The Law of God and Public Policy: Justice (4)
“For the poor will never cease from the land; therefore I command you, saying, ‘You shall open your hand wide to your brother, to your poor and your needy, in your land.’” Deuteronomy 15.11
They desired only that we should remember the poor, the very thing which I also was eager to do. Galatians 2.10
For even when we were with you, we commanded you this: If anyone will not work, neither shall he eat. 2 Thessalonians 3.10
Justice and love
Justice reflects the being and character of God. It is a gem with five facets. Each facet lends color to all the others, and each blends with the others to create a gem radiant as God Himself.
Justice defines God’s will for how human beings can live together in society based on mutual love and respect. Justice, as explained in the Scriptures, is a source of wisdom, comity, peace, respect, and wellbeing in any society. It has no saving merit; however, it can be a powerful means for spreading the grace of God throughout a community or nation and for providing the kind of social soil in which the Gospel can flourish.
The Law of God outlines the demands and promises of justice and represents justice as taking various forms, among these obligatory and preventive justice. We have already seen that people and societies tend to recognize the validity of these forms of justice and establish covenants, rules, statutes, and common-sense practices to make sure these forms of justice are working among them.
But how does a just society relate to those in its midst who are not flourishing, but rather, are barely able to contribute to the wellbeing of the community because of their being poor? What does justice for the poor entail, according to the Law of God?
The Scriptures and the poor
The Bible does not teach a preference for the poor, as though merely being poor were some virtue in itself. Indeed, some may be poor because they are simply unwilling to work (Prov. 29.7). The apostle Paul explained that such people deserve the fruit of their lethargy and are not to be cared for by the community. All who are able are expected to work, not just so that they can provide for themselves, but so that they may have wealth and possessions to share with those who are truly in need (Eph. 4.28). This is true of the poor as well, as we shall see in subsequent installments.
Thus we see in the New Testament, in the Kingdom of God, the embrace and continuation of the third facet of Biblical justice, distributive justice that is, recognition of and concern for the poor and others in need. Distributive justice derives from our obligation to love our neighbors and serves to prevent injustice against those who are in need. Thus, with distributive justice—a third facet of the gem of God’s Law—we begin to see how the entire Law works together to bring the beauty of justice to a community or nation.
The Old Testament statutes requiring landowners not to harvest all their produce—to leave grain and dropped bundles of harvest, as well as grapes on the vine and olives in the trees—allowed the poor in Israel to have something to glean and thus, through honest labor, to provide for their needs. The land, after all, belonged to the Lord, as did all the harvest He regularly provided.
It is the responsibility of the people in a local community to distribute freely of their goods to those who are in need among them. Whether such people have become poor through some unforeseeable exigency or emergency, or are proper immigrants or disabled, or otherwise poor through no fault of their own, justice requires that they be provided for, according to their need, by the community in which they live. Local communities recognize this responsibility and typically offer a variety of ways to meet this need—second-hand shops, food kitchens and stores, charitable contributions, and so forth. Christians and churches have, to their credit, been among the most consistent in creating and supporting such efforts.
Beyond the poor
The practice of caring for the poor was the responsibility of families (Deut. 15.7, 8), in the first instance, and of the communities in which poor people lived. Distributive justice is thus a concern of local government.
Distributive justice intersects with obligatory justice in various ways. We can see this with respect to religious workers. Priests and Levites, who did not own property in ancient Israel, and whose working life was devoted not to creating material wealth but to nurturing spiritual health and wellbeing, did not have the time to provide for their own needs. This was the responsibility of the community served by such people, through their tithes and offerings.
The apostle Paul applied this statute to a church’s responsibility to provide for its pastor (1 Cor. 9. 13, 14). He quoted “the law of Moses” to chasten the people who had failed in their obligation to support him (1 Cor. 9.8-11; cf. Deut. 25.4). In Galatians 6 he broadened this application: “Let him who is taught the word share in all good things with him who teaches” (Gal. 6.6). And in Romans 15.27, citing the financial gifts of Greek Christians to the suffering believers in Judea: “It pleased them indeed, and they are their debtors. For if the Gentiles have been partakers of their spiritual things, their duty is also to minister to them in material things.”
In ancient Israel, distributive justice also worked to make sure that inheritances were kept intact and could be passed on to legitimate heirs without interference or loss. Government intervention to seize part of one’s inheritance was unthinkable.
The timely payment of wages also falls under this facet of Biblical justice. Workers and employers were expected to reach agreement on compensation, worker by worker. And employers were required to distribute those wages in a fair and timely manner. The apostle James invoked the Old Testament Law—a combining of its obligatory and distributive facets—against those believers who were not adhering to it: “Indeed the wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, cry out; and the cries of the reapers have reached the ears of the Lord of Sabaoth” (Jms. 5.4; cf. Lev. 19.13).
It is important to remember that the various facets of God’s Law are not separate but overlapping, interconnecting, and mutually reinforcing. We see this clearly in the matter of distributive justice. This makes the Law a strong resource for establishing public policies that reflect the goodness, fairness, righteousness, truth, and justice of God.
1. How would you explain distributive justice to a fellow believer?
2. How can we see the various facets of justice beginning to overlap and interconnect in distributive justice?
3. How can you see, in your own community, that the sense of distributive justice is active?
Next steps—Preparation: What Christian entities exist in your community for helping the poor? How are they supported? Does your church support any of these? How can such entities help you in fulfilling your commitment to distributive justice?
T. M. Moore
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Except as indicated, all Scriptures are taken from the New King James Version. © Copyright 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.