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(Mis)interpreting Scripture on Issues of Justice, Wealth, Poverty, and Property

My following outline of notes engage the argument of Jose Miranda, Marx and the Bible (London: SCM and Orbis Press, NY, 1977), pp. 14-22, as reproduced in Robin Gill, ed., A Textbook of Christian Ethics (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1985), pp. 278-287.  Miranda represents one argument among liberation theologians--perhaps an extreme position (and note the date of his publication).  He maintains that private property ownership is unbiblical and unchristian, and he is quite eager to argue for a Marxist interpretation of Scripture on the issue of wealth, poverty, and property.  In my view, Miranda is easily criticized for poor scholarship, but seeing where his interpretation goes wrong and why is a helpful exercise in exploring how to engage Scripture on the issues of justice, wealth, poverty, and property.


I. One must appreciate the tenor of Miranda's appeal, that Christianity affects us not only in our
         faith but also in our treatment of others and in what we do with our wealth.  This is truly Biblical.
            A. Righteousness does touch our wealth.  Lk. 16.21ff; Mt. 25.31ff. 

II. Miranda does not establish a proper connection between giving alms and doing justice, since he
misunderstands Biblical justice.  He rather has in mind a communist notion of justice.  Also, while he claims that almsgiving is to do justice (12.1), he fails to prove this from Scripture.
A. His citation of Apocryphal texts will not have much appeal to Protestant readers.
B. The texts from the Protestant Scriptures which he does cite are relevant for a discussion
of poverty, wealth, and justice, but they do not show how almsgiving can be equated with justice.
1. Prov. 10.2 has to do not with almsgiving but ill-gotten treasures.
2. Dan. 4.24 [4.27: ‘Therefore, O king, may my counsel be acceptable to you: atone
for your sins with righteousness, and your iniquities with mercy to the oppressed, so that your prosperity may be prolonged.’] calls upon the king to renounce his sins by doing what is right, his wickedness by being kind to the oppressed.  His wickedness need not be a failure to give to the poor but an abuse of the poor—this is not clarified.  But his sin is clearly pride in his own accomplishments instead of acknowledging God.  Thus Daniel’s remedy in v. 27 is more a standard call to help the needy that the King might avoid judgement.  (See further, below.)
3. Mt. 6.1-2: calls almsgiving, as well as prayer and fasting, "acts of righteousness." 
Is this the narrow "justice" or is it the broader "righteousness," in which case the notion may easily be that almsgiving is an instance of piety and not a doing what is required.  This certainly makes greater sense in the context, with its association with prayer and fasting.
C. Interpreting the Hebrew word "tsadikah" as "justice" in the sense of restitution that someone makes
for something that is not his’ or getting what one "deserves", and then relating this to "almsgiving"    is to misunderstand the true meaning of "tsadikah" and its relationship to helping the poor.
1.     The word, as C.S. Mott shows (Biblical Ethics and Social Change.  Oxford University Press, 1982.), is used in the OT to refer not simply to justice but God's "creative" righting of wrong, showing favour to the less fortunate, even God's reaching out to the undeserving.  Creative justice restores to the poor their position of independent economic and political power in the community.  "Justice must be partial to be impartial" (Mott, p. 66.  Thus almsgiving might be an instance of "tsadikah" not as justice but God's creative righteousness, His lovingkindness.  Biblical language of "righteousness" is more than the language of "rights" and "equality"; it has to do with merciful care of the needy grounded in God's character of lovingkindness.  "Justice" will have more to do with punishment of those who take advantage of the plight of the poor and weak.
2. Thus M.'s citations fail to establish the point:
a.     Ps. 112.3,9: God's enduring righteousness is demonstrated through His scattering abroad gifts to the poor.  This shows "creative justice," not giving back what is rightfully theirs.
b.     Jer. 22.13: ‘Woe to him who builds his palace by unrighteousness, his upper rooms by injustice, making his countrymen work for nothing, not paying them for their labour.’  Here we have unrighteousness of not giving what one deserves, although one should note that it is deserved because they worked for it—the notion of ‘ownership’ is assumed.
3. Christian "duty" is based on more than "justice"; it is based more firmly on God's
         merciful character.  Hence 2 Cor. 8.8-9: not a command but a test of sincere love, based on Christ's example.  Kingdom righteousness, based on God's character (Mt. 5.48), means going beyond "law" (Mt. 5.20).  Thus Miranda's deontological argument in fact fails to emphasise how important almsgiving is; if it is based not on law but on our relationship to God (Mt. 6: "then your Father, who sees in secret....")
4.     Thus certain OT texts also emphasise the "requirement" of helping the poor (refs. from W. Kaiser, Toward OT Ethics, pp. 158-163).  These references are largely based on how God has treated Israel.  Failure to protect and help the poor is unrighteousness; helping them is righteousness.  Justice is present in this idea, but more than justice too—mercy, as God has shown Israel mercy.  It is not M.'s call for justice toward the poor that is at fault but his reduction of concern for the poor to "justice."  Such a reduction is fraught with errors shown elsewhere in this response.  Let us here affirm the positive side of M.'s argument (with references  from Walter Kaiser, Towards Old Testament Ethics):
a.     Jubilee:
1. Dt. 15.7-11: there is among you anyone in need, a member of
your community in any of your towns within the land that the LORD your God is giving you, do not be hard-hearted or tight-fisted toward your needy neighbor. 8 You should rather open your hand, willingly lending enough to meet the need, whatever it may be. 9 Be careful that you do not entertain a mean thought, thinking, "The seventh year, the year of remission, is near," and therefore view your needy neighbor with hostility and give nothing; your neighbor might cry to the LORD against you, and you would incur guilt. 10 Give liberally and be ungrudging when you do so, for on this account the LORD your God will bless you in all your work and in all that you undertake. 11 Since there will never cease to be some in need on the earth, I therefore command you, "Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land."
2.     Lev. 25.35: If any of your kin fall into difficulty and become dependent on you, you shall support them; they shall live with you as though resident aliens.
                                    b. Is. 58: ‘…oppress all your workers’ (v. 3).  ‘…Is not this the fast that
         I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? 7 Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin? (vv. 6-7).
c. Job 29.12-16; 31.16-22: Job’s righteousness described in terms of concern
         for the needy:
1.     Job 29.12-16: ‘because I delivered the poor who cried, and the
orphan who had no helper. 13 The blessing of the wretched came upon me, and I caused the widow's heart to sing for joy. 14 I put on righteousness, and it clothed me; my justice was like a robe and a turban. 15 I was eyes to the blind, and feet to the lame. 16 I was a father to the needy, and I championed the cause of the stranger.
                                                2. Job 31.16-21: ‘"If I have withheld anything that the poor
         desired, or have caused the eyes of the widow to fail, 17 or have eaten my morsel alone, and the orphan has not eaten from it-- 18 for from my youth I reared the orphan like a father, and from my mother's womb I guided the widow-- 19 if I have seen anyone perish for lack of clothing, or a poor person without covering, 20 whose loins have not blessed me, and who was not warmed with the fleece of my sheep; 21 if I have raised my hand against the orphan, because I saw I had supporters at the gate;
                                    d. Help for the widows and orphans:
1.     Ex. 22.22-27: ‘21 You shall not wrong or oppress a resident
alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt. 22 You shall not abuse any widow or orphan. 23 If you do abuse them, when they cry out to me, I will surely heed their cry; 24 my wrath will burn, and I will kill you with the sword, and your wives shall become widows and your children orphans. 25 If you lend money to my people, to the poor among you, you shall not deal with them as a creditor; you shall not exact interest from them. 26 If you take your neighbor's cloak in pawn, you shall restore it before the sun goes down; 27 for it may be your neighbor's only clothing to use as cover; in what else shall that person sleep? And if your neighbor cries out to me, I will listen, for I am compassionate.’  N.B.: compassion, not justice in the sense of giving the people what is theirs already, is the basis for this moral law.
2.     Ps. 146.9: ‘The LORD watches over the strangers; he upholds
the orphan and the widow, but the way of the wicked he brings to ruin.
                                                3. Prov. 15.25: ‘The LORD tears down the house of the proud, but
         maintains the widow's boundaries.
                                                4. ‘In all civil suits, she was to receive the benefit of doubt’
         Exod. 22.21: (above)
Deut. 10.18: ‘who executes justice for the orphan and the
widow, and who loves the strangers, providing them food and clothing.
Deut. 27.19: ‘"Cursed be anyone who deprives the alien, the
orphan, and the widow of justice." All the people shall say, "Amen!"
Is. 1.17, 23: learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow…. 23 our princes are rebels and companions of thieves. Everyone loves a bribe and runs after gifts. They do not defend the orphan, and the widow's cause does not come before them.
Jer. 7.6: ‘if you do not oppress the alien, the orphan, and the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not go after other gods to your own hurt,’
Jer. 22.3: Thus says the LORD: Act with justice and righteousness, and deliver from the hand of the oppressor anyone who has been robbed. And do no wrong or violence to the alien, the orphan, and the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place.
Zech. 7.10: ‘do not oppress the widow, the orphan, the alien, or the poor; and do not devise evil in your hearts against one another.’
Mal. 3.5: ‘Then I will draw near to you for judgment; I will be swift to bear witness against the sorcerers, against the adulterers, against those who swear falsely, against those who oppress the hired workers in their wages, the widow and the orphan, against those who thrust aside the alien, and do not fear me, says the LORD of hosts.’
5. Once every 3 years a tithe of the harvest was shared with
         widows, orphans, Levites, and aliens (Dt. 14.28-29; 26.12-13).
6. God is "father of fatherless" (Ps. 68.5; cf. Ps. 10.14).
7. "Only a corrupt society would dare extort and cheat these little
ones [=orphans]” (Is. 10.2; Ezek. 22.7).
                                                8. Orphans were wandering beggars (Ps. 109.9-10).
9. Warnings against exploiting the orphans: Dt. 27.19; Job 6.27;
         22.9; 24.3,9; Jer. 5.28.
10. Yahweh executes justice for the fatherless: Dt. 10.18; cf. Ps.
146.9; Prov. 23.10-11; Hos. 14.3).
e. Don't oppress foreigners and strangers: Ex. 22.21; 23.9.

III. Miranda does not establish that private ownership of property equals injustice.
A. The textual basis is lacking for this argument.
1.     Dn. 4.27, cited by M. shows the opposite: the king is offered the hope that his
prosperity will “continue" should he renounce sins and wickedness.  The king's real error is failing to recognise that he has a Master.  This is similar to Eph. 6.9, where the slave's Christian master should remember that he too has a master.  Wealth and ownership are not denounced as evil but failing to remember God is.
2. Acts 5.4: private ownership was renounced by ‘choice’.
3. The attitude toward wealth described in 1 Tim. 6.17ff does not insist on
                                       renouncing ownership:
‘As for those who in the present age are rich, command them not to be haughty, or to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but rather on God who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. 18 They are to do good, to be rich in good works, generous, and ready to share, 19 thus storing up for themselves the treasure of a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of the life that really is life.’
4. In point of fact, some Christians owned houses (Rom. 16.5,10,11).
5.     The Year of Renouncing Debt and the Jubilee Year (Dt. 15; Lev. 25) were times of returning land property to families.  Thus one could not amass wealth through land not because the land belonged to no one but because the land belonged eternally to the families to whom it was originally given.  The idea was that, in an agricultural society, loss of land meant being eternally condemned to poverty.  Not only so, but the laws did not affect property owned in walled cities.
6. The Decalogue assumes and affirms private ownership: do not covet; do not steal. 
         Laws regarding ownership of property are therefore listed: Ex. 22.1-15; 23.4-5; Dt. 22.1-4; 23.24-25.  Making loans assumes possession: Dt. 24.10-13.  Boundary markers should not be moved: Dt. 27.17.  One is liable for his property causing injury: Ex. 21.28-36.
B. M. rather assumes what he wishes to prove, believing that wealth is the same thing as ill-
begotten wealth.  But Scripture does not identify these.
C. Miranda does not critically examine the pastristic evidence which he cites in favour of
identifying almsgiving with doing justice.  As M. Hengel suggests, the real ground for the pastristic critique of private property might well be from Graeco-Roman philosophy (Property and Riches in the Early Church).

IV. Miranda does not demonstrate a relationship between making profit and injustice.  M. believes
            that ownership in itself, not abuses of ownership, is denounced by Jesus.
A.    His use of Scripture is again wanting.
1.     Lk. 1.53: M. comments on this verse that "it is impossible for this wealth to have
been acquired without violence and spoliation" (p. 282).  This begs the question: "Is all wealth such wealth?"
2.     Mk. 10.25; Mt. 19.24; Lk. 18.25: M. says that differentiating wealth (that which constitutes one class over against others in a given society), not abuses of ownership, is wealth which excludes from the kingdom because it cannot but be ill-gained wealth.  M. cites several scholars to argue that the command to give up one’s possessions must be from Jesus, whereas the generalising ‘how difficult it is to be save’ is likely from a redactor (12.10).  The problem with this as a conclusion that all should give up ownership is (1) elsewhere Jesus says conflicting things with this passage (hence it should not be generalised): he refuses to pronounce on an inheritance dispute but uses it as an occasion to warn against the abundance of wealth (Lk. 12.13ff); he commends Zacchaeus for giving up part of his wealth (Lk. 19); he commends the use of money for .  (2) ‘Grace’ in salvation is a fundamental theology for the restoration from exile (e.g., Ez. 36), and so it need not be a later church redaction softening Jesus’ statement; (3) the basis for giving up wealth in this passage is not the injustices of ownership but the demands of the Kingdom on discipleship (cf. Mt. 10.37ff).
3. Mt. 25.31-46: The "just" are those who give.  By being called "just" they are not
         identified as ones whose works are those of "supererogation", as M. understands the passage.  Once again, M. hopes to interpret "dikaios" as "just" in a juridical sense rather than a sense of "righteousness".  While the context is one of judgement, the Matthean ethic identifies the righteousness of the Kingdom of Heaven not with acts of justice but a life of righteousness (e.g., mercy is included: Mt. 15.21).  M. cannot therefore conclude that almsgiving is justice and deduce from that that owning property is sinful.  Kingdom righteousness calls for more than justice from those who hope to be justified.
4. Jer. 22.14 condemns King Shalum (Jehoahaz, not Jehoiakim, as Miranda says) for
building a luxurious home from (undoubtedly) profits, says Miranda.  Quite clearly, the passage refers to abuse of workers.
5. Miranda wishes to show from Jer. 22.1 “that profit is the tangible concretisation
         of the difference in incomes, and this leads to private ownership, principles learned from "economic theory" (12.15).  The text is pressed into hard service for this point.  It is rather a typical text in the prophets referring to exploitation of others for one's own gain.
1.     Amos (5.11; 3.9-10): rather than proving his point through citing Amos, he actually proves the alternative, that houses were built by trampling on the poor, extortion through levies of wheat (M.12.16,17).
7. Mic. 3.9-10 is said by M. to refer to differentiating ownership.  Rather, it refers to
         mistreatment of the poor.  Cf. 3.11ff.  It is neither ownership per se nor differentiating ownership but unfair treatment of the poor that is spoken of.
8. Hab. 2.6b-8; 9-112 is said by M. to attack profit (M., 12.19).  What the text really
         addresses is wealth gained through extortion, stealing.  The prophet neither opposes wealth per se nor gain per se.

V. Miranda fails to account for Biblical support for positions contrary to his own thesis.  This has
already been shown above on the issue of ownership of private property.  Now let it be shown on the issues of what Scripture says about wealth and poverty.
A. Wealth
1.     May be a reward for faithfulness to God, righteousness (Job 42.12-17; Gen.
22.15-18; Prov. 13.21)
2. May be a result of pursuing "wisdom", i.e., fear of the Lord (Prov. 3.16; cf. 1.7)
3. May be a result of diligence (Prov. 14.23)
4. OT does temper the praise of wealth, though:
a.     Prov. 11.4: "Wealth is worthless in the day of wrath, but righteousness
delivers from death."  Cf. Prov. 15.16; 16.8; 19.1. 
In this way a connection is made between the poor and the pious.  The wicked may be wealthy (Ps. 37.16f(c) and the righteous may have little (Ps. 37.16; but cf. v. 25--"We have never seen the righteous forsaken or their children begging bread").
b.     Prov. 11.16: "A kindhearted woman gains respect, but ruthless men gain only wealth."
c. Generosity is praised, hoarding is rebuked (Prov. 11.24-26).  To despise
(not give(c) to a needy neighbour is sin, as M. sees, but not because it is his due; righteousness is more than justice (Prov. 14.21).  It may be related to one's relationship with God: "He who oppresses the poor shows contempt for their Maker, but whoever is kind to the needy honours God" (Prov. 14.31; 17.5).  Being kind to the poor is "lending" to the Lord--one will be rewarded (Prov. 19.17).  Such a notion suggests not doing justice but doing something righteous; is one rewarded for doing what one should¿  While the sluggard's sloth is coupled with his craving for good things, the righteous give without sparing--generosity (Prov. 21.25-26).
                                    d. Prov. 15.17 says love is better than wealth.
                                    e. Prov. 16.1¶ says wisdom and understanding are better than wealth.
                                    f. Prov. 19.22 says poverty is better than being a liar.
                                    g. Wealth is fleeting; one should not exhaust oneself for it (Prov. 23.4-5).
                                    h. Wealth must not be amassed by exorbitant interest (Prov. 28.8), may be
ill-gotten (Prov. 28.16).  E.g., it may come through unjust measures/scales, unjust prices, taking advantage of the poor, selling the sweepings with the wheat (forbidden by Moses--Lev. 19.9-10) (Amos 8.5-6).
i. Wealth may make one ignore the need for repentance (Amos 6.1-7),
         ignore God, who gives the ability to produce wealth (Dt. 8.10-18).
            5. The righteous care about justice for the poor and needy those who cannot speak
         for themselves (Prov. 29.7; 31.8-9).  This is the rebuke of the prophets noted by M.  It is not a matter of owning property being evil.  Either one should defend these poor because they are made so by abuse of power (e.g., Amos 1.9-15(c) or because the poor in their powerlessness are easy targets for the unjust to abuse (e.g., Amos 2.7; 5.11¬ 12).

B. Poverty has various causes.
1.     May be a result of sloth (Prov. 6.6-11; 12.11; 14.23; 19.15; 20.4, 13; 24.30-34). 
The sluggard is afraid of taking risks (Prov. 22.13; 26.13), loves sleep, chases fantasies.
2.     May be the result of sin (Prov. 13.21, 25).  Two particular causes of poverty
(which may be sins?) are oppression of the poor and giving gifts to the rich (Prov. 22.16).  God may punish with famine, drought, plague, war--all causes of poverty (Amos 4.6-13).
                        3. Poverty may be a result of hasty planning (Prov. 21.5)
                        4. Poverty may be a result of a love of pleasure (Prov. 21.17)
            C. There underlies M.'s argument a utopian picture of society, where all are "equal".
1.     The OT understands the continuance of poverty in society.  The remedy is not
some formula for a utopian society but a righteousness which cares for the poor.  The poor will always be in the land (Dt. 15.11).

VI. Miranda clearly has to reinterpret papal encyclicals contrary to their obvious meaning.  Thus
both with respect to papal authority and Scriptural authority he twists the meanings to fit a Marxist interpretation.  Evidently Marx is a stronger authority for him than either Scripture or his Church's tradition.
A.    The papal encyclicals defend private ownership which is legitimately acquired.  While
the encyclicals argue, "if private property is legitimately acquired it is acceptable," M. refutes them by denying the presupposition that private property can be legitimately acquired.  It would indeed be odd for people of any sort, let alone the pope, to construct binding conclusions which are in fact nonsense because their presuppositions are nonsense.
B.    M.: "Both the recent advances in economic science and the understanding that the Bible
and the Church Fathers had of the matter demonstrate that the supposition is indeed false" (12.23).  M. has an authority crisis here within his tradition, which should neither pit papal authority against Scripture nor oppose papal authority.

VII. Alternatively, one might improve Miranda's argument by showing that a simple justice (people

should get what they deserve) interpretation of wealth and poverty is an inferior ground to the truly Biblical argument that righteousness goes beyond acts of justice.  Righteousness is rather grounded in the disciple's encounter with God.  As Hengel rightly observes in the NT, God's forgiveness is the ground for us to forgive; God's care is the basis for us not to be anxious; God's love is the ground for us to love even our enemies and renounce force [Martin Hengel, Property and Riches in the Early Church, p. 29.]  The "righteousness which goes beyond that of the Pharisees" is one which goes beyond rules (such as what to do with one’s property) and is based on the character of God (Mt. 5.48).  Consequently, the OT passages which speak of judgement on the basis of treating the poor fairly are superseded even by the OT passages which speak of imitating God's compassionate, merciful reaching out to those who do not even deserve it in a legal sense, to those who are most vulnerable in society (the widow, orphan, alien, and poor).  Care for the poor in Israel is based on God's care for the Israelites as a slave nation (Lev. 25.35-38).  This at first means showing love to the poor no matter their reason for being poor, but second, in Jesus’ teaching, it means showing love even to the enemies of the poor disciples, even to tax collectors, as Jesus did.  Precisely this alternative emphasis on love "creating" justice for the needy points to a different context for our primary activity from that of the market-place.  "Primary activity," meaning that we will be active in the market-place too.  But our first concern must be to show a creative love which includes justice within our own community of faith, a love based on the love of God with which we have been and are loved.  Help for the poor is a discriminating, partial justice, and for the world to appreciate this sort of justice it must see it aggressively pursued within the community of God's love.  Only so will our prophetic witness and pleading in the market-place find legitimacy.  This is not a sequential programme but one of emphasis: extending loving help to people outside the community, as in the OT, must always be present as we work towards a Johannine community of love.