About root

By day, I am a Financial Advisor with a major securities firm. Otherwise I am a husband and father of four. And I do a bit of writing. This site is dedicated to the promotion of my book, The Other Law of Moses, and discussions around its main points.

Justice! Part 2

inheritance    We did not create the world.  God did.  But he created it for us - for all of us. Genesis says he gave us “dominion” over it.  But can the fact that the earth (or the creation) is our common inheritance reconcile itself with a modern economy?  A modern farmer needs a great deal of land in order to be productive.  A high-rise office building is normally situated on a small, but extremely valuable site in the middle of a bustling downtown.  Conversely, a person may choose to be an apartment renter rather than a homeowner, thereby forgoing any legal land ownership at all.  Do these situations offend justice?  Does the principle of our common inheritance in the creation square with the requirements of today’s economy?

Well if God created all this, he probably gave us some rules that can answer the question.  After all, as the creator, he has the right to set the rules.  And usually, rules that God sets are not to be ignored, both for moral and for practical reasons.  God does know what he’s doing.

Bible

The Rules

As found in The Tithe (sources) and The Tithe (uses) God set the terms for our use of his land.  He said we must pay a tithe of the land’s productive value every year.  Only ten percent of that tithe was to go to the religious establishment.  The other ninety percent of it went to fund what we now call civil government.  So a rent on land value is to be at least one source of the government’s revenue.  At the same time, levies against labor (income tax, etc.) were forbidden.  So were levies against people’s capital.  Such levies by a powerful government were considered theft, regardless of whatever civil law made them “legal.”

People create their own labor.  Labor is owned by the laborer.  No one has the right to take labor from the laborer.  Remember, we found slavery to be immoral.  So wages (salaries, etc.), being the economic return on our labor, are sacrosanct, under God’s rules.

If a person saves some of his wages, that savings is called wealth.  If wealth is put to use to create more wealth, we call it capital.  Capital comes from wages and is owned by the laborer or by the person to whom the laborer freely gives it.  Taking a person’s capital by force is also forbidden in God’s Law for the same reason that taking labor is forbidden.

So, under God’s rules, we should tax land value and untax labor and capital.  Some would say that there would not be enough money to run the a modern government if we did enact such a system.  However, God said the tithe would suffice.

And now we get back to justice.  Justice does not demand that I take part of your wage or your possessions and hand it over to folks who have little.  In fact, Justice is offended at such a thing – it’s just theft.  On the other hand, the whole community created land value – and God created the land.  So paying rent for using something I didn’t make but have exclusive use of and using it to benefit the common good – this does seem just.  We have established governments to provide common societal benefits like roads, police, contract enforcement, etc.  This land rent would be the natural and just source of revenue to provide these goods for the benefit of all.

blind

God is pretty smart.

The Den of Thieves

In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus drives the vendors, most notably the money changers, out of the Temple.  Actually, he drove them out of the great plaza in front of the Temple building itself.  Why did he do this and what does it mean for us?

The Jewish laws and rules were specific on the sacrificial requirements the people had to observe.  Only the finest animals and other offerings, as defined in the law, were deemed acceptable for the altar. Furthermore, money offerings were restricted to Temple sheklels, archaic coinage no longer in general circulation.

Each of these items was available only within the Temple precincts.  Those who sold them to pilgrims had been granted monopolies by the Sanhedrin, the Jewish ruling council.  Privileged families were designated as the exclusive sellers of specific items for proper sacrifice.  So one vendor had the dove concession, another supplied all the lambs, and so forth.  This was hugely profitable.  The monopoly markups were scandalous.

Most representative of this cozy “crony capitalism” setup were the moneychangers, the family of Hannan.  Their system exchanged common coinage for Temple shekels.  It was easy to see the abuse because coins of the same weight and metallic makeup were considered by the populace to be of equal value.  But the Temple shekel, based on its weight and metallic content was of far less value than the common coins the Hannan family demanded for its purchase.  Everyone knew and could see and feel the injustice in this arrangement, but they could do nothing about it because the Sanhedrin had declared that only through the Hannan family could worthy coinage be obtained.

Jesus strode into this cozy setup and tried to break it up.   He made a whip and drove the sheep, oxen, and their vendors out.  He told the dove vendors to get out. He went to the moneychangers’ tables and upended them, scattering the coins across the pavement.  He declared, “It is written, ‘My house shall be a house of prayer,’ but you have made it ‘a den of thieves.’”  The power structure vowed to get rid of this troublemaker.

Often, this incident is used to condemn commerce, but that is not what Jesus is doing here.  He is condemning governmental privilege and the theft that always results from it.  His people are being ripped off and they have no recourse.  And this abomination is happening within the holy precincts of the Temple itself.  Is it any wonder that he was upset?

If we really pay attention to what Jesus said and did, instead of reinterpreting  his life to suit our own prejudices, we can find great wisdom.

Blessed Are The Meek

In today’s Gospel, we are presented with the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus gives us the Beatitudes.  I am always struck by the third one, (Matthew 5:5) “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the land.”  Other translations end the passage with “… they shall inherit the earth” (RSV) and “… they shall have the earth as their inheritance” (NJB).  What is Jesus referring to here?

Our homilist suggested that the “land” or “earth” are metaphors for our place in the heavenly, spiritual, and therefore, non-physical existence to come.  If that’s so, Jesus may have been being a bit overly clever with his hearers.

You see, the Law of Moses, which, later in the Sermon, Jesus says is still in effect, apportioned all the land in Israel to to the individual families of the nation.  This legal possession (not ownership – God was the owner) of the land was one of the means by which the Law guaranteed prosperity for all the Jews.  That part of the Law had only recently been crushed by the Herods and the Romans.  Except for those with government privilege, the Jews had been reduced to poverty, now being tenant farmers and sharecroppers on the land that their fathers or grandfathers had possessed.

The Lost Land

This memory, and the injustice it represented, was certainly in the minds of his listeners as Jesus gave his famous sermon.  What do you think was triggered when Jesus said “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the land.”?  I believe it was the promise of the Law, that the land should be restored, that everyone was an equal inheritor of the land God made.  That the “rent” God charged for his land was the tithe, which took care of all religious and civil government needs.

If the people to whom Jesus was talking thought he was speaking metaphorically, I think they would have found the statement a cruel joke, so soon after they had lost their inheritance, and with it, their freedom and prosperity.

I think Jesus was harkening to the Law.  However, he could not restore the Law.  That is up to us.

Pay Caesar!

The Gospel reading at mass this morning was the story of the tribute coin.  In his homily, our priest used the standard interpretation of this story: Jesus endorses paying to Caesar all the taxes that Caesar says are due, and, by extension, Jesus instructs us to pay our taxes as good Christians.  In Matthew 22, Scripture says the Pharisees (with Herodian witnesses) wanted to trap Jesus with the question, “Master … is it permissible to pay taxes to Caesar or not?”  Where is the trap?

We have a strong hint in tradition.  If Jesus said it was permissible to pay the taxes, he would risk alienating his followers.  If he said it was not permissible, then he would be guilty of sedition, with the Herodians as reliable witnesses.  This choice implies some sort of problem in paying the taxes.  Some translations even say “… Is it legal …”  Well it was certainly legal under Roman and Herodian law.  The trap was that it was illegal under Jewish, or Mosaic Law.  Taxes in general were illegal, and paying a tribute or a tax to a foreign potentate an even more flagrant illegality under Mosaic Law.

denarius

Under Mosaic Law, the tithe took care of all community needs, both sacred and secular.  The tithe provided for the religious needs of the nation as well as those we would today call civil.  And the tithe was owed to God as rent for the bountiful land that he made and still legally owned.  So the tithe, properly set up, was not a choice, it was a legal tenant/landlord obligation.

So when Jesus said (paraphrasing now) “Pay Caesar what you owe him and  also pay God what God is owed,” He slipped through the trap.  The Pharisees and Jesus’ followers all knew what he meant: You owe Caesar – nothing!  And you owe God the tithe, the rent of his land, which takes care of, among other things, all the civil needs that Caesar purports to provide.

Render to Caesar

The ending of the story puts a neat bow on the package: the Pharisees “were unable to catch him out in anything he had to say in public; they were amazed at his answer and silenced.” (Luke 20:26)

Certainly this would not have been their reaction if Jesus had just endorsed the Roman tax system.  Jesus did not instruct us to pay our taxes.  If we want to pay them, fine.  If we feel coerced to pay them, fine.  But Jesus did not endorse paying them.

God did set up a system that works very well, if we would only pay attention to it and let it guide us.