Justice. Righteousness. Scripture often treats these as synonyms. Yet each is distinct. To be just means one has avoided breaking the law, and has fulfilled the law. It conveys an absence of culpability. Righteousness, by contrast, implies a larger, fuller standard of behavior. It subsumes justice, but adds the love-motivated behaviors that represent the very heart of God’s kingdom. Righteousness is a higher standard than justice, applicable to those with ‘ears to hear’. We see this distinction play out quite clearly in Scripture’s guidance to business people.
The Bible has quite serious things to say to employers regarding just compensation of workers. God frequently and emphatically condemns businesspeople who take advantage of their workers, particularly through exploitive compensation:
‘Why have we fasted’, they say, ‘and you have not seen it? Why have we humbled ourselves, and you have not noticed?’ Yet on the day of your fasting, you do as you please and exploit all your workers (Isa 58:3, NIV; emphasis added).
Look! The wages you failed to pay the workers who mowed your fields are crying out against you. The cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord Almighty (James 5:4, NIV; emphasis added).
Then I will draw near to you for judgment. I will be a swift witness against the sorcerers, against the adulterers, against those who swear falsely, against those who oppress the hired worker in his wages, the widow and the fatherless, against those who thrust aside the sojourner, and do not fear me, says the Lord of hosts’ (Mal 3:5, ESV; emphasis added).
God plainly considers oppressively low wages an egregious violation of his moral order, right up there with sorcery and adultery. In fact, the verses that follow Malachi 3:5 make clear that employers paying inadequate wages are, in God’s view, stealing from their workers just as much as those who don’t fulfill their tithe requirements are stealing from him. This means that paying one’s workers poorly is something God takes very seriously—as a matter of justice. It is worth noting, as well, that in all the places where God excoriates business people for exploitive wages there is not the slightest hint that he considers ‘but that’s what the market allows’ an exculpatory excuse.
That all said, nowhere in Scripture does God offer clear guidance as to what he considers an appropriate ‘minimum wage’. Why? In part the answer is that asking ‘What is the minimum wage I can pay and not be guilty of exploitation?’ is simply the wrong question. It’s like asking ‘How little can I do and still have a good marriage?’ or ‘What is the least I can do and still get into heaven?’ All these imply that one has missed the underlying message.
This transformation of heart for the businessperson gives insight into God’s deeper wisdom and intent for gleanings. God was addressing two very different poverty problems for two very different groups of people. One group was the economically impoverished—those who had been pushed to the margins of the socio-economic system. They needed an opportunity to provide for themselves, an opportunity not available through the normal workings of the economic system. Gleanings connected their need directly to the business engines of the day. In doing so, gleanings effected a resource and opportunity reallocation that was considerably more potent and scalable, and dignity-preserving, than personal charity.
But that was not the only poverty God targeted. Businesspeople face a different poverty problem. The very risk and hard work inherent in starting and running a business incline them toward selfishness regarding its rewards. And God knows that selfishness, left unchecked, inevitably impoverishes the soul. Like a cancer, it chokes the life out of relationships, and eventually chokes the very life out of life.
But God also knew that many businesspeople, seeing firsthand the poor being blessed through the fruits of their business, would begin to experience a transformation of heart and vision. They would learn just how good it feels to have their hard work serve a purpose greater than self-interest. Ideally, they would begin to see their businesses as capable of bringing about not merely the good life for themselves, but the good society. But—and this is critical—if God had specified the size of the unharvested portion of one’s fields, most businesspeople would have simply treated gleanings like a tax. It would have felt like simply one more onerous levy—a ‘cost of doing business’ best paid and forgotten. Instead, by making each landowner decide what portion of his harvest to allocate to the poor, God made explicit the choice to be generous (or not). Each businessperson had to come to grips with just how much, or how little, of the rewards of his business would help care for the most vulnerable members of the community.
No doubt for some, each year the amount left for the poor was trivial—a mere foot or two at the edge of the field. Greed had already worked its hardening effect. But for others, the yearly gleanings decision played out differently. It may also have started small, just a couple of feet. But as they saw the most vulnerable members of their community helped, their hearts expanded. Next year the border was larger, and larger again the following year. Eventually, as they gained a vision for their business blessing many, the border may have been twenty, or thirty, or even fifty feet wide.
One form of poverty required resource reallocation; the other required heart realignment. Gleanings targeted both. It was, and remains, God’s radical plan to bring the rich (and their business engines) and the poor together to solve each other’s mutual poverty—and prosper the human community in the process.
God intentionally forged a direct connection between business engines and the poor.
Businesses are the creators of economic wealth and opportunity—precisely the resources of which the poor are in desperate need. Via gleanings, God made business engines the primary means (economic and opportunity) of provision for the poor.
It is easy to miss the essence here. God did not say to the business owners, ‘Once you have harvested the economic rewards of your business efforts, I want you to pass a portion of those rewards along to the poor.’ Rather, God did something more pointed, more radical. He says instead to the farmer/businesspeople of Israel, ‘I want to make a direct link between your business engine itself—your commercial farming operation—and meeting the economic and opportunity neediness of the poor.’
Note, again, that God could easily have found a less direct way to leverage the wealth generation of businesses to assist the poor. But he did not. Rather, via gleanings, God brought the poor and the business person into direct contact.
Ad maiorem Dei gloriam – For the greater glory of God
This excerpt is taken from the Wealth Creation and Justice Paper, page 20.
Consultation on Wealth Creation Papers Published Fall 2017:
For a short introduction to three other global consultations that also have dealt with issues related to wealth creation, read also Mats Tunehag’s introductory blog: Wealth Creation Manifesto