Now in case a countryman of yours becomes poor and his means with regard to you falter, then you are to sustain him, like a stranger or a sojourner, that he may live with you. Do not take interest from him, but revere your God, that your countryman may live with you. You shall not give him your silver at interest, nor your food for gain. I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt to give you the land of Canaan and to be your God. Leviticus 25.35-38
When we think about economics, it is easy for us to propose a system and treat it as unchangeable law. This is quite an interesting way to view it. This seems to be an aspect of our culture that causes a polarization between the two political parties. Republicans think of raw capitalism (and apparently unrestrained government spending) as the answer and currently Democrats seem to simply oppose what the republican standard is in addition to ‘Democratic Socialism.’ I’m not putting a dog in this fight (although I do have opinions), but we must affirm Biblical principle as primary to any system we would choose.
First, I would suggest that where modern economic systems are naturally impersonal, God set up the economy of Israel as very personal. One of the more curious things that the Torah stipulates with regard to biblical law is that Israelites were not to charge interest. If America were to move toward this Israelite law, our economy would die because it seems to require high levels of borrowing and interest. The Federal Reserve’s biggest lever for adjusting the economy is adjusting certain interest rates. Banks make money through interest on money they have lended. It is a system set up for impersonal interaction. If you are going to lend money to someone without interest, there has to be a level of trust that this money will be repaid. In ancient Israel, though, lending money wasn’t for banks but was for persons, and this lending had to do especially with supporting the poor. Now it might be easy to chalk this sort of stuff up as ‘Old Covenant’ regulations that have no bearing on our day, but then we hear Jesus’ words in Luke 6.35, ‘But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked.’ What is important is this: Israelites, it seems, were permitted to lend money with interest to non-Israelites, that is, their enemies. But here in Jesus’ teaching to his disciples, he instructs them that the intention of the law of no-interest applies outside the community as well. In fact, Christ calls his followers to lend without expecting anything in return. In other words, when someone is looking for a loan, loan money with the understanding you won’t get it back. This is a law of love for another, and I think that this can be grounded in a similar truth as Leviticus 25: The Lord has brought you out of the land of slavery of sin into his holy city, therefore give without a thought for receiving and seek to provide essential needs for the needy.
Perhaps one of the biggest problems with trusting in any economic system is that the neediest are the last to receive benefit. Yes, modern economies have brought more people out of poverty than at any other time in history, but there is still a percentage of people who are homeless, dying of hunger, and suffering and not receiving benefit from such a system. In other words modern economics tends to focus on percentages and not people. Jesus rightly said, ‘The poor you will always have with you, but you will not always have me.’ Now, this was about the necessary expense of preparing the Christ for his burial (which could have been used to support the poor). Another point we can draw out from this though is that the disciples actually sought to give to the poor as they followed Jesus’ instruction.
What should we take out of these thoughts? I would suggest that we speak a little more humbly about what systems we prefer and speak more boldly about things such as charity (and justice) that is demanded of God’s people. Shouldn’t we be more dogmatic about what Jesus teaches us? This is one of the conundrums of the world we live in: we are more evangelists of Capitalism or Socialism or so many other non-Biblical issues than we are for the gospel of Christ and the attendant demands to a redeemed person’s life. We are free to have opinions on things the Bible doesn’t speak directly to, and it is often a good thing. However, we must distinguish what is necessary and what is (wise) preference.
Perhaps we could also say one additional thing, which is to say that supporting the needy is categorically an issue of justice. Whether we read here in the law about supporting those who have lost everything or in Isaiah 1.16-17 where Israel is condemned for not providing justice to the oppressed, the fatherless and the widow. These are the voices which are routinely ignored, and so they are the people we are called specifically to watch out for and seek to provide justice. And in this is pure and faultless religion.