Last November, after barely eight months in office, the Catholic Church's Pope Francis launched a firestorm of controversy with his recent dictum, Evangelii Gaudium, or "The Joy of the Gospel."
Probably no religious writing in recent history has raised the eyebrows—and ire—of so many for its controversial views on economics and balance of economic power in society. While Catholics do not consider it commanded teaching from the Vatican, the papal exhortation nonetheless spells out the views of the current pope and thus commands respect from Catholics worldwide.
Evangelii Gaudium begins with Francis comparing the joy of receiving the Christian faith and the joy of missionary activity. He calls for reforms in the Catholic Church's missionary outreach—among them a greater emphasis on evangelizing efforts and a renewed call to help the poor.
But the exhortation does not stop there. Francis goes on to call for greater income equality, redistribution of wealth, and fundamental changes to the economic order. This statement from section 204 underscores his concern: "We can no longer trust in the unseen forces and the invisible hand of the market." And he calls for action "beyond a simple welfare mentality" that "attacks the structural causes of inequality."
He goes on to call for a redistribution of wealth and reform of economic structures that would ensure greater equality of income and opportunity. The rich, he says, should share their wealth and calls for a new commandment: "Today we also have to say 'thou shalt not' to an economy of exclusion and inequality."
Pros and cons weigh in
Economists, politicians and pundits from both the left and right have lauded or attacked the pope's exhortation. Some called parts of the document "pure Marxism" and suggested that someone else may have written the papal document for him.
Writing for the conservative Townhall magazine, John Goodman commented that a search of almost any introductory economics textbook would fail to turn up the terms "survival of the fittest," "trickle down theories," or "powerful feeding on the powerless," which he termed "slurs used by the left to cast aspersions on free markets and pro-growth markets" ("Papal Economics," Dec. 21, 2013). He went on to maintain that free-market economics, far from being a detriment to society, are the single greatest cause of the prosperity millions enjoy today.
Those on the left, predictably enough, lauded the document. In the Guardian, a popular liberal newspaper, Jonathan Freedland said, "Francis could replace Obama as the pin-up on every liberal and leftist wall" ("Why Even Atheists Should Be Praying for Pope Francis," Nov. 15, 2013). The New Republic praised Francis' stance on economic issues, while attacking his—and the Catholic Church's—views on abortion and homosexuality.
Even prominent Catholics differed in their reaction, some wondering if the pope has gone too far. Robert Sirico, a Catholic priest who cofounded the liberty-oriented Acton Institute and authored the book Defending the Free Market, says in a YouTube video response that while Francis is not motivated by political beliefs, he fails to note that economic prosperity over the past century is largely the result of free market economics.
"How are we to respond to his warnings about mere temporary responses to poverty ... with the demonstrable benefits that we see accruing to the poorest of the poor ... which were made possible by markets globalizing?" (Acton.org, Nov. 27, 2013). How, he asked, can the pope ignore the reality that millions have greater access to jobs and health care, and have risen out of poverty because of the globalization of markets?
To Francis' concern about the dangers of "markets that are unhampered," Sirico asks, "Where are these unhampered markets?"—pointing out that markets everywhere are bounded with regulations of every sort.
All of this raises very important questions about Christianity and economics. Is it God's will that poverty be eradicated in this present age? If not, what is Christianity's responsibility to the poor? Does the Bible espouse any one economic system?
Why has God not eliminated poverty?
Poverty and income inequality are as old as mankind. It may surprise you to learn that the Bible has much to say about poverty, the distribution of wealth, and other economic matters.
"The poor will never cease from the land," Moses was inspired to write in Deuteronomy 15:11. Jesus Christ Himself seemed to echo that reality when the subject of His anointing for burial came up shortly before His trial and death. Asked by His disciples why He approved the use of expensive oil for His anointing rather than having it sold and the money given to the poor, Christ may have shocked the disciples with His answer: "The poor you have with you always, but Me you do not have always" (John 12:8).
We know that a powerful and loving God could eradicate poverty at any time. Yet He has not chosen to do so thus far. Is there a reason? The surprising answer is that a time is coming when God will eradicate poverty—but more about that later. The fact is that our Creator has not chosen to do so in this present world.
Yet the Bible is replete with instructions on how to properly treat those less well off. Students of the Bible know that more than 3,000 years ago God began dealing with one nation, ancient Israel. That nation of 12 tribes that descended from Abraham was an agricultural society, and it was given one of the most fertile areas of the Middle East as a result of promises God made to Abraham (Genesis 12:7; Genesis 13:14-15).
Those with large landholdings tended to be better off, while many small farmers eked out a modest living. Those without land or marketable skills often found themselves in poverty. But God did not forget the poor of the land and in His laws made provision for them.
For example, God provided a food supply for the poor to gather, telling landowners: "When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not wholly reap the corners of your field, nor shall you gather the gleanings of your harvest. And you shall not glean your vineyard, nor shall you gather every grape of your vineyard; you shall leave them to the poor" (Leviticus 19:9). It's noteworthy that the poor had to put forth the effort to gather the food for themselves. They couldn't just go to a warehouse and claim it or have it delivered to them.
It was also widely understood that family members took care of other family members. And if a woman lost her husband, her children were responsible for taking her in and caring for her.
Jesus' teaching and examples
Jesus Christ lived and taught in an area that was under crushing Roman oppression. During His ministry, He taught and showed by His personal example the right attitude toward those less well off.
Matthew's gospel records a time early in Christ's ministry when more than 5,000 men, plus thousands of women and children, flocked to Him to hear the gospel of the Kingdom of God. Many came from considerable distances, and at the end of the day, rather than send them away hungry, Jesus miraculously fed them from five small loaves of bread and two fish. Read about it in Matthew 14:13-21. Not long afterward He repeated the miracle, this time with a slightly smaller group of 4,000 men, plus women and children.
Each of the Gospel accounts relates dozens of miraculous healings that Christ performed, mostly of poor people. Matthew alone relates many of these acts of compassion. Jesus cleansed lepers (Matthew 8:1-4), healed a paralyzed man (Matthew 9:1-6), gave sight to two blind men (Matthew 9:27-31), and even cast demons out of the daughter of a Canaanite woman (Matthew 15:21-28).
Christ certainly showed compassion for the poor, a compassion He taught to His disciples and by extension to us, both by word and example. Just before His betrayal and death, He summed up what our attitude should be toward those suffering from sickness, isolation and poverty: "In as much as you did it unto one of the least of these my brethren, you did it unto Me" (Matthew 25:40).
Christ's disciples didn't forget those examples, and carried on His example of mercy and compassion. Notice Acts 3:2-9. The apostle Peter didn't have gold and silver to give to a lame man who asked for alms. But he was able to give the man something of far greater worth, telling him, "In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, rise up and walk" (Acts 3:6).
The New Testament teaching is clear. Today God is not performing such dramatic miracles before the public through His people (though He still does miraculously heal, and we should pray for that). But when we see needs and have the ability to do something to help, it is our duty to respond. That's what our Savior commanded.
Does this mean we literally sell all that we have and distribute it to poor people around us? Many will point to Christ's encounter with a rich young ruler as proof that income redistribution is the duty of all Christians. But let's take a close look at Matthew 19:16-23. Christ told the rich young ruler to "sell what you have and give to the poor, and you shall have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me" (Matthew 19:21).
When the young man went away sorrowful "because he had great possessions," Christ used it to illustrate the point that it is often difficult for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God. He didn't tell His disciples to proclaim a gospel of income equality, but to understand that devotion to material wealth can be a major hindrance to spiritual growth.
Indeed, the young man here was placing his wealth before God, which is precisely why Jesus told Him to give it away. This wasn't a rule for every person, for some are able to possess wealth while maintaining proper perspective and living by love toward God and neighbor.
The early Church was characterized by wide spreads of income. Some Christians were wealthy and powerful, as was the case with Philemon, to whom the apostle Paul wrote. Others, such as Philemon's slave Onesimus, were certainly much poorer. Yet Paul never condemns wealth. His concern was for people's spiritual, not physical, wealth.
Does the Bible reveal a proper economy?
The Bible reveals that God has much to say about money and wealth. Many of the most famous personalities of the Bible were clearly quite wealthy. Genesis 13:1 tells us that "Abraham was very rich in livestock, in silver, and in gold." His son Isaac inherited much of his father's wealth and increased it. Genesis 30 relates how Isaac's son Jacob was blessed with vast herds of cattle, sheep and camels, so many that he had to come up with a method for distinguishing his large herds from those of his uncle, Laban.
Centuries later, King David became wealthy during the time of peace he was able to bring to Israel. But it was his son Solomon who became one of the richest men of all time. We find a detailed account of Solomon's wealth and power in 1 Kings 4.
When God gave Israel the Promised Land, it was to be divided up so families received property portions relative to their size (Numbers 26:54, Numbers 33:50-54). Even if land ownership changed hands due to economic or other hardship, title to the land reverted to the original families every 50 years (Leviticus 25:10, Leviticus 25:13-17). This provided for a generally even playing field economically, and prevented individuals from permanently amassing huge amounts of land at the expense of others.
It's clear that God does not condemn wealth or the acquisition of wealth. The fact of wealth means inequality of income. Many today accept that fact but attack the methods used to attain wealth. Throughout history, much wealth has been attained through trade, business and investing. Are these activities wrong? Notice what Jesus Himself taught about the value of increasing wealth through proper investments.
Shortly before His death, Christ gave some final teachings to His disciples. In the parable of the talents in Matthew 25:14-30, He tells of a man taking a trip to a distant country. Before he leaves, he apportions his goods to each of three servants, with the understanding that they will try to increase what they are given.
Those who received five talents and two talents (a talent was about 6,000 denarii, probably ten years' average wages at the time) went out and through various business dealings managed to double their money. A third servant, who received only one talent, dug a hole in the ground and hid it.
What did the wealthy man do on his return? He praised the actions of the two servants who had doubled their money. But his reaction to the lack of return of the third servant was far different. "You wicked and lazy servant ... you ought to have deposited my money with the bankers, and at my return I would have received back my own with interest" (Matthew 25:27).
It's difficult to make a case that Jesus condemned wealth or legally acquiring it. He did teach on several occasions, however, that wealth and the pursuit of wealth can be a snare that distracts us from the pursuit of righteousness. What this parable teaches is that we should exercise and build on our spiritual talents, skills and abilities, which to God is infinitely more important than our material wealth.
The Bible does make a case for a liberty-oriented economy—what we would today call true capitalism or, perhaps better put, private property and free exchange.
What then are we to make of the time when the early New Testament Church practiced a communal economy? Notice this in Acts 2:44-45: "Now all who believed were together and had all things in common, and sold their possessions and goods, and divided them among all, as anyone had need."
Does this teach that Christians should practice a communal economy and way of life? First of all, we must understand that this was a completely voluntary sharing of resources (see Acts 4:32–5:4)—not to be confused with a communist system wherein shared ownership is mandatory, amounting to theft of private property.
Secondly, this was a temporary circumstance during a time of persecution and of thousands of new converts in Jerusalem, many from foreign lands who were remaining for a while to learn from the apostles. Sharing took care of an immediate need. The account in Acts shows that these disciples were soon scattered to other regions (Acts 8:1, Acts 8:4). Later writings give us no indication that this short-term experience with communal living lasted very long.
Universal prosperity will come
For centuries, mankind has tried various systems to arrive at prosperity for all and the elimination of poverty. Monarchies, socialism, Marxism, fascism—all have failed. So-called capitalism, too, despite some free-market benefits, has left millions in its economic wake—being a system of government overregulation and cronyism in which government colludes with business.
What has not been tried is true economic liberty through the government of God and God's economic system. While on earth, Christ's mission was to preach the gospel (good news) of the Kingdom of God. This gospel foretold a time when Christ would return to earth to set up His Kingdom. Longtime readers of The Good News know this has always been the major focus of this magazine.
The good news is that the universal prosperity, greater equality of income, and lives free from want that Pope Francis writes about will come. But it won't come through man's political parties, papal encyclicals, the churches of today's world or other human organizations. It won't come through political movements calling for redistribution of wealth, for "taxing the rich" or a higher minimum wage.
Your Bible makes hundreds of references to that coming time of peace and prosperity unparalleled in human history. Bible prophecy foretells a time when Christ Himself will return to the earth to rule.
God's Word gives us a few hints about the economy of this future Kingdom. It will be an economy that values and preserves private property rights, a hallmark of a capitalistic economic order: "Everyone shall sit under his vine and under his fig tree, and no one shall make them afraid" (Micah 4:4).
Those privately owned farms will produce abundant harvests: "Behold, the days are coming, says the Lord, when the plowman shall overtake the reaper, and the treader of grapes him who sows seed; the mountains shall drip with sweet wine, and all the hills shall flow with it" (Amos 9:13).
This economic order will allow those who work and profit to enjoy the fruits of their labors, but it will also ensure a level economic playing field that gives everyone a just opportunity to prosper.
God will then pour out His Spirit on the nations, and people the world over will receive the loving character of God, meaning that the way of the world will then be to help others in need. This will be accomplished not through government taking from some to give to others, but through an internal change in the hearts of people everywhere to motivate them to generosity and showing true concern for their neighbors. Best of all, God invites you to be part of this exciting future!