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The Law of God and Public Policy, Part 20

Distributive Justice
The Law of God and Public Policy (20)

Justice requires freely sharing to meet the needs of others.


“For there will never cease to be poor in the land. Therefore I command you, ‘You shall open wide your hand to your brother, to the needy and to the poor, in your land.’”
Deuteronomy 15.11



The jewel of justice
Justice, being a reflection of the being and character of God, is a gem of many facets.

 

In essence, “justice” defines God’s plan for how human beings can live together in society on the basis of mutual love and respect. The Law of God outlines the demands of justice and represents justice as having obligatory, preventive, restorative, and retributive aspects. These different facets of “justice” work together in helping to maintain a society of order, respect, and human flourishing.

But how does a just society relate to those in its midst who are not flourishing, but rather, are barely able to contribute to the wellbeing of the community because of their being poor? What does justice for the poor entail, according to the Law of God?

The Scriptures and the poor
The Bible does not teach a preference for the poor, as though merely being poor were some virtue in itself. Indeed, some may be poor because they are simply unwilling to work. The Apostle Paul explained that such people deserve the fruit of their lethargy and are not to be cared for by the community (2 Thess. 3:10). All who are able are expected to work, not just so that they can provide for themselves, but so that they may have wealth and possessions to share with those who are truly in need (Eph. 4:28). This is true of the poor as well, as we shall see in subsequent installments.

Thus we see in the New Testament, in the Kingdom of God, the continuation of the final facet of Biblical justice – a recognition of and concern for the poor.

The final facet of the Biblical teaching on justice is what we may call distributive justice. It is the responsibility of a local community to distribute freely of its goods to those who are in need among them. Whether such people have become poor through some unforeseeable exigency, or whether they are immigrants or disabled, justice requires that they be provided for, according to their need, by the community in which they live.

The statutes requiring landowners not to harvest all their produce – to leave grain and dropped bundles of harvest, as well as grapes on the vine and olives in the tree – allowed the poor to have something to glean and thus, through honest labor, to provide for their needs. The land, after all, belonged to the Lord, as did all the harvest He regularly provided.

Beyond the poor
The practice of caring for the poor was the responsibilities of families (Deut. 15:7, 8), first of all, and of the communities in which poor people lived. Distributive justice is thus, in the first instance, a concern of local government.

Distributive justice extends to religious workers as well. Priests and Levites, who did not own property in ancient Israel, and whose working life was devoted not to creating material wealth but to nurturing spiritual health and wellbeing, did not have the time to provide for their own needs. This was the responsibility of the community served by such people, through their tithes and offerings. It is not hard to see how such benefit could be extended to other public servants in a wide range of occupations.

Distributive justice also worked to make sure that inheritances were kept intact and could be passed on to legitimate heirs without interference or loss. Wages were determined on the basis of distributive justice, as Jesus demonstrated in the parable of the workers (Matt. 20:1-16). Workers and employers were expected to reach agreement on compensation, worker by worker. And employers were expected to distribute those wages in a fair and timely manner.

Thus five facets of justice are presented in the Law of God, and we shall see how, working together, the commandments, statutes, precepts, and rules of God’s Law can help us in our day to see our way through to sustaining a more just, peaceable, dignified, and productive society.

Next steps: What is the difference between distributive justice “freely practiced” and distributive justice by means of government coercion? Talk with some friends about this question.

For more insight to this topic, order Chuck Colson’s book, God & Government, from our online store. You can download a free PDF series by T. M. on the topic, “The Government We Seek,” seven studies outlining a Biblical view of good government. It’s available here at no charge.