Economic Justice

Mishpat and Tzedekah:          Economic Justice


We have been considering the dual biblical injunctions to justice: Mishpat—the legal, judge and court decisions; and Tzedekah—the social application of just principles often translated ‘righteousness’ in English and ‘rectitud’ in Spanish. 


Last week we explored how the court decisions around the equal rights of women (mishpat) have taken over 100 years to work their way into the social justice or righteous action (tzedakah) of the society as a whole…and have still not been fully realized.


Today I want to look at the ways in which scripture defines and expects divine justice to extend into the economic sphere as economic justice which addresses another ‘ism’ in our society: Classism or the divide between rich and poor.  The essence of the biblical vision is that the goods of Creation are given to humanity to provide for ALL, not to be exploited by the few to the detriment of the many.


Though this is articulated and supported throughout the bible, this post will look specifically at three instances where this divine directive is presented:

      -Land distribution for the People of Israel and the concept of Jubilee

      -Prophetic denunciation of the lack of this distribution and at the abuse of the powerful who

            hoard and control the land and its produce

      -Early Christian practices of the distribution of their wealth and resources

We will find that in all three of these arenas of biblical witness there is a clear divine directive to share and not to hoard or exploit in a way the injures the poor, or creates poverty


Distribution of Land

When the twelve tribes of Israel entered the promised land, Joshua issued what amounted to land grants to each of the twelve tribes except for one…the Levites.  Why? Because the Levites were the tribe that was commissioned to care for the Tabernacle, (and later the Temple) and Israel’s worship.  They were to have no land, but the rest of the tribes were to support them through the giving of their tithes and offerings.  In this way important lessons were imbedded in the nation’s understanding:

      First, the land belonged to God…they were simply tenants, who were obligated to give a 10%

            tithe and the first fruits of the land and of the animals supported by the land to God, and in

            doing so support the landless tribe of Levi.  This is the lesson of Gratitude, that also

            reinforced Who the land really belonged to!

      Second, by supporting the tribe of landless Levites the practice of sharing with those who have no

            access to capital (in this case land) was to become embedded in the practice of the nation. 

            This is the lesson of Generosity.  We are blessed in order to pass along the blessing.


The articulation of these lessons is celebrated in the first line of Psalm 24, traditionally translated like this:  “The earth is the Lord’s and all the fullness thereof”   But equally legitimate is this translation which makes even clearer the theology of the land: “The land belongs to God and everything it produces.”


Sabbatical Year and the Provision of Jubilee (Leviticus 25)


Leviticus 25 extends the concept of Sabbath to the Land.  Keeping the Sabbath, which for many Christians means something altogether different from its original design, not only pertained to the ceasing of labor on the day of rest, but extended to the importance of giving the land a rest as well!  Every seventh year the land was to lie fallow and not be planted so that it could recover strength and fertility.  This practice guarded against the over exploitation of the land for personal profit.  (Something our own agricultural community could stand to learn!) The land can be depleted and will stop producing if it is not given a rest as well.  This is a lesson in not exploiting a resource for personal enrichment.


Even more surprising is the establishment of the Jubilee year which is detailed in this same chapter.  After 7 sabbath years (7 x7=49 years) the following year would be considered a Year of Jubilee, an extraordinary concept of both debt relief and redistribution of the nation’s wealth.  During a Jubilee year, all land was to return to the original family of ownership.  Yes, you read that right.  Given back.  Period.  If you had acquired the land through a sale, you had to return it to the original family.  You had been able to use the resource for a number of years, but now it must revert to the original owners.  Why?

“The land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is Mine;

with me you are but aliens and tenants” Lev. 25:23

The land was to serve the WHOLE of Israel, not just a few families.  Even if a few managed to secure large land holdings over their lifetime, the benefit could not be exploited for more than two generations.  Otherwise entire clans would be perpetually dispossessed and unable to rise out of poverty.  This is the lesson of redistribution of wealth for the good of the whole community.


Furthermore, in a Jubilee year all debts were cancelled, thus prohibiting crushing indebtedness across generations, and disrupting the capacity of the wealthy and powerful few to economically enslave others for their personal gain.  This is a lesson prohibiting the enrichment of few through the indebtedness of the many.


My friend Edgardo Garcia, who works in Guatemala with World Vision, a global relief organization, told me the story of being in a combine in Iowa with a family farmer as he harvested his corn crop.  Edgardo was describing to him how the small Guatemalan indigenous farmers were being squeezed out of their farms by big agribusiness in the country.  They were being crushed with debt and unable to pay had to sell off their land.  The American farmer stopped the combine, climbed out and grabbed a few ears of corn from his field and handed them to Edgardo.  “Tell my Guatemalan brothers I know their pain!  The same thing is happening to small family farmers here in the US as well!” 


This reality, in the US as well as many other nations is exactly what the Jubilee year was designed to prevent.  When people permanently lose access to the capital necessary to provide for themselves, the cancer of poverty begins to spread.


This Mishpat of Divine Justice regarding the land was, unfortunately not always accompanied by the Tedekah of the social righteousness necessary for it to benefit the people.  There were many in leadership and in power who refused to embody the principles laid out in the Torah.   When they didn’t, it was the role of the Prophets to denounce their failure to act justly.  There are so many instances of this prophetic outcry that I cannot begin to mention them all but I will share three to give an idea:


      -In Isaiah 3:13-15…YHWH is presenting a case in the court of the cosmos and rises to argue

            the divine case against Israel’s leadership who have:

                  “devoured the vineyards of the poor and who have their

                  rightful produce in their homes; who crush my people and

                  grind the face of the poor”

The elders and princes of the people have acquired the properties of the less fortunate and have taken the produce that would have sustained them economically and put it in their own homes and storehouses.  God’s wrath is kindled against them for their failure to embody the social justice which would require of them a more equitable and just sharing of the wealth from that land.



      -In Isaiah 10:1-4…The prophet lashes out against the wealthy who create laws that rob the

            poor of Their rightful share and turn away the needy form the justice they deserve:

Ah, you who make iniquitous decrees,
    who write oppressive statutes,
to turn aside the needy from justice
    and to rob the poor of my people of their right,
that widows may be your spoil,
    and that you may make the orphans your prey!
What will you do on the day of punishment,
    in the calamity that will come from far away?
To whom will you flee for help,
    and where will you leave your wealth,
so as not to crouch among the prisoners
    or fall among the slain?
For all this his anger has not turned away;
    his hand is stretched out still.

The judgment of God is ready to strike down those who use the legal system to accrue power, privilege and wealth for themselves at the expense of the vulnerable poor.  God’s wrath is kindled against such leaders who manipulate Mishpat justice for their own personal gain and who show no desire to embody the Tzedekah righteousness that would open their hands to redistribute some of their plenty to those who have little or nothing.  


      – Amos 4:1-2… The prophet does not mince words when he lambasts the wealthy women of


Hear this word, you cows of Bashan
    who are on Mount Samaria,
who oppress the poor, who crush the needy,
    who say to their husbands, “Bring something to drink!”
The Lord God has sworn by his holiness:
    The time is surely coming upon you,
when they shall take you away with hooks,
    even the last of you with fishhooks.

The image of these ample women of wealth hauled away on meat hooks as judgment for their failure to embody the principles of economic justice in their treatment of the less advantaged is horrific, and illustrates the outrage that the prophets felt at the failure of the upper class to recognize their responsibility to share their wealth.


For the prophets, when the sharing of wealth does not include the poor…Judgment is coming.  When the poor have taken from them the means of support…God will avenge them.



Finally, I would like to examine Early Christian Practice of Economic Justice:


      John the Baptist: Luke 3:10-14

            John, the Voice in the Wilderness calling all of Judea to repentance is questioned by some of

            those who come to see him in the desert…

And the crowds asked him (John), “What then should we do?” 11 In reply he said to them, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” 12 Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, “Teacher, what should we do?” 13 He said to them, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” 14 Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what should we do?” He said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.”

In his response the divine directives to share, to not exploit, and to not use power to take what is not yours are all reinforced.  John clearly understands how divine justice is to be lived out in in the social righteousness of relationships with others in society.


We also know from John 13:29 that Jesus and his disciples kept a common purse administered by Judas.  From this common purse they paid for their expenses and also gave to the poor.  The practice of the 12 was to share equitably what they had with each other and with those less fortunate.  They embodied in their practice the tzedekah of divine justice in the economic realm.


Even more compelling is the witness in the book of Acts to the spontaneous way in which the first respondents to the Spirit’s outpouring at Pentecost organized their economic life together.  It is a clear example of what God invites us to, (and predates Karl Marx by about 1900 years!!).  The Spirit of God, when allowed to flow freely, transforms our selfishness into the selflessness which allows all to have what they need.


“All who believed were together and had all things in

common;  they would sell their possessions and goods

and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need” Acts 2:44


“Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common. 33 With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. 34 There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. 35 They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.” Acts 4:32-35


Lastly, in the Epistle of James, one of the lead apostles in Jerusalem where this outpouring of the Spirit took place, clearly connects the nature of true faith and the actions that demonstrate it.  If one is to claim faith in God, but is unable to share with someone in need, then such faith is worthless.   Faithfulness to the divine directive of justice requires a follower of Jesus to embody the kind of trust in God that is not afraid to share of one’s wealth for the benefit of those in need.


“What good is it, my brothers and sisters,[e] if you say you

have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? 15 If

a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, 16 and one

of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your

fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is

the good of that?  James 2:14-16


In conclusion, the consistent witness from the Scriptures of Old and New Testament is that God desires both the Mishpat of legal justice that supports the economically disadvantaged, and the Tzedekah of social righteousness or social justice which creates a community that lives by the lessons of sharing with those in need, redistributing wealth to the benefit of the whole community and generously sharing because that is the way we remind ourselves regularly that nothing is ours…it all belongs to God and we are to do with what we have in accord with God’s wishes, not our own.