The Biblical Redistribution fallacy identifies wealth equalization as the primary economic concern of the Bible, the Jubilee Code of Leviticus 25 being the most exemplary passage.
Public policies ranging from tax rates to debt cancellation for developing nations are advocated based on this perspective. These policies may be worthy and appropriate but that is distinct from whether the Bible teaches legislated redistribution of wealth. Let’s start with the Jubilee Code.
The Israelites were instructed to take a Sabbath year every seven years. The land would lie fallow and labor would cease. Every fifty years there would be a jubilee. (Depending on how you read the text it may actually have been every forty-nine years.) Each family returned to their ancestral land, bonded labor come to an end, debts expired, and the people celebrated and worshiped God.
Historically, there is no evidence that the jubilee was ever observed. However, we need to see how the jubilee would have worked had it been observed. Here are the provisions of the jubilee for land transactions:
13 In this year of jubilee you shall return, every one of you, to your property. 14 When you make a sale to your neighbor or buy from your neighbor, you shall not cheat one another. 15 When you buy from your neighbor, you shall pay only for the number of years since the jubilee; the seller shall charge you only for the remaining crop years. 16 If the years are more, you shall increase the price, and if the years are fewer, you shall diminish the price; for it is a certain number of harvests that are being sold to you. 17 You shall not cheat one another, but you shall fear your God; for I am the LORD your God.
The one who holds title to the land holds it permanently. If jubilee is followed, then what we have is a lease agreement based on “a certain number of harvests that are being sold to you” between the time of the transaction and the jubilee. Come jubilee, the lease expires. Keep in mind that this was only agricultural land. The jubilee did not apply to property in the cities. There is no redistribution. There is prevention of exploitation.
39 If any who are dependent on you become so impoverished that they sell themselves to you, you shall not make them serve as slaves. 40 They shall remain with you as hired or bound laborers. They shall serve with you until the year of the jubilee.
If jubilee is followed there are no slaves to set free because “you shall not make them serve as slaves.”
47 If resident aliens among you prosper, and if any of your kin fall into difficulty with one of them and sell themselves to an alien, or to a branch of the alien’s family, 48 after they have sold themselves they shall have the right of redemption; one of their brothers may redeem them, 49 or their uncle or their uncle’s son may redeem them, or anyone of their family who is of their own flesh may redeem them; or if they prosper they may redeem themselves. 50 They shall compute with the purchaser the total from the year when they sold themselves to the alien until the jubilee year; the price of the sale shall be applied to the number of years: the time they were with the owner shall be rated as the time of a hired laborer. 51 If many years remain, they shall pay for their redemption in proportion to the purchase price; 52 and if few years remain until the jubilee year, they shall compute thus: according to the years involved they shall make payment for their redemption.
Again, there is no slavery and people are bound until redeemed or based on the number of harvests between their sale and the next jubilee. It is leased labor.
The jubilee prevents people from being permanently alienated from their land or labor, (the means of economic production in ancient societies). It ensures that everyone has an ownership-stewardship stake in God’s unfolding plans. It does not curtail or redistribute the amassed herds, urban real estate, gold, or other measures of wealth. There is no redistribution.
There are three elements to economic justice:
1. Distributive Justice – Addresses how capital and goods are distributed throughout the society.
2. Commutative Justice – Addresses the truthfulness of parties to an economic exchange.
3. Remedial Justice – Addresses just compensation and punitive action when there has been malicious or careless damage done to life, liberty or property.
If you go to the prophets and read what they are crying out against it is overwhelming commutative and remedial justice, combined with disregard for the poor. Yes, there are the condemnations of joining house to house and field to field until the poor are driven off the land but this applies to violating the jubilee code portion of the covenant. The poor are denied remedial justice in the appropriation of their land. There is callousness toward the plight of the poor. It is not addressing wealth distribution per se.
Look at the specific indictments that lead up to Amos’ famous “let justice role down” prophecy in Amos 5:18-24.
Amos 5:10-12, 15
10 They hate the one who reproves in the gate, and they abhor the one who speaks the truth. 11 Therefore because you trample on the poor and take from them levies of grain, you have built houses of hewn stone, but you shall not live in them; you have planted pleasant vineyards, but you shall not drink their wine. 12 For I know how many are your transgressions, and how great are your sins– you who afflict the righteous, who take a bribe, and push aside the needy in the gate. …
15 Hate evil and love good, and establish justice in the gate; …
The “city gate” was the place where disputes where heard and settled. The poor were being denied remedial justice. In verse 12 we see bribes mentioned, which is commutative justice. In other passages we read about dishonest scales and measures (Micah 6:11) I’m not aware of any passage that calls upon Israel to redistribute the wealth so all will be of approximately of the same economic status. The prophets are damning the callousness to the plight of the poor and the perversion of commutative and remedial justice.
Moving to the New Testament, often much is made of these passages concerning the Church immediately following Pentecost:
44 All who believed were together and had all things in common; 45 they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.
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.
It simply isn’t clear what this entailed. Acts chapter 5 speaks of Ananias and Sapphira who apparently were a part of the community and still owned land. They appear to have sold a portion (not all?) of their land and brought the money for distribution to the needy. Their sin was apparently dishonesty about what how much they were giving not that they retained a portion of the money. “Holding things in common” appears to have meant that each retained control of their own property but as needs arose folks made their property available to address the needs of others.
This appears to have been a response to the large number of conversions. No doubt many were ostracized from their families and lost their livelihoods. The early chapters of Acts give a descriptive, not a prescriptive, presentation of how these problems were handled. What is instructive is that economic response was seen as a natural outflow of becoming a Christian and the needs of the poor were addressed. We find no teaching in the New Testament that prescribes radical society-wide redistribution.
What we do see is repeated concern for the poor and we see provision made for the poor in the Mosaic Law. (Like allowing the poor to glean from the edge of the fields.) God declared that he owns all that is and yet ownership of personal property is deeply enshrined in the Law. God said “there shall be no poor among you.” God seems to desire personal stewardship of economic resources. But he also demands a communal outcome that ensures that people who, for whatever reason, have lost their stewardship status (i.e. become poor) are restored as stewards.
The unfortunate leap many make in their concern for the poor is rooted in the Zero-Sum Game fallacy (to be discussed later). Wealth is understood as a fixed amount and one person’s gain is another person’s loss. Addressing poverty becomes a mission to reduce other people’s wealth in assistance to the poor. (It is akin to the reasoning that suggests that the way we make sick people better is by making healthy people less healthy.) Thus, when many read passages about justice for the poor they instinctively read massive societal redistribution into the text. We can argue the ethical merits of massive societal redistribution but it is not a central message of the Bible.