. Was the “release” or “remitting” or “letting drop” of debts a cancellation—permanent? Or was it a suspension—temporary? For the Progressives’ application to be correct, it must be permanent.
The noun shemittah occurs only four times in the Old Testament (Deuteronomy 15:1–2, 9; 31:10), all connected with this law, so OT usage won’t answer the question. However, the noun comes from the verb shamat, “let drop, fall.” Both noun and verb occur in the next verse: “And this is the manner of the release (shemittah): every creditor shall release (shamat) what he has lent to his neighbor. He shall not exact it of his neighbor, his brother, because the Lord’s release (shemittah) has been proclaimed” (Deuteronomy 15:2).
The earliest OT use of shamat is in Exodus 23, again regarding the Sabbatical year. But here it describes what to do not with debts but with land: “For six years you shall sow your land and gather in its yield, but the seventh year you shall let it rest and lie fallow” (Exodus 23:10–11). The phrase “let it rest” translates shamat. Were the Hebrews to abandon a particular plot of ground forever after the Sabbatical year? No, they were to “release” it, “let it rest,” during that year but resume cultivating it the next. The requirements to release land and debts in the Sabbatical year were analogous to the requirement of rest on the weekly Sabbath (Exodus 23:12). Just as people, refreshed by a weekly Sabbath, would return to work after it, so land would be cultivated again, and debtors would resume their payments.
Thus in every instance in which shamat and shemittah occur regarding the Sabbatical year, they must be understood in the sense of a temporary, not a permanent, release. Indeed, Deuteronomy 15:3, “Of a foreigner you may exact it, but whatever of yours is with your brother your hand shall release (shamat),” makes it clear that what the creditor had loaned remained his even during the Sabbatical year—he simply couldn’t collect payments during that year.
In short, the Sabbatical year debt-release law required not permanent cancellation but a year-long suspension of payments so debtors could be refreshed by resting, along with their fellow Israelites, in the Sabbatical year, but creditors would still be repaid.
The Jubilee Year Law
The second Biblical teaching to which Progressives appeal to justify wealth redistribution and equalization is the Jubilee (Leviticus 25).
When God brought Israel into the Promised Land, He divided the land among the tribes, providing each family a plot over which it became steward and that it should hand down to its descendants. However, economic inequalities would develop due to differences in diligence, intelligence, physical ability, soil quality, water supply, oppression by fellow Israelites, invasion by foreigners, or natural tragedies. Except when they resulted from oppression or invasion, however, these were not unjust. But to preserve family unity and possession of land, as well as to restrain any one person from squandering all his descendants’ wealth by contracting debts he could not pay, God gave Israel the Jubilee regulations.
According to these regulations, land in ancient Israel should not be sold permanently, because God asserted a special ownership of it beyond what He asserts over the whole earth (Leviticus 25:23). It could, however, be “sold” temporarily, its price constituting a loan for a term not to exceed the years to the next Jubilee. The price was the value of the intervening harvests (presumably excluding those during Sabbatical years, when land was not to be worked) (Leviticus 25:13–16), “for it is the number of the crops that he is selling to you” (verse 16). Income the buyer (lender) earned from the land during the term of the loan would constitute repayment. So the land would be returned at the end since the loan would have been repaid. Also, if the seller (borrower) offered to repay the loan before its term ended, the buyer (lender) had to accept the offer—the price again calculated by the value of harvests in the intervening years (Leviticus 25:25–28). The land, in other words, would have functioned as collateral. Similar arrangements were made regarding houses (Leviticus 25:26–34) and labor (verses 39–54). The whole system worked out quite similarly to modern mortgage loans: when the borrower pays off the loan, the bank no longer holds a mortgage on the property but must title to the owner.
Careful examination of the Jubilee year’s regulations disproves claims that it required any redistribution or equalization of wealth. The regulations did not cancel or forgive any debt but ensured repayment and then return of collateral. Also, the regulations notably said nothing of newly created wealth. If one farmer produced far more per acre than another or gained riches through industry or trade, the Jubilee regulations didn’t require any redistribution of that wealth or any equality of outcome between him and his neighbors.
Sharing of Goods in the Jerusalem Church
Progressives may try to justify redistribution and equalization by appealing to the so-called “community of goods” practiced by the early Christians in Jerusalem. Acts 2:44–45 and 4:34–35 tell us believers “had all things in common” and “were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need.” In this Christian community, “no one said that any of the things that belonged to him was his own, but they had everything in common.”
One evangelical writer goes so far as to say that because of this “private property was an impossibility.” A liberation theologian comments that here Luke insists on “the universality of communism,” adding, “If [people] wanted to be Christians, the condition was communism.”
But these claims ignore some important facts.
First, the giving was always voluntary, as another incident Luke records shows. When Ananias and Sapphira sold land and laid part of the price at Peter’s feet but alleged that they had given all of it, Peter responded, “Ananias, why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and to keep back for yourself part of the proceeds of the land? While it remained unsold, did it not remain your own? And after it was sold, was it not at your disposal?” (Acts 5:3–4). Peter rebuked the couple—not for holding back their resources, but for lying.
Second, the selling and giving occurred periodically in response to specific needs, not all at once, as would have been required if redistribution and equalization were the goal. How do we know? Because Luke writes not that the Christians “sold their possessions and distributed the proceeds” but that they “were selling . . . and distributing.” This translates Greek verbs in the imperfect tense, which denotes an action that began in the past and continued. People sold bits and pieces of their property from time to time, turning over the proceeds as need arose. If they had sold everything at once, they couldn’t have continued selling.
Third, Luke says “no one said that any of the things that belonged to him was his own.” He does not say “everyone said that whatever belonged to anyone belonged to everyone.” Luke’s point is not about private property, protected by the Eighth Commandment—“Thou shalt not steal.” Rather than abolishing private property, the Christians considered that what belonged to them (note the affirmation of ownership) was entrusted to them by God to serve their fellow Christians. When a Spanish speaker says, “Mi casa es su casa,” he doesn’t mean to deny title but to welcome you hospitably to his home. This was the Christians’ attitude in Jerusalem—and it should be ours.
The Pauline Collections: “That There Might Be Equality”
The fourth Biblical teaching in question is what Paul writes of benevolence—the goal of the collections he took up from churches around the Mediterranean to relieve believers suffering famine in Jerusalem. The New International Version translates 2 Corinthians 8:13–14 thus: “Our desire is not that others might be relieved while you are hard pressed, but that there might be equality. At the present time your plenty will supply what they need, so that in turn their plenty will supply what you need. Then there will be equality.”
If the other passages we’ve examined don’t prove that Scripture requires economic equality, surely this one does! Indeed, Ronald J. Sider wrote that this passage “clearly shows that Paul enunciates the principle of economic equality among the people of God.”
Is this interpretation warranted? You decide. If Paul meant economic equality, then his saying “that … your abundance at the present time should supply their need, so that their abundance may supply your need” would imply that the Corinthians should give materially to the believers in Jerusalem now so that when the positions were reversed those in Jerusalem could give to them. Is that consistent with Jesus’ saying in Luke 6:27–35 that we should give with no expectation of receiving anything in return? Does it fit with the motives Paul said should underlie the giving—grace, joy, generosity, and love (2 Corinthians 8:1–9)?
What then did Paul mean? By writing “in the present time” and using verbs the tense of which implies instantaneous action, Paul emphasized that the effect of the Corinthians’ giving—that their abundance would fill the Jerusalem saints’ lack. In turn, the Jerusalem saints’ abundance would fill the Corinthians’ lack. There would be immediate and simultaneous equality. That is, Paul intended no hint that the Corinthians should give now so that their brothers and sisters in Jerusalem might give later so that then there might be equality. On the contrary, the instant the Corinthians gave, the Jerusalem saints’ lack would be supplied out of the Corinthians’ abundance, and the Corinthians’ lack would be supplied out of the Jerusalem believers’ abundance, and there would be equality.
But what was the Jerusalemites’ abundance? And what was the Corinthians’ lack? It seems at first as if the Corinthians have all the abundance and those in Jerusalem all the lack. Yet Paul insists that the Corinthians have both an abundance and a lack, now. Similarly, the saints in Jerusalem have both a lack and abundance, now. But at the moment the Corinthians give from their abundance to fill the Jerusalemites’ lack, the Jerusalemites’ abundance will meet the Corinthians’ lack. How can that be?
The key is what Paul has observed among the Corinthians: a tendency to boast of a generosity they had not yet exercised. Paul wants them to prove the love of which they have boasted (verse 8). They had begun the collection a year before, but they had not finished it (verse 10). Now they need to complete it, so that their “readiness in desiring it may be matched by [their] completing it” (verse 11). “So give proof before the churches of your love and of our boasting about you,” Paul tells them in conclusion (verse 24).
What the Corinthians lack is the fulfillment of their promise and desire to give generously; the moment they do so, their lack will be met, and so will be the financial lack of those in Jerusalem. What the saints in Jerusalem have in abundance is precisely their material lack—and the moment that is filled up by the Corinthians’ giving, so will be the lack of those in Corinth.
And that will be the equality achieved—an equality in which a material lack becomes a material abundance and a spiritual lack becomes a spiritual abundance.
While the Bible clearly instructs God’s people to give generously to the poor and even warns of God’s own judgment for failure to do so (Deuteronomy 15), nowhere does it make such giving enforceable by human law. That is, it never empowers the state to force such giving, whether through a tax-and-welfare system or in any other way.
The forced redistribution of wealth demanded in the name of “social justice” is really injustice. Why? Because it violates justice as defined by the Bible: rendering impartially and proportionally to everyone his due according to the righteous standard of God’s moral law, a definition I have defended in my booklet Social Justice vs. Biblical Justice: How Good Intentions Undermine Justice and Gospel and my earlier book Prosperity and Poverty: The Compassionate Use of Resources in a World of Scarcity.
Calvin Beisner, Ph.D., former Associate Professor of Historical Theology and Social Ethics at Knox Theological Seminary (2000–2008) and of Interdisciplinary Studies at Covenant College (1992–2000), is Founder and National Spokesman of The Cornwall Alliance for the Stewardship of Creation, author of a dozen books including Psalms of Promise: Celebrating the Majesty and Faithfulness of God and Answers for Atheists, Agnostics, and Other Thoughtful Skeptics: Dialogs about Christian Faith and Life. He writes frequently for a wide variety of publications.
- Robert Higgs, “Communism’s Persistent Pull,” The Beacon Blog, December 9, 2010, online December 11, 2010, at http://www.independent.org/blog/index.php?p=8826.
- Francis Brown, S. R. Driver, and Charles A. Briggs, edd., A Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1907, 1953, 1978), p. 1030; boldface and parentheses original.
- The verb shamat appears elsewhere in the OT only five times (2 Samuel 6:6 [parallel to 1 Chronicles 13:9]; 2 Kings 9:33; Psalm 141:6; Jeremiah 17:4). In none is a permanent dropping implied, and in the last the context shows that it must be temporary.
- Arthur G. Gish, Living in Christian Community (Scottsdale, PA: Herald Press, 1979), 70.
- José Porfirio Miranda, Communism in the Bible, translated by Robert R. Barr (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1982), 7.
- Ronald J. Sider, Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger, 2d ed. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1984), 96, 98.
- See R. C. H. Lenski, The Interpretation of I and II Corinthians (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1963), 1145–1147.