1.1 Our Current Economy
1.2 Don’t Touch
1.3 “We Cannot Worship God and Mammon”
1.4 An Ancient Creation Myth
1.5 Pharaoh and Egypt
1.6 The Parables of the Talents & Pounds
1.7 The Economic Store House
1.8 Resources to Share
1.9 Economy in Exodus
1.10 Creation’s Community
1.11 Real Estate
1.12 Restitution of Sabbath
1.13 Sabbath of Peace
1.14 The Ten Commandments
1.15 Driving Back the Chaos
1.17 Overcoming the Destroyer
1.18 The Good Samaritan
1.19 One Table
1.21 Economics of Restorative Justice
1.22 Back to Egypt
1.23 Jubilee & Land
1.24 Forgiving Debt
1.25 Wealth Redistribution
1.26 Punitive Measures
1.27 Israel’s Festivals
1.28 Israel’s Calling
1.29 Kings and Judges
1.30 The King’s Taxes
1.31 Weapons Trade
1.32 Israel’s Security
1.33 Prince of Peace
1.34 Creation Wisdom
1.35 National Security
The scriptures have a lot to say about our money. However, much of the time we don’t drift into those areas of discussion, keeping them more private, unless we are speaking about money from the point of view of God wanting us to have more of it.
Most of what the scriptures say about money is that it is essential for justice. How we use it to care for the needy lies at the centre of “love for God” and issues about discipleship: following Jesus. If this is the case, then we can’t become quiet about it. More importantly, we can’t ignore it in the way we ourselves live.
It’s true that people have abused this topic, to get money from others. The wider subject of “community” has often been abused. Nevertheless, these themes are at the centre of what Jesus taught and lived, as they were also in the early church.
The aim of this book is to address these topics biblically. The bible focuses on these issues, and so we must have an honest look at them. This book sketches creation themes, as well as primary issues in the Torah, the teachings and life of Christ and of the early church. Practical applications are made to our lives today, as well as to the plight of humanity in our communities and global neighbourhood.
The content is structured in the way of short anecdotes that weave in and out of certain subjects, while returning to and buildings ideas that relate to our modern discipleship. This way, the book may be read slowly, taking each idea as a basis for further reflection and study. Or, each small section can be used for a group study, forming the basis for further discussion, before going onto the next.
As you will read further on this book: The purpose of writing these things isn’t to criticise, but to bring awareness of some of the reasons for suffering at home and abroad. When we see our part in this, it’s like reading Romans chapters 1-3, which shows the sin of us all. Paul’s purpose there was to bring us all together in one new family of care, where because we are all to blame, we can all share in grace, forgiveness and service at one new table. Like Paul, our purpose here is to build a caring family based on the principles of Christ, and not on the principles of nationality or our world’s economies.
Like Jonah, Israel knew well the sin of the gentiles. Christ came and spoke of their own sin, so they could be light bearers, to restore the gentiles. He came to help us with “the log in our eye,” so we would have grace to love our enemies.
An Overview of the Situation
We often spread the story that the problems we face today are to do with our religious, ethnic or national distinctions. However, the divisions often have a more economic or political basis to them. Factions strive for control in nations, sometimes through terrorism, sometimes supported by international powers for regional economic interest.
The gap between the rich and poor has increased significantly in recent decades. Selling state assets, moving industry to low wage areas, austerity paid for by the poor, and high returns through speculative/ manipulative investments, have had a range of results which have reallocated large amounts of money to the top income earners. “Economic efficiencies” have been embarked upon without due care for those impacted.
Large corporations pay minimal tax, while wages fall, services are cut, and infrastructure declines or is non-existent. Many millions of people have no safety nets for health, income, shelter or food, while a small percentage of the world’s population take all these for granted. Today over 50% of the world’s wealth is owned by just 1 % of the world’s population.
Soon, once again, most of the world’s wealth will be inherited, not earned, as it was with European aristocracy, before Christian democracies brought wealth to the large middle classes. Munitions corporations make massive profits, illegal arms trade swells, while development of poor regions isn’t even considered. It’s these economic issues that often divide us more than anything else.
The First World War was marked by the spread of propaganda, highlighting our racial and religious differences, but the real matter was the struggle of economic empires. We generally believe propaganda and the little man goes to war, millions dying. We are still fighting the economic agenda of the First World War today in the Middle East and the overflow of terrorism that had resulted.
The world is facing severe levels of division today, and much of the answer to our situation lies in the same diagnose Jesus gave to Jerusalem in the first century. If the people eased the sufferings of the common person, reached out across borders of class, race and dogma that divided them, denying the propaganda that isolated them in fear, then the social structures of their populous could be healed and Gehenna and Armageddon in that generation avoided.
Today, the main issues we face are the suffering of millions of people in displacement, mostly through economic and military struggles, globally fed. It seems so clear, that if we don’t like immigration, as some profess, then we should act in concert with other nations to help solve their massive internal problems, that we have all contributed towards.
In many nations there is a huge youth population, that has been by and large neglected. Their disenfranchisement is the most negative force for evil in a nation, not religion or ethnicity. It seems we often fail to see this, because scapegoating a religion or ethnic group seems a much easier solution for us. However, this can promote violence among local populations, while we comment from afar, not rolling up our sleeves at local levels to help overcome the great personal suffering on all sides.
The lack of education is also a massive problem. The debt many nations labour under, the unethical international business deals, international banks withholding foreign funds illegally gotten, local corruption, all collude to cripple economies, impacting millions of lives. These form the ground swell for much of the violence.
Religion can serve very negative agendas if we allow it to “sanctify our fears” and tread upon the humanity of others. We all do this, if we have a good look. The Lamb of God overcame this kind of response by giving his own life, to change self-serving religion into the service of others. It was a violent world, with many groups and their agendas for dominance, but Jesus took the lead in how we should live towards others. Who do we follow today?
Bipartisan politics is essential to address these issues. Bipartisanship is only possible if we drop our anger, bitterness and culture wars that divide us and come together to work out solutions to these issues. If we don’t, the propaganda will decide our future. It we work together, eliminate the “winner takes all” attitude, we can turn things around and build healing into our societies. It’s giving up a culture of fear for a culture of hope, empathy and compassion, which opens and heals broken and hard hearts.
Taking this lead, caring for others, will even open the way to heal many of the moral ills we see. It is healing morality by caring for the needy, defeating our “number one” syndrome, the syndrome that is the bedrock of personal immorality. This was the way of healing presented to the Pharisees for their community, which they refused.
Personal advancement is promoted through the advertising industry… the idea that we must keep up with the Joneses, or we have no value.
Christianity is often sold as a way of achieving these personal goals, and these goals become the real centre of our lives and meaning. Mission, serving others, may be regulated within the parameters set by how we view our lives in this economy.
The abundant life Jesus spoke about brings us into community, where it is our joint needs/ hopes that challenge and transform us, setting us free from loving ourselves.
Personal wealth is an area you don’t want to touch when it comes to sharing in churches. If it is touched at all, it is often from the perspective that “God wants to increase us.” There may be a lot of teaching along those lines. But the area of sharing our wealth with the poor is often a very sensitive one.
We are often told that our wealth is a personal issue. “The gospel is about spiritual things and our wealth must be kept out of the discussion.” Jesus didn’t know anything about this kind of restriction. Much of his teaching was about our wealth. To Jesus, our wealth was a central part of our discipleship.
In discipleship we give up our private lives. This doesn’t mean that our lives are to be manipulated and controlled by pastors or others, who use this teaching to abuse our lives. But it means that every part of our lives is now God’s and God wants us to share with all his children. He wants us to be family, not isolated people living to ourselves. This includes everything we have.
In many societies today we have developed an individualism, a privatisation of our faith, which ancient cultures knew nothing of. The kingdom that Jesus presented is the exact opposite to the kind of cultures we have developed today.
Take the parable of the visitors at midnight for example. A man came to his neighbour’s house at midnight to demand bread for his unexpected visitors. This kind of hospitality, without a pre-arranged appointment, was normal in those cultures.
Cultures that have developed a lack of hospitality to the stranger are violent. It is violence to those in need to shut them out, to build borders and fences, and put times and conditions upon which we can meet. Meeting, coming together with other human beings in need, without pre-set conditions, is what real culture, peace and freedom are built upon.
When dividing conditions becomes part of lives, when our life becomes private unto ourselves, then the meaning of life, the meaning of humanness, and peace itself, are undermined. The parable of the Good Samaritan teachers us this.
This statement about mammon was possibly a summary statement by Jesus on much of his teaching, rather than just a side-line comment of lesser importance.
Jesus’ teaching centred on neighbourliness, the command of God under the Old Testament, the way in which our love for God is expressed in our community lives. These neighbours are extended to mean all people, no matter our background, race, or faith, even to enemies.
Only a life free from the advertising world and control of mammon will allow us to enter this kind of worship. Love for the current kind of economy will prevent us from being the faithful worship community.
Biblical teaching shows that we are to leave (“come out of”) a self-orientated kind of economy, and enter an economy with a sabbath orientation, which means a neighbourly, jubilee, restorative economy. This was the worship of God in the Law and Prophets. This cannot be achieved if we love money.
This issue is then a central part of what discipleship means.
We cannot keep our financial life separate from our neighbourly participation in worship and transformation. We cannot even keep our financial life in a secondary segment. It must be a central factor in what it means to be a disciple, to be family.
Ancient creation myths were the same in their basic themes. A Sumerian myth depicted junior gods complaining of the workload they had in feeding the senior gods. So, the senior gods agreed to create mankind to do the work instead. Man was made as a slave. This was considered morally neutral; it was just the “class system” that was the “practical reality” of life.
When mankind began to grumble, the gods couldn’t get restful sleep at night. So, they finally decided to kill humanity in a great flood. The Flood was seen as a morally neutral act, to deal with a growing slave population, which had become a tiresome menace. In reality, the Flood was the result of oppressive empires raping the ecosystem.
Pagan creation myths, all similar to this, were the rational for how those like Pharaoh dealt with humanity. The rulers followed the rational of the gods; gods they had made in their own image. Science, mixed with humanistic philosophies today, could construct similar gods, with similar consequences for how we treat people. Modern economic theories often treat people like Pharaoh did. People become collateral damage to competitive markets, or global strategic necessities.
The biblical creation story depicts mankind made in the image of God, the creation as non-violent, and humanity brought into a sabbath government of care for each other. The competitive, individualistic, advertising economy of our time, looks more like the pagan world, than the biblical plan of our Creator.
We often hear of wealth building seminars, even being taught by churches. “There are principles by which we can make wealth,” we are told. “Joseph enacted principles of business that made wealth. We can learn these and develop wealth for ourselves as well.”
Forgetting this goes against what Jesus expressly taught about discipleship. He said we are not to build bigger barns for our retirement and other future needs. This hordes wealth and prevents it being used for the needs of all. As Lord, Jesus expressly instructed us not to store up wealth for ourselves, but to trust God for our future, just as the birds of the air do. This allows us to live in community, sharing lives with one another.
This way of living brings justice and peace to the world. These are huge issues. The reason we have war is because we don’t follow what Jesus, the “Prince of Peace,” told us.
Joseph made all Egypt slaves to Pharaoh. This was exactly the opposite of what God intended in our creation. The bible says that Pharaoh owned all land and all people from one end of Egypt to the other.
The Exodus was a liberation of people in bondage, to take them out to sabbath and jubilee. People say, “No, the Exodus was a deliverance from personal sin and idolatry.” Yes, I agree… so that we treat our neighbour with personal justice and care, releasing their debts, returning their properties, setting them free from injustice. We have an Exodus from the idolatry of self.
These are often held up to be a rational for wealth production. In their original setting, when Jesus first taught these parables, they depicted the unjust businessmen of those days, in league with Rome, exploiting the poor in Israel.
They go against all the teachings of the Torah. Exorbitant profits were outlawed under Torah. Instead, the interests of the poor were to be protected from business. The Torah forbad charging interest, yet the businessmen in these parables demanded profits from every possible source. It’s sad when we use parables that spoke of the oppression of others in Jesus’s day to justify similar economics in our own day.
The parable of the pounds in Luke represents Herod, who was given his kinship from Rome, killed his enemies, and conducted unlawful businesses impoverishing the masses. Jesus gave this parable when in the house of Zacchaeus, one of those who repented from this kind of profiteering. Zacchaeus made profits from collecting taxes, profits from holding cash reserves for the Roman army, profits from buying up harvests from the farmers, profits from hording the grain in large barns (forcing up prices, bankrupting farmers), profits from buying and selling the land of the bankrupted, profits from selling grain to the armies…. And he paid his dues to Herod. Sounds like our modern economy.
Salvation for Zacchaeus meant his way of treating his neighbour economically radically changed. His salvation was about his place in his wider community. It wasn’t just an inward spiritual blessing, divorced from a social responsibility to humanity around him. The inner spiritual transformation produced a radical discipleship in regard to his economic life.
When Israel went out into the Wilderness, they thought they would suffer lack outside the power of the Egyptian economy. Egypt controlled the narrative, the cultural rules, which citizens had to follow, or be left out of the distribution of the economy. This economy was god to the people, the one who supplied their wants.
It was anxiety about the loss of this “security in Egypt” that lead to the worship of the golden calf. The people wanted to reinstate an Egyptian kind of control over themselves and the resources, to give them a sense of security for their future. They couldn’t trust God in the Wilderness. It was too scary for them.
But God sent down manna, quail and provided water in the Wilderness, and there was an abundance. The clothing of the people didn’t wear out for forty years in the Wilderness. In the Wilderness there was an abundance, and every need was supplied. The people could live without the domineering narrative of the idolatrous state.
Any state that claims an overruling allegiance is idolatrous. Our allegiance is to the poor, the needy, the outcast, to care for our neighbour, no matter their state, or lack of a state. There are no enemies, because there are no borders; only neighbours.
This is the story of Christ in the Sermon of the Mount. “Love your enemies, do good to them.” “Do not think of tomorrow, God will take care of your wants.” Trust in him and care for the ones the state denies.
“And when they measured the manna by the omer, the one who gathered much did not have too much, and the one who gathered little did not have too little. Everyone had gathered just as much as they needed.” (Exodus 16:18)
The Wilderness wanderings were a lesson against hording, against covetousness. It has been said that the Ten Commandments are primarily about turning covetousness into neighbourliness. “No idols” means to make no god in our own image, “who gives us the desires of our own selfish heart.” The true God gives us a vision of loving our neighbour.
When they gathered manna, they gathered just what they needed. They were to trust that each day God would provide for them, and so there was no anxiety about lack for tomorrow, no need to gather more than they needed, to store riches away for their future, while others missed out what they needed that day.
The Wilderness wanderings were a lesson that resources were to be shared, they belonged to whole community, not to us as individuals. This is the basis of peace. In Pharaoh’s economy, when the empire hoards, it leads to war with other nations.
Peace: Water, land, resources… don’t belong to us, they belong to God. They are for us all. Someone said, “There is enough in the world for everyone’s need, but not for everyone’s greed.” Today, the majority of the world’s resources is stored by a very few people, and a majority of the world languishes in poverty and strife as a result. The bible teaches us that we build peace by caring for our neighbour.
We praise iPhone (or the like) for example, but it has sucked massive amounts of wealth out of the economy and stored it in private barns, while the resources needed to produce it are mined by the poor in conditions of war. That’s the current world economy.
“However, some of them paid no attention to Moses; they kept part of the manna until morning, but it was full of maggots and began to smell.” (Exodus 16:20)
God told Israel not to gather more than they needed each day. They were to trust that God would provide for them each day. Like the Lord’s prayer, “Give us today, our daily need.” This is a life of faith and trust, which if we can’t live, we are impoverished of true meaning and fellowship with others. When we gather wealth for ourselves, we are impoverished of community and relationships in a world made in the image of God.
The Lord’s Prayer: “Your kingdom come… give us this day our daily bread.” See the connection? Following Hebrew poetic parallelism, the second part of the prayer interprets the first. God’s kingdom comes to this world as we learn to live as neighbours, not hoarding for ourselves. These kingdoms are exact opposites.
Growing up in my culture, I was told that the prime objective was to be responsible for my future, by gathering enough for every possible anticipated need through to the end of retirement and death. I was not told that my prime responsibility was to contribute towards an inclusive economy that brought in the stranger, to heal relationships and heal the poor. I was told that a competitive economy would eventually heal the poor, if we allowed market forces to work. That isn’t what God said. He said the market should be corrected by jubilee.
When they gathered more manna than they needed for the day, to store it up in anxiety for their future, that manna spoiled and was useless. This is what happens to our heart when we store wealth away for ourselves, or to our nation’s heart, when we seek to gather up the world’s wealth, at the expense of others. We get leanness of soul. Worms eat our wealth and our also heart that is with our wealth.
“And He gave them their request but sent leanness into their soul.” (Psalm 106:15) Leanness of soul spreads to our nation and this brings us into war with others. Our soul must be big enough for others, not just for ourselves.
God wants us to exodus the economy rational of Egypt, for our own wellbeing as humans, and for the wellbeing of our neighbours.
God wants us to exodus the economy rational of Egypt, for our own wellbeing as humans, and for the wellbeing of our neighbours.
The original creation was filled with abundance and God gave all that to mankind to enjoy and manage sustainably, without greed. The resources of creation were given to the whole community. God made man in his image, male and female, which means the whole community, not just Adam and Eve. And the resources of creation were meant to sustain loving fellowship between us all.
To claim that a section of the resources is “mine,” and separate them off into my own store house, is counter to the creation project of family. The resources belong to us all, to pay the school fees of the millions of children out of school today. They don’t belong to any one of us, or to any one group.
The creation began to be transgressed when mankind wanted to sustain his own image and projects and began to manage the resources for his own idolatry and goals. This is a huge transgression against the creation community.
The concepts of stealing-prevention, private wealth and our responsibility to work, do not extend to a self-orientation in regard to the abundant creation that God gave to us all, nor do they warrant a national disequilibrium in the use of the resources for the wellbeing of others.
It says a lot about us when we call land and houses “real estate.” As if that is real wealth that can’t “take wings and fly away.” As if it is more real, or a higher priority, than our relationships with other people, or our call to restore the suffering.
Just take one city in our modern world and count the wealth stored up in the total value of the houses in that city. It would be enough to settle the educational and health infrastructure of whole nations, for so many millions of people. This shows, just by one example, what is wrong with this kind of world.
The rule of heaven on earth is not like this. When God reigns in our hearts and communities, these communities will not be like this. The Torah shows us this much. We shouldn’t say, “When Jesus comes that is all well and good, but for now we live in a different world.” If we say this, we have missed the point of discipleship. Discipleship means we are the temple of God’s new creation, bringing his rule into our world through his transforming values.
What does this mean for the decisions we make every day? One issue is bank credit. It allows us to build bigger, more comfortable homes for ourselves, but also swells the housing market with money, raising prices, locking up wealth in mortgages and land. The banks make millions, the poor suffer. It’s basically a greed driven economy. Another issue is speculative buying, investments in real estate, that also raise prices in the market. In Australia we have an immigration policy that favours the rich, further swelling the housing market with money. It favours homeowners but draws all the wealth into fixed holdings, making it unavailable for the needs of poor immigrants and others.
Some religious groups share their skills and resources so that houses can be built without the banks. Our faith today is often too individualistic for this kind of approach and we don’t like the cultic tendencies of some “closed” religious groups who do it differently. These cultic tendencies can be real. But we need to find answers if we are going to be salt and light in a true and real way. The way we are living now sustains disequilibrium at massive levels, bringing death to millions. It is a violent economy.
We all participate in this economy. We all participate in Rome. But we are called to the trumpet sound of another Lord, to transform the Rome of our day by our true fellowship of love and care for each other.
The thing that grasps me the most about the creation is the sabbath on the seventh day. Seven is a symbol for God’s flourishing creational care, as we see built into the poetic narrative of Genesis 1. Isaiah 11, as we will see later in this book, spelt out the meaning of the symbol “seven” very clearly: “They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain (temple rule), for the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.”
“Wisdom has built her house; she has set up its seven pillars.” (Proverbs 9:1) In Hebrew thought, this wisdom means the creational care which sustains relationships, the community and the natural environment. It is diametrically opposed to the self-centred wisdom that destroys. The symbol of “seven” refers to this kind of caring, self-giving, cross-shaped wisdom. Creation is a house, meaning a place of caring relationships. It is not a material substance to be exploited and thrown away.
The notion of “rest” meant that God entered his government of care over the creation. “Rest” was a temple theme of the ancient world, that meant God filled his creation like a temple, which refers to his glory of neighbourliness. This is the glory we see in Jesus, his teachings and cross.
This kind of government was to be re-established in Israel after the Exodus. This was why sabbath was reinstituted then. It meant God had once again taken up his jubilee/ restorative rule amongst the nations. It prophetically pointed to the restoration of the creation through the Messiah.
The reign/ rest/ sabbath of God is filling the world today through the church. Paul’s letters were written in this temple motif, with God through the church reconciling the creation, rescuing it from the destructive, divisive pagan “principalities and powers.” (Eph 1, Col 1, 1 Cor 1:28, 15:24)
The sabbath is a contrast to the pagan creation myths of slavery and violence, where the gods fought each other for control of the assets. The creation in Genesis was one of peace. The lack of violence is a clear contrast to the pagan powers of selfishness. There was no killing in God’s creation. Not even meat eating. The animals and humans were given rich plants to nourish them.
The sabbath rule of God is a rule of care. This rule of shalom was to be lived out in the nations through Adam and Eve and their offspring. They were made in God’s image, to rule with him in a flourishing dominion of neighbourliness.
This is what sabbath meant in the Torah. It was to overthrow the oppressive economics of Egypt. There was no sabbath in Egypt, just more bricks, without straw being provided. In the sabbath, the worker was given rest; the exploitive nature of covetousness and of the ego of the gods over the slaves were curtailed.
A nation that loses its sabbath, its care for the widow, the poor, the wage earner, the people without a home, has adopted a paganised view of creation and has thrown off the government of God.
The sabbath in the Torah of Moses wasn’t so much about giving ourselves rest, but about giving rest to our neighbour, like Jesus did for the woman he healed, “loosing her from her bonds,” on the sabbath day. It is about releasing others, as Isaiah 58 pointed out, lifting off the heavy burden from those who suffer. The sabbath command in the Torah was directed to those who controlled the powers of the economy.
When Jesus taught on the sabbath rest this is how he meant it. “All those who labour and are heavy burdened, come to me for rest.” Instead of seeking rest in the power of arms, they were to seek rest in the peaceful, reconciling, community teachings and example of Christ and his meekness. Rest was to be found, not in the subjugation of their enemies, but in their restoration. In this, we find true rest for our souls, in love and fellowship, over hatred and alienation from others. These teachings are not to be taken in the sense of individualistic piety, which fails to restore the community.
Moses commanded the patriarchal heads of the society to reduce the grip of their power over the weaker people. They were to give rest to their servant and maidservant, and to their animals which worked their fields. After seven years, slaves were to be released and farmers were to give rest to the land which they cultivated. They were not to exploit the weaker people, nor the environment, through greed. They were to maintain the rule which brings restorative flourishing to weaker people and to the environment, which builds and sustains the creation in goodness.
This sabbath became the central principle of the Torah. Everything concerning God’s form of government in Israel revolved around the sabbath idea. Care for the widow, the orphan, the stranger (refugee), the foreigner, even for their enemy, was an extension of the sabbath rule of care towards their neighbour. This care was to rule Israel’s heart, not the economic principles of competition and war that ruled Egypt. This neighbourly care was to become the central teaching of the Prophets and of Jesus Christ himself.
The crescendo of the sabbath was the jubilee, celebrated after seven times seven years, in the fiftieth year. Here, land was returned to the poor and all debts were to be forgiven. Everything the powerful had gathered from others during the fifty years had to be restored to the original owners. This was to prevent a case where the rich continued to get richer and the poor, poorer. It was an economics of restoration, of giving rest to the downtrodden. This would bring stability to the society, and peace to the nation. It was an economics of peace.
The economics of peace wasn’t one that required Israel to take more and more from the poor to build greater masses of weapons. It was one where the poor and foreigner were restored, so war wouldn’t be required. Rest doesn’t come through weapons. It comes through justice.
The Ten Commandments were given to Israel in the context of the Exodus from Egypt. They were exchanging the god of Pharaoh for the true God. They were exchanging Pharaoh’s economy of monopoly, for an economy of neighbourliness. In Pharaoh’s economy, wealth was extracted from the poor into Pharaoh’s barns. In God’s economy, wealth is supplied by a God of love, to be used to restore all, including the neighbour.
In Pharaoh’s world, there was an idolatry of self, in which the interests of the neighbour were in danger. Instead, God wanted Israel to bear his image alone, which we see in the Torah as an image of kindness and protection towards the weak.
After speaking about worshipping the true God without idolatry, the Ten Commandments address the sabbath: which was about serving the welfare of others in our reach. This was aimed specifically at overthrowing Pharaoh’s exploitive rule in our hearts. The only way we do this is if we overcome the anxiety of lack in our own lives. Anxiety produces an idolatry of self, which our modern cultures have taken as normal.
The Wilderness taught Israel God’s provision, so they would be free from anxiety about their own future, to love and serve those in need. They wouldn’t have to store for themselves. This liberates the world into neighbourliness. This is real freedom from idolatry. Idolatry prevents neighbour love, because it centres worship on our own desires. Even in the church we can have idolatry, if we focus our worship on our own interests.
The Ten Commandments finish with the law against covetousness. Covetousness is the epitome of idolatry and its ravaging impact on our communities. “You shall not covet your neighbour’s house. You shall not covet your neighbour’s wife, or his male or female servant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbour.”
What’s at the centre of this commandment? The neighbour is. This is the Exodus, coming out of a me-centred economy, into a community centred life. The focus on the neighbour in the Ten Commandments was the exact opposite of Israel’s experience in Egypt. God wanted to make sure they left the way of Egypt behind.
Today, Pharaoh’s economy is called “keeping up with the Joneses.” We are happy with our car until we see Jones with a newer model. This enslaves us just as much as Pharaoh enslaved Israel. We are given to work for our desires, until relationships with those around us are lost. Fear of losing our material possessions, land and houses, drives us into insecurity, propaganda and war with others.
This is a material centred life, which puts reconciling with our enemies out of the picture. Sometimes our whole view of Christianity is distorted by this. Our material interest come first, as we are told God is on our side, and the welfare of our enemies doesn’t come into our mind.
Idolatry causes us to lose the image of Christlikeness that we are called to in the world. Christ calls us to our neighbour.
The ancient pagan creation myths all spoke of creation coming about through the warfare of the gods. The god that won the battle would bring order to the creation. The myth that has prevailed through human history is that order comes to creation, to our nation states, through warfare: “The war to end all wars,” is a flawed modern phrase that comes to mind.
In the Genesis creation narrative there is no warfare, but the process describes the creation coming from an early state of chaos and darkness into light, order and shalom. In the Exodus, Israel would have seen this as a corrective to the well-known pagan insistence that order comes through slavery and violence.
The biblical picture is clear. Chaos is in our creation, not because it is inherent in the creation itself (something that needs to be driven out by force), but because it has come into the creation through the acts of humanity. Self-centredness has unleashed the waters of chaos throughout our communities. In the biblical narrative, these waters, and the associated sea monsters like Leviathan, are sometimes used symbolically for the ravaging acts of pagan nations, unleashing their covetousness and the disquiet of their souls upon the communities of the world in destruction.
When Israel inherited this Genesis creation story as their founding document, they would have seen their priestly calling clearly. They were to overcome chaos in their own hearts, in their own relationships within Israel and then as salt to the nations of the world. They were to bring a renewing influence through their image-of-God calling.
The corrective of God to the pagan world was that chaos is driven back as we forsake selfishness and instead care for our neighbour. Giving sabbath rest to the downtrodden, jubilee love to the refugee and enemy (an economics of care for the weak), Israel would drive back pagan self-interested violence and reverse the chaos of creation. This was the clear conclusion to the biblical creation/ Exodus/ and Torah narratives, joined together in Israel’s founding vision. It also became the basis of the opening to John’s Gospel: God has come to us in Christ to drive back the darkness, restoring the creation through his new Adam and Eves.
The amazing thing about jubilee is that the Torah commanded that it be celebrated on the Day of Atonement. This defines for us what atonement meant in the hearts of the Hebrew community. The Day of Atonement was a special day each year, when Israel gathered to worship God at Jerusalem. Sacrifices were made for the sins of Israel.
We usually think of atonement as just a personal, spiritual matter. But this wasn’t what it was in Israel’s law. Israel’s sins were to be covered, dealt with, put away, by reconciling their relationships and economic conditions. Atonement is about our community, how we treat others. Each year they ate meals together, with the poor and stranger, showing the caring, restorative intention of their worship.
All of Israel’s feasts were like this. Worship, from the institution of the first feast of Passover, was always an eating together, restoring each other. This is where the concept of the “communion meal” came from. We see in the early church its intention is the same; to rebuild each other’s lives as an act of worship and love. The meal represents a relationship, an economic sharing, a giving of ourselves for each other. The Passover of Christ means his passing over us, between us and the Destroyer. We do this when we stand for the poor.
Jesus depicted this in his teaching about coming to the temple to offer a sacrifice. He said, if our neighbour has something against us, go and make it right with them first. This is atonement; we worship God as neighbours, not alone. Jesus came to bring atonement through a new community who would restore the poor of spirit, comfort those who mourn, give food to the hungry, mercy to the weak and acts of peace to the oppressed.
That is, sin has its awful impact on our societies by the damage it does to people. Making atonement for that sin would be through healing that damage in the lives of our neighbours. Putting away the evil would be through caring for others, repairing what that evil has done and the bitterness and alienation it has caused in our community lives.
This is the beautiful atonement theology we see in the Sermon on the Mount; offering reconciling acts of care (the extra mile, the other cheek, the shirt as well as the coat, prayer and services for our enemies) to the community as we forgive the debts of others, just as God did to us in Christ.
Satan works through damaged lives (through the bitterness, alienation, anger and violence it brings into our communities), as we fight each other over real or perceived injustices. We are currently embroiled in this in our modern “culture wars.” Reaching out to heal and repair the lives of those who are hurt, heals a community of the impact of evil. It delivers the community from satan’s destruction, from the unforgiveness that works in our own hearts towards others.
Take abortion as an example. Maybe the best way to help in matters like this, is for the church to reach out to and serve the women, who are often victims. We can bring atonement to our community, a change of heart regarding caring for babies, by showing selfless care as “Christ’s body,” meaning as Christ would do in our shoes. The real issue in our societies is a heart issue. The church then becomes the conscience of the society, by its self-giving atoning acts of mercy, even touching the conscience of couples who use abortion just as a convenience.
God said that if Israel kept his law, then the sins of one generation would not be passed down to subsequent generations. That is, if they kept jubilee, setting people free from their wounds and misfortunes, satan’s grip upon the community, in the alienation and angry desire for retribution within people’s hearts, would be broken. Jubilee was the prime means by which God planned for Israel to recover from the sins of their fathers.
It’s the same for any nation today and for the world as a whole. If we care for the poor and the marginalised, the world will be healed. If we don’t care for our neighbour, the world will head towards war.
The Pharisees had a theology where they thought God overcame evil through punishing it, requiring a legal settlement. This punishment could be directed upon a sacrifice instead of upon themselves. They misread God in the law, who was accommodating mankind’s own natural view that reparation was required for forgiveness. Christ’s antipathy towards sacrifice and bloodshed was not understood by the Pharisees. They couldn’t see how he could be of God and yet seem to contradict Moses, who legislated sacrifice.
Jesus taught us to overcome evil with good. This drastically alters our view of justice, our alienation from those who are suffering, showing us that renewal comes through restoring others. “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” (Matt 9:13) Jesus would totally transform what sacrifice meant, from a violent payment demanded by the gods for “justice,” to a selfless act of serving to rescue and restore others.
The Good Samaritan is a commentary on how evil impacts society and God’s remedy for it. The priest and the Levite served in the temple, where they officiated at the daily sacrifices. These were the same sacrifices that Jesus later stopped, by setting the animals free from the temple. He later ended sacrifice with his own death and resurrection.
The work of the priest and Levite was ultimately vain. The culture of retributive justice continued to increase in the community of that century. Sacrifices at the temple were multiplied, “to obtain the favour of God.” This violent view of religion finally spilled over into the whole community in civil war. Satan’s demand in their hearts for blood ultimately brought them destruction. The sacrifices of our “modern temples” include people’s reputations slain in the media. But neither can these “priestly offerings” heal the community.
Only the cross can free our hearts from this enemy, this retribution that rules. From the cross we receive forgiveness from God in the person of Christ freely. He demanded no recompense but forgave with an understanding compassion towards his enemies. He then asks us to treat others the same way. It was the work of the Samaritan, though he was an outsider, that reflected God’s own way of dealing with evil in our hearts and relationships, especially where division exists in our wider communities.
The Samaritan helped the wounded and discarded man. This wounded man on the road to Jericho represented Christ and all those who suffer; beaten, rejected and left alone by a world seeking its own interest and ambitions, including today’s refugees who drown in the seas, fleeing from conflict or depravation. We say it’s the people smugglers who are to blame. But the smugglers are there because we aren’t there serving.
When Paul said we are a new creation, he meant we are the new Adam and Eves bringing restoration to the world. (2 Cor 5:17) This was Paul’s context: “God, who said, ‘let there be light,’ has now shone in our hearts through his Son.” (2 Cor 4:6) To the Jew then, “Son” meant the one reflecting God’s sabbath image into the creation. The implication of this creation language to the Jewish disciple then was unmistakable. If we aren’t on the seas rescuing “the weakest of these,” they will be radicalised. New creation comes as we reconcile; rescue the destitute. If we don’t, our nations will be consumed by conflict, which is part of the meaning of the metaphor in Matt 25:41.
“You have not strengthened the weak or healed the sick or bound up the injured. You have not brought back the strays or searched for the lost. You have ruled them harshly and brutally.” (Ezekiel 34:4) In Ezekiel, the expanded shepherd narrative was about God raising up a new people who would make the world new through caring for the weak.
Literal fences of economic exclusion are being built in northern Africa, the Middle East, Eastern Europe and North America, while we need restoration of nations instead. Christ introduced an economics of one table, while man builds higher walls. When you have one table, you don’t need fences.
It is said that the wall around Jeruslem in the book of Revelation warrants walls today. However, Revelation says its gates shall always be open, day and night. The walls are symbolic, of the security that comes through love. If we depend on walls of economic exclusion, we end up with a “Hunger Games” culture. Hebrews 13:14 said let us follow Jesus “outside the camp,” meaning into these places of exclusion to heal.
The Samaritan dealt with the evil on the road by restoring the man with “jubilee,” without a pre-requisite test of worthiness. It was simple neighbourliness, beautiful “hesed” (Hebrew: covenant-faithfulness, loving-kindness.) Amazing; the infidel showed covenant-fidelity to the true God, reflecting the cross of Christ.
Offering sacrifices in the church will not heal our world, unless those sacrifices are true praise, inspiring us to practically care for others outside the church. Then we go out together to follow God, to serve the world. This is the sacrifice Jesus spoke of in the Good Samaritan parable, referring to the oil and wine (Old Testament emblems of sacrifice) pouring them into the world’s wounds. (Lev 23:13) A sacrifice of love on the roads and seas of human suffering. It is this service to the wounded that heals our world. This is what puts away the sin, the work of satan in our hearts and relationships.
Privatised religion doesn’t provide the sacrifice that atones. Community care for the broken is the sacrifice that atones. Jubilee was celebrated on the Day of Atonement, showing that atonement means healing the brokenness in our societies. The feasts of Israel show us our calling to “at-one-ment.” We become one in care with others, putting away our evil. And for satan to be dealt with, this service, like that of the Good Samaritan, must be towards all our neighbours, no matter their background, even our enemies. This is the service that heals our land.
Some may argue that “God set the boundaries separating people behind their different borders.” (Acts 17:26) How can atonement for a new world travel between us if we lock ourselves out from each other? Under the law God separates us, but under Christ and the outreach of the church he brings us together for healing and newness. In the new covenant the world is healed; it becomes a new creation with an entirely different culture. In Christ’s culture there is neither male nor female, resident nor alien. There is one washbowl and towel for all our feet.
We must not use Old Testament conditions to justify wrong attitudes today, the way the Pharisees did. Christ came to heal these former conditions of alienation that the law brought, and we must follow him for it to be lived out in healing relationships.
This takes theological work, like Paul did, to sort out what came through the law and what is creational, that existed before the law, before the fall, and is restored in Christ. Just because racism is nullified in Christ, that doesn’t mean marriage is redefined, for example. “In the beginning it was not so.” (Matt 19:8) The law guided us through the fallen world, with our broken hearts and relationships. Now in Christ, the creation is being restored.
In the matter of progressive theology, the issue is what gives progress towards a renewed creation and what is regressive/ destructive to wider community. Progress means maintaining a conservative creational faith (a faith that conserves creation/ life), while loving and restoring the broken. So, when we talk about a progressive faith, we mean both a sexual-moral renewal (family care) and an economic care for the broken. These protect and restore the weakest in our communities. This includes a practical love and sharing with those who disagree with us.
This is the kind of community that economics within our relationships is to build, a restorative outlook towards the guilty and downtrodden, rather than a punitive viewpoint. The people the jubilee sought to heal were also guilty. Those who lost their land, who were in debt, or who were slaves, were often so because of some sin or short falling in their lives, whether drunkenness, or crimes they had to settle through payments they couldn’t afford. These are the people God told us to restore in jubilee.
We have built a class and often racial system that locks up those who threaten our possessions and children and throws away the key. There is little heart to restore others and their children, or to restore wider social problems, but just to protect ourselves, and the advantage we often have through our birth and the good nurture of our parents.
Punitive justice is often a system that maintains our economic advantage. Instead, we should be seeking to treat others as people made in the image of God and help them to share our good fortune. This won’t be an easy thing to do. It cost Jesus everything. We are stubborn people and hard to heal. Our commitment should be to build the kind of relationships that heal others, rather than to seeking our own futures in our private suburbs. This is what the Incarnation of Christ shows us. (Phil 2:5-11)
The Pharisees held to the idea that they had wealth because they were good, worthy, did the work, lived the righteous life. If others were poor, they were to blame, or even cursed in some way. We often share these kinds of views today, as a justification for our detachment. This is what Jesus very clearly rebuked in the first century social life. He called them to restore the outsider, the guilty (the sinner), and the ones left behind.
Nations today don’t have anything like Israel’s jubilee law about land. When land is sold, it doesn’t come back to the family unless it is re-purchased. If the person who sold it wasted the proceeds on drunkenness, poor decisions or misfortune, the generations that follow also stand to suffer the consequences. They are born without a home, or a means of livelihood or income.
In the UK, large populations are the descendants of people made landless by an act of parliament that took the common land for the rich. Agriculture was greatly improved, but not in a way that included and restored the common people. These homeless people became the prey of businesses in the industrial revolution, cheap labour, like slavery.
This cheap labour force also became fodder for the army, enabling Britain to forge a global empire. It was only the social awareness of the likes of the Wesleyan, Booth, Nightingale and Wilberforce movements that saved Britain from a bloody revolution like occurred in France. Social reforms began to come to the nation.
Today, when a mine shuts down, or a large company closes, large numbers of people are left without jobs. Banks move in to repossess their homes. As university fees rise, it’s very difficult for the children to gain a suitable education. They certainly don’t have the support that children from wealthier families have.
So, how do we apply land jubilee laws to today’s communities? Unless we continue to find solutions to this issue, wealth will continue to be transferred to the rich, and the middle class will disappear, and democracy with it. People in better circumstances will be able to further enrich themselves by preying upon others in difficult times, until more and more, wealth becomes concentrated in fewer hands, and we all end up back in Egypt. This has been the trend in Western nations since the 1970’s.
An economics of land, something like Israel had, is vital. The return of land to its original owners every fifty years prevented generational poverty. It also prevented inflation in the land market, keeping speculative money out. Land isn’t to be used as a speculative wealth earner for the rich. The market must be kept stable, so everyone has a home. As speculative money moves into the housing market, prices inflate, and people get forced out, and into the rental market. This breaks down the wealth of the middle class and weakens their participation in democracy. Democracy becomes a system that is bought by the rich. This is Egypt, not the kingdom of God. The banks must move towards a genuine jubilee culture.
The banks won’t do this, which is why God called the church; to model care towards others, which renews the world powers, as the church did to the Roman Empire. (Eph 3:10) The banks aren’t our hope, the government of Christ over our hearts and believing community is. Emperor Julian complained the church loved its enemies and was taking over the Empire, so he implemented changes for good. The church takes the lead in repentance and new life.
We once visited a museum in Adelaide, Australia, where it was recalled that a government official came out from the UK in Australia’s formative years. He noticed how land was being sold to common people and advised that this be stopped. He said the price of the land should be raised, so many people would be forced to rent. He said this would weaken their bargaining power in the labour market and lower wages, further enriching the wealthy. It is a kind of empire-economics. Lower wages mean higher productivity, further exploitation of resources, more dominance on the global power scene. The government then followed the official’s advice. This is nearer to Egypt than to new creation. Australia hasn’t always done this, but it shows the kind of issues at play.
But if you were an Aboriginal it was even worse. Land was taken and given to the elite. They sold it out to others who built farms and homes. Aboriginals were forced into settlements, which was highly demeaning. Fences were put up, which made others “trespassers, criminals.” This is exactly what England had previously done to its own inhabitants. But if you are building a competitive empire in the world, contrary to Christ, these kinds of practices become necessary. Isaiah envisioned a different world, where wolves don’t prey on lambs, but serve. Christians are to be the light of that world.
Isaiah’s vision, and Israel’s vision, was largely about land. As the kingdom rule of God comes, people are settled safely in their land, “everyman under his fig tree.” The vision of Ezekiel and Revelation, about Gog and Magog coming against a peaceful people in their dwellings in their land, could easily be applied to our current economies. The peaceful community of Revelation is that which restores people to neighbourliness, as we see in Acts. Today, we have rising GDP levels, with a reduction of people who own their own homes. In a community of peace, these people are restored. This, not GDP, is to be the measure of our communities’ wellbeing. This is God’s vision of new creation.
In Israel’s sabbath/ jubilee community, debts also had to be forgiven every seven years. Moses told Israel that if a person was in need, and we had the power to make him a loan, we had to do so, even though there was a risk of losing the money through the mandatory forgiveness. People were to be treated as a brother or sister, and as being more important than our own money, especially when we have enough food for ourselves.
There is no record that Israel ever kept this principle of jubilee and the cancellation of debts. They didn’t follow the economics of Torah. When we speak of forgiveness of others in the New Testament, we usually don’t link it to economic issues, but just spiritual matters. This kind of separation is unintended in the scriptures. “Forgive us our debts, as we forgive those indebted to us,” refers to debts in total, including economic ones.
Forgiving debts restores the poor and brings a healing equilibrium back to the economy. It builds up the middle class. This strengthens our nations and enables them to withstand the likelihood of more controlling powers in businesses or politics taking over communities and nations. Restoring the poor heals our democracies more than anything else. It prevents dictatorships taking over.
Western nations continue to suck large amounts of resources out of weaker nations. By making loans to other nations, knowing that corrupt leaders will deposit the money back into Western bank accounts, Western economies are made more buoyant, while they continue to take interest payments on the loans year after year. Those who suffer are the millions of people whose savings are made worthless, and whose economies are devastated. We are all complicit in this corruption.
Nothing would liberate and stimulate our economies more than the forgiveness of debt, both for the struggling homeowners in Western nations and for the millions whose lives are being destroyed by debt in developing nations.
Moses stipulated that the lender could not take needed properties from the poor as collateral for their loan. Moses stated that the coat of a poor man, taken by the lender as security for a loan, must be returned to the man each night, to keep him warm in the cold.
Imagine the lender dropping off the coat each day over a twenty-year loan period. The obvious meaning of Moses is that the person who loaned money was not permitted to use that loan as a way of extracting more wealth from people in their disadvantaged periods of their life.
In other words, banks were restricted from redistributing wealth from the poor to the rich. Interest payments are another way of redistributing wealth from the poor to the rich, as are low minimum wages. These are all Pharaonic economic practices.
Today, if there is a drought, farms will be repossessed by banks. If people lose their jobs, or if the local economy goes into depression, people lose their houses and all the payments they gave to the banks over the years are taken from them. The banks have a power that is wrong and enough control in the political process to keep it intact.
We often talk about redistribution of wealth from the rich to the poor, through taxes. In reality, this is returning wealth that has been extracted from the poor in long term economic policies that have taken advantage over others in their times of wrongdoing or misfortune. The rich paying taxes is a way of redressing this, of building infrastructure and education facilities that help restore lives.
Giving the rich tax exemptions doesn’t build our economies through job opportunities but enables the rich to put away more funds in store houses and speculative investments like land and housing. This further inflates the housing market, making it impossible for the poorer people to own homes. This is why the middle class is shrinking and the percentage of the population who own their own homes is falling.
When giving tax breaks to the rich does bring our economies towards full employment, this usually means lower wages in the job market. People lose their bargaining power when applying for jobs. If the market is for the swift, then those who have the bargaining power, not balanced by policies to protect the vulnerable, will have an unfair advantage. Other people then find that though they work 12 hours a day, they still don’t have enough to meet their basic needs.
The scriptures inform us that a consistent culture of jubilee and sabbath, that restores and builds the lives of all in our communities, brings a balanced peaceful nature to our relationships and nations. If we think we are wiser in our modern world than this, then we don’t know what godly or creational wisdom is.
The purpose of writing these things isn’t to criticise, but to bring awareness of some of the reasons for suffering at home and abroad. When we see our part in this, it’s like reading Romans chapters 1-3, which shows the sin of us all. Paul’s purpose there was to bring us all together in one new family of care, where because we are all to blame, we can all share in grace, forgiveness and service at one new table. Like Paul, our purpose here is to build a caring family based on the principles of Christ, and not on the principles of nationality or our world’s economies.
There were punitive measures in the Torah for people who lied or stole, or who didn’t work. These measures have often been used in our societies to justify punishing the poorer members of communities and not the more powerful. How many of those who caused the global market crash of 2008, which impoverished millions of people, were imprisoned? When these global banks collapsed, their debt was fully forgiven, the directors’ bonuses were paid, while the debts of the poor were not forgiven.
The punitive measures of the Torah were due mainly to the people not having the heart to restore the guilty. Punitive measures in the Torah prevented revenge for such crimes from being disproportionate. The Torah curtailed a greater wrath from the community, which could become genocidal, with limited punitive stipulations. This again is why the people couldn’t easily understand Jesus when he came speaking of forgiveness and restorative acts being the heart of God.
It’s like the aristocracy of England, who punished hungry people for eating “their wild animals” in the forest. Many times, whole segments of our communities have suffered in long term disadvantage. Our prisons have become full of offenders from such places. This is inhumane. It’s much more humane, and much cheaper, much more stimulating to the economy for everyone, if such communities were restored rather than punished.
“Forgive them Father, for they don’t know what they are doing.” This was Jesus’ response on the cross. It should be our response also. The cross reconciles, forgives and restores the guilty and broken, and Christians should also bear this same image in our relationships in the world.
Israel had several annual festivals on their calendar. All of these were celebrated as remembrances, commemorating God’s goodness to them as a people. Before we look at the nature of these commemorations, let’s look at some that are common now in Australia.
Around the 1980’s I noticed war commemorations becoming more popular in Australia. This popularity has been growing to the present day, especially, it seems, as we perceive more threats in the world. Commemorations like ANZAC and Armistice Day are among the most popular memorials in our communities. Wars are also commemorated by statues of past war heroes set up in our city centres. These serve as remembrances of important events in our history.
Mardi Gras began as a festival held just prior to the fasting period of Lent in the church. In recent years it has been transformed into a celebration of “non-straight” (male/ female marriage for life) sexuality, and the Mardi Gras has grown to become a main annual festival.
Commemorating past wars can be useful for a community if we are reminded of the gravity of war. If these remembrances strengthen our resolve not to go to war again, but to change our ways and seek for peace, then they serve us well. It is sometimes the older generation that remember the horrors of war and are more restrained in their outlook.
But if these remembrances become a celebration of war, of our military strength and of the pride of our nation, then they signal a real danger ahead. This is when our commemorations become idolatrous, and this idolatry will make us aggressive against others and send us to war. Festivals of military power and sexual prowess were common ancient pagan themes, associated with a breakdown of order, chaos and war.
Now, let’s look at the Hebrew festivals/ remembrances. This text is typical of their nature: “Count off seven weeks from the time you begin to put the sickle to the standing grain. Then celebrate the Festival of Weeks to the Lord your God by giving a freewill offering in proportion to the blessings the Lord your God has given you. And rejoice before the Lord your God at the place he will choose as a dwelling for his name: you, your sons and daughters, your male and female servants, the Levites in your towns, and the foreigners, the fatherless and the widows living among you. Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and follow carefully these decrees.” (Deut 16:9-12)
- Like the day of atonement, Israel’s other festivals were economic or social in nature. Israel’s communities consisted mainly of agrarian economies, and so the offerings of their wealth were mainly in harvested foods.
- Their offerings were to help the poor among them. The Levites received a share, and the foreigners, orphans and widows. This is representative for any in need in their land. Foreigners were commonly seen as invaders, as enemies, but God said they had to be treated as equal to indigenes: “‘When a foreigner resides among you in your land, do not mistreat them. The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the Lord your God.” (Lev 19:33-34)
- Israel was told to commemorate their humility, not their strength. “Remember you were slaves.” Moses and the Prophets consistently told Israel they were chosen because of their weakness, not because of their strength, as a sign to the world of God’s love, not of Israel’s superiority. (Deut 7:7-9)
- The festivals were for the purpose of remembering God forgiving Israel of their sins, delivering them from slavery and showing mercy to them in their land. The reason they were told to remember this was so that they would do the same to others around them in need. They would forgive their enemies, deliver them in a consistent culture of jubilee, and show them mercy through acts of restoration. “He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the foreigner residing among you, giving them food and clothing. And you are to love those who are foreigners, for you yourselves were foreigners in Egypt.” (Deut 10:18-19)
Israel replaced the festivals of war and sex, festivals of idolatry and pride, with festivals of humility, economic and social in nature, restoring the poor among them. And why did God prescribe these festivals for them. “So that it might be well with them in the land.” Conducting their commemorations and worship of God in humility and care of others would lead their land into peace. God is good and he wants us to share his goodness with those in need.
Today we have more displaced foreigners on the move and in need than at any time in human history. Some are displaced because of war, others in history by weather changes. Abraham was displaced from his father’s land by the call of God. He and all others should be treated as we would want to be treated ourselves, with hospitality and care.
How do we respond to today’s global homeless situation? It affects almost all of us in one way or another. We all see it around our communities. We all face its threats and possibilities for the gospel it brings to our land. Do we respond by building walls against the poor, by beefing up our military celebrations? Or do we respond by jubilee? What we celebrate in our commemorations will determine the way we treat our neighbours and that will determine the wellbeing of our land.
It has been argued that the Torah supported a culture of exclusion, driving idolaters out of the land, requiring circumcision and cultural cohesion for all those who would enter their nation. This was the nature of the law, in which the human heart was bound. It builds a culture of exclusion that must be regulated to limit the harm our ethnic groups do to each other. We see Israel in bondage to this hatred of the gentiles, which wasn’t healed unto Jesus rose from the dead. Jesus gave us grace to serve, to heal our hearts, to overcome idolatry and division, which the law couldn’t do. The biggest victory of Christ is that we aren’t under this law that breads scapegoating anymore.
It would be so easy for Israel to forsake their special calling and look at the world around them. The logic of the pagan world, to protect their own interests, rather than to work to heal relationships in a broken world, looks so right and sensible.
So, Moses warned them not to ask for a king, like the other nations. This worldly form of seeking justice, through the power of the king, seems so right. “He will make us strong, to go out and fight, to make sure justice and peace prevail in our land.”
Seems like a simple remedy, just a small matter of a king. At first glance, when Israel asked for a king, it didn’t seem such an earth-shattering matter. But what was at stake was the whole identity of the nation. What was at stake was the whole rational of the kingdom of God, which had come to reign through this new nation. This reign of God would now be on hold until Christ came.
God said that in asking for a king, Israel had rejected him as their king. This means they had rejected the cross. They had rejected the true way of justice in the world, taking up our cross and forgiving our enemies. This alone can restore our relationships and heal the creation. The logic of man doesn’t bring peace. They had rejected Christ and gone for Pharaoh.
It is an economics of restoring the weak that makes us strong, not the power of arms.
Israel was set up with judges to settle their disputes. We see these in the book of Judges, where they delivered Israel from captivity over and over again.
This is what the people wanted in Christ when he came. They came to make him king, for him to deliver them from their enemies. They wanted a judge/ king like figure to slay others and set them free. But Jesus refused this judge/ king way of deliverance. When they wanted to make him king, he replied that he had come instead to be lifted up, referring to his death on the cross. This is how he would set us free.
In all Christ’s teachings, freedom comes as the Holy Spirit renews our heart, delivering us from self-centredness, so that we take in our neighbour to care for them. Most of the teachings of Jesus show how this new heart brings us to a new form of neighbourly economics, that frees us and our communities from oppression.
We cannot ignore this new economics that Jesus was teaching. We cannot say our heart is made new and take this privately. The new heart is a community issue. The purpose of the new heart is to reconcile us with our neighbour and enemy and this can’t be done without relationships that include our economic restoration of each other.
This neighbourly love and care, this economic justice, not the force of the judge or king, is that path that Jesus chose to set our communities free. Whenever the judge or king strikes to slay the enemy, new enemies arise. But when our lives change from the inside, and that change spreads to our relationships with strangers, the genuine hope of the rule of God is among us.
God warned Israel that if they chose to have a king over them, that king would put them under a heavy tax burden. This wouldn’t be taxes to care for the poor in Israel, but taxes to feed the king’s house, his harem of wives and concubines, his buildings that weren’t designed to serve those in need, and his weapons, horses and fortresses of war. If Israel chose war as their security, that would cost them a fortune. And this fortune would undermine the security they sought to build.
Building massive armed forces costs so much that the needy can’t possibly be cared for. This means that our armed presence in the world is seen as oppressive. It is seen as something that bolsters a ruling family or class, rather than something that protects the real interests of the poor. We can’t build massive armed forces and restore the weak and broken people of our land or world. These two don’t go together. We can’t build schools and hospitals for the poor and finance the world’s greatest armoury.
This is why Solomon’s kingdom broke down after his reign. The prophet depicted Israel as a garment, that had been torn, with the northern tribes departing into a separate nation. Our national unity is like the fabric of a garment. It is woven thread, made into one garment. Keeping this fabric together is called the cohesion of the nation. It is justice that gives us national cohesion, that prevents our garment from tearing apart. With all the might of Solomon, he couldn’t maintain the unity that his might was supposed to protect.
With all his wisdom, he missed the wisdom of God. A nation is built, not by the wisdom of international diplomacy, gold, cheap slave labour, strategic alliances, but by building the middle class, raising up the poor, loving those from other tribes, bringing restoration to the marginalised. It’s difficult for us to listen to this even today.
The international weapons trade today is a large, lucrative business. These weapons are often used to destabilise nations, to kill and maim many people, to displace millions of people in homelessness, destroy their schools, clinics and businesses. How can weapons bring stability and justice to our world, when they bring such hurt to so many millions? And this hurt remains unaddressed and unhealed.
Weaponry is a massive economic issue. People make huge amounts of money in weapons contracts and influence government policy to keep their industries alive. Weapons fall into the hands of smugglers and fill nations with illegal arms. People from nations of all backgrounds are involved in illegal weapons trade. The weapons even fall into the hands of terrorists and sometimes can build large terrorist organisations with sophisticated equipment.
To stand against this weapons trade is a mammoth task. It’s like William Wilberforce and others who stood against slavery. Everyone else said slavery could not be stopped. It was too much in the fabric of our cultures, from as far back as anyone could remember. You couldn’t build empires without it. So many people profited from it. It was just the simple logic of the world. How could one class get rich without it?
People advised the anti-slavers that their task was impossible. The power structures behind slavery were too enormous. They could never defeat the international coalition of the wealthy slave transporters. John Newton, a transformed slave trader, worked incessantly to bring the change. Eventually the anti-slavers won the day and slavery was outlawed.
Today our world is a different one as a result. At least we know slavery is morally and “economically wrong.” The idea that economics must be a moral matter, and not just pragmatic, morally neutral, began to dawn on our nations. But this idea hasn’t yet taken hold. Much of our economics, at home and globally, is still very morally wrong, destroying countless lives of the weak.
It’s the same with the weapons industry and trade. There are massive vested interests involved. To make a difference in this evil would seem impossible for small voices. But it can be done. It must be done. We cannot help the wounded, marginalised and poor people in a world which is given to making profit from their death and misery.
God told Israel through the law of Moses not to amass horses and chariots, which were the front-line weapon of war in those days. He told them not to build fortresses and not to maintain a standing army. These were all the big cost centres that would drain the money that the widow, orphan, stranger and others needed to restore their wellbeing.
It’s amazing to see that God brought Israel our of Egypt and placed them in their new land, which was situated at the exact trade centre of the three worlds: Africa, Asia and Europe. They were situated right in the middle of the world’s main waring empires: Egypt and the Hittites. And in placing Israel there, God told them not to follow the logic of empires for their national security. One would wonder if God knew what he was saying.
God’s instructions to Israel were the same that Jesus would later give us all in the Sermon on the Mount. There, Jesus taught that peace comes to our communities by seeking justice and mercy for the downtrodden. He said peace comes as we seek to love and be reconciled with our enemies, by doing good to them and returning good for evil. The logic here is the same as Moses gave Israel: security comes as we care for others, not as we seek brute force against them. Every empire of brute force has fallen, but the church of mercy and grace is growing throughout the world.
Israel’s security, in the most dangerous place in the world, would not be through force, but in merciful justice to their neighbour, in reconciling relationships with their enemies and with the wounded. Our economics must be set to bolster this divine vision, not the vision of fallen humanity.
This is the cross Israel rejected, right from the beginning of their history, just as they did when Jesus came preaching the same message. Through history, the church has also often rejected this message of God.
Isaiah wrote throughout the history of the pagan empires that ravaged the land, like “torrential rivers” sweeping away all before them. Syria, Israel, Assyria and Babylon were all kingdoms Isaiah dealt with. In contrast, were the “still waters of Shiloah,” the Prince of Peace, and his kingdom, in which there was no harm. In Christ’s kingdom, people would be a “shelter from the wind and a refuge from the storm, like streams of water in the desert and the shadow of a great rock in a thirsty land.”
Isaiah 16 spoke about the refugees, the people displaced by the destruction in the region. Among these were the Edomites, people who were enemies to Judah. Isaiah told them that though they were enemies, Israel must take them into their homes and care for them.
In Isaiah 32:17, Isaiah said that serving the refugee would bring peace to their region: “The result of justice shall be peace, quietness and security.” We have traditionally “evangelicalised” this text. That is, we have applied it to the new birth, justification by faith, which gives us peace with God. We have privatised the text. This wasn’t what Isaiah initially meant. It is true that the text is evangelical, in the sense that new hearts in the new covenant bring us into this kind of caring relationship with our neighbour, which does bring peace to our communities. This is the meaning of the text.
Isaiah was warning Judah about the way they should respond to the power struggles and strategic threats in their region. They could either build fortresses, as the kings before them did, or they could bring justice to the region by caring for the desolate. This would restore relationships with their neighbours and bring peace. But it would also mean they would have to give up their desire for superiority, not to use their resources on themselves alone, but to share them with others.
The kings did not listen to Isaiah. They trusted in their fortresses and used all their resources to build more. This guaranteed further injustice to the poor and sealed the doom of the kings. If they had listened to God, they would have been established, but they followed the wrong logic and brought about their own fall.
This must have a lot of relevance for our world today, which in many ways is exactly the same and our response choices are also the same. It’s a strong warning. And we see in Isaiah what he means by “Prince of Peace.”
Isaiah’s new creation depictions followed the themes of Israel right back to the Genesis narrative. As discussed earlier, the use of the number seven in the creation laid the foundation for the sabbath week, a principle of new life in Israel for their calling to restore the world. “Seven” represented God’s restorative wisdom upon which new creation is built.
Just as the first creation was laid on the foundation of God’s wisdom, and was established on a solid basis, so the new creation, the restored creation, must be established upon the wisdom of God. “Seven” refers to God’s restorative wisdom, the way communities and the environment are built through caring relationships. If communities are reconciled, the destructive “principalities and powers” are defeated and the creation is delivered from its bondage to corruption. (Rom 8:21) This is the gospel’s purpose. “Seven” represents this fulfilment.
This is the wisdom of God in Christ, seen in the cross. His self-giving reconciling power, by which the powers of selfishness in the world are eventually brought to zero, by which the creation is reconciled and renewed.
We see in scripture that this wisdom applies both to our natural environment and to our sharing care with our neighbour and enemy. Economics that isn’t sustainable this way, both for our environment and for our relationships in building each other’s lives, isn’t biblical. It falls short of the creation narrative and the Torah.
When the Christian community isn’t leading the way in the world in restoring the lives of the poor, guilty, imprisoned, we are failing to preach the gospel. The gospel is good news to the guilty, the imprisoned, the poor, Jesus said in Luke 4. If the church isn’t leading the world in the conservation of the environment, we have forsaken a creational God, and joined the pagan god who rapes the environment in the name of our private life-style desires.
When the church isn’t leading the way in restoring moral lives, in sexuality, abortion and marriage, by helping “the sick” like a doctor does, then we have lost sight of the things God set in place to keep creation in shalom, to keep the pagan waters of chaos back. Our community care is designed to heal the sick, including ourselves. We are supposed to be helping people through a moral affect, but a moral affect is in healing people and not in judging them.
This was the restorative life Isaiah was calling Israel back to; back to their founding document and vision. The book of Revelation repeats this calling, at the time of the judgment on Jeruslem in AD 70. The use of the number seven throughout the book of Revelation shows the restorative nature of God’s judgments, meaning the kingdom of God was then being birthed into the world for the world’s renewal.
This was the fulfilment of Israel’s calling. Isaiah’s vision, that Israel largely failed to respond to, would be fulfilled through their representative in Christ. Revelation depicts a battle against Babylon (one of the terms used for fallen Israel), in which the weak were raped by a worldly economics. God’s peaceful people would restore these relationships, restore the weak and the creation. That “every tear shall be wiped away,” speaks not only of the resurrection, but of the church healing our nations.
Isaiah 58 is one of many sections in Isaiah that repeats the way Israel is to achieve national security and peace. Once more, Isaiah’s remedy is set in the context of the terrible oppression and brutality within Israel and also oppression inflicted on many others by Israel’s neighbouring empires.
At the time, many in Israel continued in “personal piety” through keeping the rituals of the faith but ignored what these rituals pointed to. Isaiah explained that the point of their faith was lifting the burdens off their suffering neighbour, alleviating the hardship they were under. Here, we see a repetition of the sabbath themes in the Torah, applied to caring for the weak within our communities.
“To loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the heavy burdens, to let the oppressed go free, and that you break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and that you bring to your house the poor who are cast out; when you see the naked, that you cover him, and not hide yourself from your own flesh?”
This is a very clear description of what the sabbath means in our communities. It is God’s form of government, shown in the creation narrative and in the Torah. Isaiah, as all the prophets did, spelt it out in clear terms. Faith cannot be divorced from social care. Genuine faith is shown by how we care for others. And John said, “How can we love God who we don’t see, if we don’t love him who we do see?” And James, “How can faith without works profit?” in referring to our hospitality towards people in need of help. In other words, for all the prophets, faith is an economic issue, sharing our lives/ wealth to restore our neighbours.
Isaiah claimed that this way of living towards people in need would bring peace to our nation. He spoke of helping those who suffer, “those of our own flesh,” which means any human “on the road to Jericho,” not just those of our own race or nation.
“Then your light shall break forth like the morning, your healing shall spring forth speedily, and your righteousness shall go before you; the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard. Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry, and He will say, ‘Here I am.’ If you take away the yoke from your midst, the pointing of the finger, and speaking wickedness, if you extend your soul to the hungry and satisfy the afflicted soul, then your light shall dawn in the darkness, and your darkness shall be as the noonday. The Lord will guide you continually, and satisfy your soul in drought, and strengthen your bones; you shall be like a watered garden, and like a spring of water, whose waters do not fail. Those from among you shall build the old waste places; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; and you shall be called the Repairer of the Breach, the Restorer of Streets to Dwell In.”
Isaiah was speaking about the national security and flourishing of Israel as a nation, which applies to all our communities today. Isaiah was saying that the wellbeing of the nation, its strategic security, didn’t lie in fortresses, or in a private religion, but in restoring our fallen neighbour. “Our light shall break forth…” Our nations shall be healed.
We have often made our personal lives the primary focus of such promises, but the prophets were speaking of God’s promises to the nation. That is, these are community issues. The promises address what brings the creation into wholeness.