This past weekend, a friend of mine whose political beliefs are far more on the “progressive” side than my own posted a bill being proposed by a Democratic representative from Wisconsin who had formerly been on welfare before downgrading her career to a politician who had the idea of drug testing those wealthy people who sought government money in the same fashion that the indigent are drug tested when they seek the same sort of government benefits. For the record, I agreed with this idea, as I believe that there ought to be no distinction between the standards applied to rich or poor who wish to take from the common resources set aside in government. Be that as it may, someone decided to pipe up and claim that the wealth that government possesses through taxes belong to the wealthy anyway, so when they seek government largess, they are simply getting back what belongs to them. Certainly, if one looks at the people whose taxes enter the storehouse of tax monies to be distributed in various fashions as our government sees fit, there is a greatly disproportionate payment of taxes from those who have more than those many who receive less. But does what the wealthy receive actually belong to them? Who does the proceeds and profits of productivity belong to anyway?
Let me state my assumptions and methodology openly at the outset, so that there is no confusion about where I am going with this. I do not assume that the way that wealth and income are currently distributed are just or godly, but I have no hostility to the just claims of either labor or capital to the contributions they bring to goods and services that are provided. Nevertheless, I think we are often ignorant of just whose skill and expertise provides for such productivity, and I think that before we can look at the just claims of anyone we need to lay out the facts of the matter. In addition, as is customary in this sort of investigation , I will be judging the habits and behaviors by people from the perspective of biblical law and precept, to see what grounds the Bible lays for declaring ownership of goods and resources. Given that these biblical laws and precepts are not always well known, I will lay out the relevant and applicable biblical law first so that we may deduce and apply these laws within the context of contemporary business practice and public policy relating to the distribution of goods collected through taxation.
So, what sort of biblical laws and precepts would govern the ownership of property related to labor and business practices. To remove any hint of accusation of cherry picking or proof texting, let us pick from a broad set of scriptures including laws and New Testament parables and discussions, and after quoting each one there will be a short commentary on what the specific quoted principle adds to our understanding. That said, let us begin:
2 Timothy 2:6: “The hardworking farmer must be first to partake of the crops.” This principle, part of a passage dealing with the duties and responsibilities of Christian life, is a clear statement of the priority of those who labor for the resources that are gained. It is the hard work of the farmer in laboring for the harvest that he gathers in that gives him a prior claim to the enjoyment of the crops before monies are paid for tithing and taxation. To the extent that any system of wealth does not give the first claim on the harvest to those who have labored for it, such a system is unjust and illegitimate.
Matthew 20:1-17: “For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. Now when he had agreed with the laborers for a denarius a day, he sent them into his vineyard. And he went out about the third hour and saw others standing idle in the marketplace, and said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and whatever is right I will give you.’ So they went. Again he went out about the sixth and the ninth hour, and did likewise. And about the eleventh hour he went out and found others standing idle, and said to them, ‘Why have you been standing here idle all day?’ They said to him, ‘Because no one hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and whatever is right you will receive.’ “So when evening had come, the owner of the vineyard said to his steward, ‘Call the laborers and give them their wages, beginning with the last to the first.’ And when those came who were hired about the eleventh hour, they each received a denarius. But when the first came, they supposed that they would receive more; and they likewise received each a denarius. And when they had received it, they complained against the landowner, saying, ‘These last men have worked only one hour, and you made them equal to us who have borne the burden and the heat of the day.’ But he answered one of them and said, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong. Did you not agree with me for a denarius? Take what is yours and go your way. I wish to give to this last man the same as to you. Is it not lawful for me to do what I wish with my own things? Or is your eye evil because I am good?’ So the last will be first, and the first last. For many are called, but few chosen.” As a denarius was a fair daily wage for an agricultural laborer, let us note what this passage says about a generous landowner–we may give better wages than are deserved, depending on the extent of our generosity. It is no sin or lack of wisdom in providing generously even for those whose labor does not require full payment.
James 5:1-6: “Come now, you rich, weep and howl for your miseries that are coming upon you! Your riches are corrupted, and your garments are moth-eaten. Your gold and silver are corroded, and their corrosion will be a witness against you and will eat your flesh like fire. You have heaped up treasure in the last days. Indeed the wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, cry out; and the cries of the reapers have reached the ears of the Lord of Sabaoth. You have lived on the earth in pleasure and luxury; you have fattened your hearts as in a day of slaughter. You have condemned, you have murdered the just; he does not resist you.” This passage tells us that the wealthy are not the owners of the wealth they have, but rather the stewards of that wealth, and accountable to God for what they possess. To the extent that the wealthy are exploiting others and withholding wages due to others, they are heaping up judgment from the Eternal for their injustices.
Luke 19:11-27: “Now as they heard these things, He spoke another parable, because He was near Jerusalem and because they thought the kingdom of God would appear immediately. Therefore He said: “A certain nobleman went into a far country to receive for himself a kingdom and to return. So he called ten of his servants, delivered to them ten minas, and said to them, ‘Do business till I come.’ But his citizens hated him, and sent a delegation after him, saying, ‘We will not have this man to reign over us.’ “And so it was that when he returned, having received the kingdom, he then commanded these servants, to whom he had given the money, to be called to him, that he might know how much every man had gained by trading. Then came the first, saying, ‘Master, your mina has earned ten minas.’ And he said to him, ‘Well done, good servant; because you were faithful in a very little, have authority over ten cities.’ And the second came, saying, ‘Master, your mina has earned five minas.’ Likewise he said to him, ‘You also be over five cities.’ “Then another came, saying, ‘Master, here is your mina, which I have kept put away in a handkerchief. For I feared you, because you are an austere man. You collect what you did not deposit, and reap what you did not sow.’ And he said to him, ‘Out of your own mouth I will judge you, you wicked servant. You knew that I was an austere man, collecting what I did not deposit and reaping what I did not sow. Why then did you not put my money in the bank, that at my coming I might have collected it with interest?’ “And he said to those who stood by, ‘Take the mina from him, and give it to him who has ten minas.’ (But they said to him, ‘Master, he has ten minas.’) ‘For I say to you, that to everyone who has will be given; and from him who does not have, even what he has will be taken away from him. But bring here those enemies of mine, who did not want me to reign over them, and slay them before me.’”” Here we see that it was not the minas that were given to them by Jesus Christ that belong to believers, but the business that they do with them. It is the proceeds that result from our own labor, in whatever sphere of life, that belong to us, not what has been given to us by God. We are not the owners of our talents or inheritance, but rather what we do with it. Likewise, this passage reminds us that God is our ruler, and that those who do not accept the authority of God over them in their lives and behavior are destined for a severe judgment, a point that our corrupt age certainly needs to be reminded of.
Deuteronomy 15:1-6: ““At the end of every seven years you shall grant a release of debts. And this is the form of the release: Every creditor who has lent anything to his neighbor shall release it; he shall not require it of his neighbor or his brother, because it is called the Lord’s release. Of a foreigner you may require it; but you shall give up your claim to what is owed by your brother, except when there may be no poor among you; for the Lord will greatly bless you in the land which the Lord your God is giving you to possess as an inheritance— only if you carefully obey the voice of the Lord your God, to observe with care all these commandments which I command you today. For the Lord your God will bless you just as He promised you; you shall lend to many nations, but you shall not borrow; you shall reign over many nations, but they shall not reign over you.” This passage reminds us that debts are not to be held against the poor, but rather are to be forgiven. To the extent that businesses profit off of the debts of the poor–student loans and credit cards come readily to mind here, as do sovereign debts for poor nations–such debts are to be periodically forgiven every seven years to reduce the burden on others and to allow a fresh start as part of God’s Sabbath laws.
Deuteronomy 15:7-11: “If there is among you a poor man of your brethren, within any of the gates in your land which the Lord your God is giving you, you shall not harden your heart nor shut your hand from your poor brother, but you shall open your hand wide to him and willingly lend him sufficient for his need, whatever he needs. Beware lest there be a wicked thought in your heart, saying, ‘The seventh year, the year of release, is at hand,’ and your eye be evil against your poor brother and you give him nothing, and he cry out to the Lord against you, and it become sin among you. You shall surely give to him, and your heart should not be grieved when you give to him, because for this thing the Lord your God will bless you in all your works and in all to which you put your hand. For the poor will never cease from the land; therefore I command you, saying, ‘You shall open your hand wide to your brother, to your poor and your needy, in your land.’” This passage reminds us that the periodic forgiveness of debt is not to harden our hearts in ungenerosity against others, but rather we are to be open-hearted and generous to the poor and downtrodden of our community–this is a command from God.
Deuteronomy 15:12-18: “If your brother, a Hebrew man, or a Hebrew woman, is sold to you and serves you six years, then in the seventh year you shall let him go free from you. And when you send him away free from you, you shall not let him go away empty-handed; you shall supply him liberally from your flock, from your threshing floor, and from your winepress. From what the Lord your God has blessed you with, you shall give to him. You shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God redeemed you; therefore I command you this thing today. And if it happens that he says to you, ‘I will not go away from you,’ because he loves you and your house, since he prospers with you, then you shall take an awl and thrust it through his ear to the door, and he shall be your servant forever. Also to your female servant you shall do likewise. It shall not seem hard to you when you send him away free from you; for he has been worth a double hired servant in serving you six years. Then the Lord your God will bless you in all that you do.” Those who are indentured servants or apprentices are to be generously treated when their term of service is done because the worth of their labor has been great and their wages have not been–this would also apply to interns and other sorts of unpaid labor, a reminder that those who labor deserve the proceeds of their labor even in the face of adverse and unequal social relations between classes.
Leviticus 23:22: “ ‘When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not wholly reap the corners of your field when you reap, nor shall you gather any gleaning from your harvest. You shall leave them for the poor and for the stranger: I am the Lord your God.’” This law, part of the Sabbath law relating to Pentecost/Shavuot/The Feast of Weeks, commanded landowners to provide part of their fields, which they would consider their own property, to be left for the poor who were provided a means to work in order to earn the food necessary for survival. Here we see that even that which the bible considers to be our property is not assigned for our own profit alone, but is regulated in such a way to provide for the well-being of those who are the most poor and vulnerable. There are some obvious applications of this law related to contemporary business practice that should come to mind for most people.
Leviticus 19:13: “You shall not cheat your neighbor, nor rob him. The wages of him who is hired shall not remain with you all night until morning.” This law makes it theft for any employer to leave the wages of any of their hourly employees in arrears for any length of time. Any company that does not pay its hourly workers at the end of each day so that the expenses of living may be paid for from those wages is committing theft against those employees. Obviously, this would affect just about every business, since very few businesses obey biblical law in this manner, which often influences the decisions that workers have to make to pay their bills on a regular basis because their own wages are in arrears for two or three weeks at a time, if not more.
1 Kings 21:1-16: “And it came to pass after these things that Naboth the Jezreelite had a vineyard which was in Jezreel, next to the palace of Ahab king of Samaria. So Ahab spoke to Naboth, saying, “Give me your vineyard, that I may have it for a vegetable garden, because it is near, next to my house; and for it I will give you a vineyard better than it. Or, if it seems good to you, I will give you its worth in money.” But Naboth said to Ahab, “The Lord forbid that I should give the inheritance of my fathers to you!” So Ahab went into his house sullen and displeased because of the word which Naboth the Jezreelite had spoken to him; for he had said, “I will not give you the inheritance of my fathers.” And he lay down on his bed, and turned away his face, and would eat no food. But Jezebel his wife came to him, and said to him, “Why is your spirit so sullen that you eat no food?” He said to her, “Because I spoke to Naboth the Jezreelite, and said to him, ‘Give me your vineyard for money; or else, if it pleases you, I will give you another vineyard for it.’ And he answered, ‘I will not give you my vineyard.’” Then Jezebel his wife said to him, “You now exercise authority over Israel! Arise, eat food, and let your heart be cheerful; I will give you the vineyard of Naboth the Jezreelite.” And she wrote letters in Ahab’s name, sealed them with his seal, and sent the letters to the elders and the nobles who were dwelling in the city with Naboth. She wrote in the letters, saying, “Proclaim a fast, and seat Naboth with high honor among the people; and seat two men, scoundrels, before him to bear witness against him, saying, “You have blasphemed God and the king.” Then take him out, and stone him, that he may die.” So the men of his city, the elders and nobles who were inhabitants of his city, did as Jezebel had sent to them, as it was written in the letters which she had sent to them. They proclaimed a fast, and seated Naboth with high honor among the people. And two men, scoundrels, came in and sat before him; and the scoundrels witnessed against him, against Naboth, in the presence of the people, saying, “Naboth has blasphemed God and the king!” Then they took him outside the city and stoned him with stones, so that he died. Then they sent to Jezebel, saying, “Naboth has been stoned and is dead.” And it came to pass, when Jezebel heard that Naboth had been stoned and was dead, that Jezebel said to Ahab, “Arise, take possession of the vineyard of Naboth the Jezreelite, which he refused to give you for money; for Naboth is not alive, but dead.” So it was, when Ahab heard that Naboth was dead, that Ahab got up and went down to take possession of the vineyard of Naboth the Jezreelite.” This passage reminds us that property was to pass within families and it was not within the jurisdiction of government to seize that property for eminent domain. If a person refused to sell their family inheritance for any price, they were within their rights to do so, and any attempt by the government to take that property leads to divine judgment.
Having given a broad sample of biblical discussion on the nature of property rights within the Bible, there are a few broad conclusions that it is possible to draw. For one, we can see that property rights were secure but also regulated, so that people were not entirely free to dispose of their possessions but also were required to give as they were able to those who were without. A social net was provided for those who were indigent where their survival was assured and where there was a periodic release of debts and (if one looks at Leviticus 25) a restoration of ancestral property so that there was a periodic reset on the spread of inequality within Israelite society. On the other hand, government was not considered to be the ultimate owner of property–rather, God was, and the limitations on property rights were designed to protect that which was more important than property, namely people. Likewise, the property rights of workers to prompt and fair payment was defended in both the Old Testament law as well as the writings of Paul and James, as noted above.
So, judging from the relevant and applicable biblical corpus, do contemporary businesses and those who claim property rights in the resources of government follow biblical law? Absolutely not. There is no contemporary granting of the gleaning rights that people had guaranteed in biblical times, nor are the hardworking farmers and laborers the first two partake of the crops earned, nor are wages paid promptly at the end of the day, nor are debts periodically forgiven, all of which contravenes biblical law and principle. This suggests that those who claim expansive property rights regarding the money that is taken via taxation have some work to do on their own end when it comes to living up to the divine standard by which one can claim sort of divine right of property. Divine rights, after all, come with divine responsibilities and clearly the managerial and executive elite of our society have not lived according to either the Old or the New Covenant principles that would lead to divine favor for their own desires to obtain greater largess from the government on their own behalf. At this point in time they are not the proper owners of such proceeds but rather thieves who have agreed to pay a share of the loot to a third party with the responsibility to share enough of the stolen proceeds to those who are being exploited to keep down the real and ugly threat of social unrest.
If we view the proper owner of proceeds based on biblical standards, we are faced with a rather tricky bit of accounting. I do not propose here to determine the share that belongs to any particular party, but rather to lay down the principles by which fair negotiation and allotment may take place. A share of proceeds belongs to all whose labor provides value to a given good or service. This need not be physical labor. Does someone’s expertise in dealing with computer programs or interpersonal communication lead to some kind of sale or some kind of insight? If so, that person has contributed to proceeds. So to with the people involved in the logistical chain that connects those who make products with those who buy at every step along the way. And even so, there is also a place for those who are managers or owners of businesses to claim some share of the proceeds for their behavior. Those, after all, who provide the means by which people may be productive deserve some share of the proceeds as well as those who enable work to be done. Those whose connections and communication aid in sales are likewise worthy of some share. Those who profitably direct the labor of others for positive ends deserve credit, but those whose systems require heroic efforts on the part of others or who misdirect labor for unproductive and socially undesirable ends may have a negative share in proceeds rather than the positive one they expect and now enjoy. Likewise, those communities who are stewards of resources deserve a share for the maintenance of those resources, and those whose activities lead to undesirable externalities like pollution or low wages or a lack of benefits that require subsidization by governments may also have a negative share of proceeds for their chicanery and injustice. Obviously, to calculate these shares and what each party actually owns in the whole is a difficult matter to calculate, but fortunately our society offers at least some calculation of this through the calculation of value-adding. Wherever value is added along the process, that share belongs to those providing the additional value. If the raw materials of a meal are worth such-and-such, and a cooked meal is worthy of some amount greater than this, the additional value of having those materials cooked and served to one’s specifications belong to those who added that value, with a modest amount deducted for those who provided the means by which that value was added.
So, what does this mean? It is difficult to know exactly what share each person deserves for their contribution of expertise and value to the process. There are some whose value is obvious but whose reward, at least for now, is limited, and others whose value is somewhat shadowy and vague and ambivalent but whose current capture of the proceeds is great. What to do about that is a matter that would likely require divine rule and a process of soul-searching and deep examination and a great deal of thorny and difficult negotiation and consensus building. It would be good if we could learn to appreciate others, and do a better job of designing and revising systems so that they are just and so that the legitimate property rights of everyone from the lowest to highest can be honored and respected. The property of the wealthy and powerful will not long be secure if the property of others is not secure, after all, so let us be just to all even as we demand justice for ourselves and the recognition of our own proper and legitimate interests.
 See, for example: