The biblical narrative was revealed into specific historical-cultural contexts. If we go back into the world of the Old Testament we find a distinctly agricultural society. Unlike our Enlightenment/Modernist influenced culture, “rights” did not begin with the individual or with the state. The emphasis was on relatedness. God owned all that is and humanity was made stewards of his world. God was responsible for the people’s prosperity. (Deut. 8:17-18)
Land was divided among all the people and via the provisions of the Jubilee Code, no one was to be permanently alienated from there land. There as no strong central governmental arrangement but neither were individuals viewed as free agents unencumbered by obligations and responsibilities to others. The family and the clan were the primary loci for addressing economic issues and resolving disputes. Family members were responsible for each other. The larger community’s involvement in the lives of families and individuals was circumscribed. Private property is assumed in the Old Testament law but community provision for the poor (ex. not harvesting to the edges of the field or regular offerings) were also woven into the fabric of life.
Economic abundance in this context was usually in terms of agricultural excess. While there were certainly differences in wealth status, most folks would have lived fairly similar lives by our standards, assuming the Jubilee laws about not permanently alienating people from their land had been followed (which we have no evidence they ever were.) The Jubilee was not wealth redistribution but rather a lease agreement where an owner could lease out his land for a price equal to the amount of crops between the date of an agreement and the next Jubilee. The lease expired at the Jubilee and land reverted back to the owner. This seems to indicate, among other things, that God values each of us serving him in a stewardship capacity.
Jesus was also speaking into a context very different from our own. The Mosaic law concerning economic issues had to contend with the cultural realities of the Greco-Roman world. The following held true in Jesus day concerning economic matters:
- Wealth consisted primarily of land, a very fixed quantity.
- Status mobility between social stratum in society was extremely limited.
- Households were businesses producing most of what they consumed.
- The only sources of significant power were human beings aided by animals.
Instead of agricultural land being widely distributed throughout society, by Jesus day large land holders tended to dominate. Society was vertically (hierarchically) oriented with intricate delineations in status. The patronage system dominated. Patrons had responsibility to provide for clients (some of whom were lesser patrons with their own clients) and clients were beholden to patrons (and the patron’s patron.)
This pattern of relationships tended to prevail in the West up until about the seventeenth century. The aristocracy, clergy, military men, guilds, and serfs were highly stratified within in a tight web of relationships that allowed for little change in status but also legitimized the existence of each status, according certain rights and obligations to each group (not the least of which was the right to food and shelter.)
By contrast, what we have seen in the West is a flattening of the status structure. We are inclined to view each other as equals who differ only according to merit, not ascribed status. Economic interaction has been removed from a rigid covenant between an elaborate array of life stations and has become a contractual arrangement between free agents. This has left individuals without the security of a patron who watches over their lives but it has also given people freedom to move up (or down) in status based on the consequences of their own choices.
But possibly even more profound is the idea of economic growth. It is hard for twenty-first century westerners to appreciate just how utterly our foreign our idea of saving and investing according to weighed risks is to the ancient mind. Sociologist Anthony Giddens points out that until about the early Middle Ages, the very idea of risk, as we know it, did not exist. If I set out on a journey and trouble befalls me, then that is just the way the fates or the gods ordained it. Or maybe some evil sorcerer intervened. In any case, the future can not be anticipated or controlled.
However, with the rise of reason in Europe during the Middle Ages came the idea that certain actions lead to certain consequences which can be assigned probabilities. God is in control, not the fates, the gods, or sorcerers. God has organized the world in an orderly and predictable fashion and because of that we can evaluate the risk of one alternative versus another. This way of thinking emerged as Europe began to undertake ever more complex and dangerous ocean exploration that required large amounts of funds to be invested. In the process, the very concept of risk was discovered.
This calculation of risk, combined with emerging awareness of the benefits of specialized of labor and the importance of trade set the stage for a total reorientation in thinking about our material existence. The advent of steam and combustion power in the late eighteenth century initiated a revolution, the Industrial Revolution to be precise.
This raises a host of difficult issues for Christians, most of which go beyond the scope of this short series. Few would question that lifting of material living standards to levels beyond mere subsistence for entire populations is a good thing, yet Western society has often erred in making improvement of material living standards the measure of all things. Christian ethics and economics have to wrestle with this idolatry.
For our purposes, I merely wish to point out what an alien world we live in compared to the ancient world of the Bible. Land ownership and agriculture is no longer the central factor in wealth. Capital and prudent of investment of capital is now at the heart of wealth. The zero-sum game perception is now one of an expanding pie created through specializing labor, trade, and technological applications. Covenants based on patronage or feudalism no longer apply. While we have strata there is unimaginable fluidity of movement up and down, even with the very highest and lowest strata. That means individuals and families are more vulnerable but with unimaginable opportunities compared to ancient society.
The most egalitarian of ancient societies were limited to thinking only in terms of making sure everyone had a subsistence level existence plus a little beyond. The developments of the last three centuries suggest it is possible to create a widespread abundance beyond the wildest dreams of the ancients but it is accomplished by economic arrangements that are foreign to the biblical contexts. It is important to acknowledge this challenge and not overlook the contextual divergence as wrestle with biblical teaching.