Wednesday, August 29, 2012
One of the unfortunate characteristics of a free market economy is that fact that it can often produce vast disparities of wealth. It takes the entire workforce to create wealth, but once it is created it is usually not distributed evenly. Those at the top of the corporate ladder are often rewarded with generous compensation packages, , while the ordinary wage earner is often forced to live from paycheck to paycheck. Those who control land and capital can realize large amounts of "passive" income, which under American tax law is often taxed at a lower rate than earned income. Meanwhile those at the bottom of the economic ladder sometimes cannot find work and are forced to depend on public charity for the bare essentials. In a free market economy extremes of wealth and poverty often exist side by side.
So what should the rich do with their money? Or, more to the point, what does God want them to do with their wealth?
The basic moral principle is stated in Deuteronomy 15, verses 7,8 and 11: "If there is among you a poor man of your brethren, within any of the gates in your land which the Lord your God is giving you, you shall not harden your heart from your poor brother, but you shall open your hand wide to him and willingly lend him sufficient for his need, whatever he needs . . .For the poor will never cease from the land; therefore I command you, saying, 'You shall open you hand wide to your brother, to your poor and your needy, in your land'" (NKJV).
To understand why God puts such an emphasis on the care of the poor it is necessary to understand something of His own character. At that dramatic moment on Mt. Sinai when God revealed Himself to Moses, "the Lord passed before him and proclaimed 'The Lord, the Lord God, merciful and gracious, longsuffering, and abounding in goodness and truth . . .'" (Ex. 34:6). This mercy and grace especially reveal themselves in God's care for the poor: "He administers justice for the fatherless and the widow, and loves the stranger, giving him food and clothing" (Dt. 10:18).
This is why God wants us to care for the poor – we are supposed to imitate Him. "He who oppresses the poor reproaches his maker, / But he who honors Him has mercy on the needy" (Prov. 14:31).
The concern that God has for the poor is reflected in the social and economic legislation that He gave Israel. It contained provisions for the private relief of the poor including gleaning laws, sabbatical years, and restrictions on the transfer of property, interest, and withholding wages. It was, and remains, a remarkably humane legal code.
In the Old Testament Job epitomized the proper attitude befitting a wealthy man. ". . . I delivered the poor who cried out, / The fatherless and the one who had no helper. / The blessing of a perishing man came upon me, / And I cause the widow's heart to sing for joy. / . . .I was eyes to the blind, and I was feet to the lame. / I was a father to the poor . . ." (Job 29:12-16).
God gives us a stern warning of what will happen if we mistreat the poor: "If you afflict them in any way, and they cry out to Me, I will surely hear their cry; and My wrath will become hot, and I will kill you with the sword; your wives shall be widows, and your children fatherless" (Ex. 22: 23,24).
Our obligation, then, is clear and straightforward: "Learn to do good; / Seek justice, / Rebuke the oppressor; / Defend the fatherless, / Plead for the widow" (Isa. 1:17). That is what God expects from us as individuals and as a nation.
Strictly speaking, America is not a "Christian nation," and for that reason pure socialism would never work here as an economic system. But Americans are still human beings and have consciences, and are therefore capable of recognizing and responding to human need. It behooves us as a nation to take steps to ameliorate the adverse effects of a free market. We should never adopt a policy of "laissez-faire," allowing people to starve or to go without medical care. To turn a blind eye and a deaf ear to human distress is to invite the judgment of God.