God's Labor Laws, part 6
Aug 18, 2018
We have already shown the connection between labor and property. The purpose of labor is to increase wealth. Labor not only increases one’s personal wealth but also increases the total amount of wealth in the economy as a whole. Improvements in infrastructure, for instance, are evidence of labor-created wealth.
Wealth increases when the total production exceeds consumption and decay. Even intangible wealth, such as education and skill, decays in the end as people grow old, retire, and die. Yet if they reproduce themselves in their children, wealth is increased over the generations. Children are the most important form of wealth, as long as they are tangibly or intangibly productive.
Wealth is anything useful or needful that is produced. If something is produced that no one wants, it is junk, not wealth. But there are times when junk is like a weed. It is said that a weed is a plant whose virtue has not yet been discovered. So also one man’s junk could be another man’s treasure.
Money and Currency
In the King James Version of the Bible, the term “money” is usually from the Hebrew word keseph, “silver.” Occasionally, it is from keseta, “a unit of silver.” So the idea of money was synonymous with silver, which was divided into units, such as shekels and half-shekels.
Silver had value because it took labor to mine it. Hence, a half-shekel was payment for a day’s labor. The more silver a person had accumulated, the more labor he was storing, and at any time he could convert his silver to labor by hiring someone to work for him.
Money is a store of labor.
Currency, when used properly, is a claim on money. Currency, then, is a debt, and the one holding the currency has faith that he or she may redeem it for money or for some other form of wealth or labor. If currency is not backed by something, its perceived value is an illusion and the one issuing the currency is engaging in fraud—theft by deception.
Gold was also money, but because it took more labor to produce, it held a higher value and was less commonly used.
Silver and Barley
Silver and gold are comparable to barley and wheat.
Just as silver requires labor to mine and to put into acceptable units of measure (coins), so also does the production of barley require labor. Barley was the staple diet of the common man and of donkeys. It was cheaper than wheat. While both barley and wheat were forms of wealth, barley was more fundamental to the common man, and so the Bible uses barley and silver as the unit of measure for wealth itself.
Barley and silver were linked in Leviticus 27:16 to show how they related to each other in terms of labor. It says, “a homer of barley seed at fifty shekels of silver.” In other words, the amount of labor it would take to produce a homer of barley was the equivalent of the amount of labor it took to produce fifty shekels of silver. Hence, anyone could buy a homer of barley at a fair price for fifty shekels of silver.
As long as the Israelites followed God’s economic laws, this was the basic standard by which all land, wealth, and labor were valued.
The law in Leviticus 27:16, quoted earlier, establishes this equivalent in the context of land valuation. The full verse reads,
16 Again, if a man consecrates to the Lord part of the fields of his own property, then your valuation shall be proportionate to the seed needed for it; a homer of barley seed at fifty shekels of silver.
The Bible limits the sale of land, because God claimed ownership of all land (Leviticus 25:23). Men were not allowed to sell what they did not own. However, men did have the authority to lease their land until the year of Jubilee. In the year of Jubilee, every man was to return to the property that God had given him as an inheritance. Hence, all leases expired no later than the year of Jubilee.
In the context of negotiating prices for land leases, the question naturally arose about how much the land was worth. The purchaser was not buying the land itself but only the USE of the land. Some land was more useful than others. The Bible measures the value of land according to its proven ability to produce barley (the basic unit of wealth).
By extension, we could also say that a miner could also lease land according to its ability to produce silver, gold, or copper—all of which could be linked mathematically to its equivalent of barley. This linkage established only the value of physical labor in terms of mining and farming. Skilled labor, of course, would have greater value according to its ability to produce wealth.
The laws of land and labor are foundational to a biblical economic system which God defines as righteous. It is all rooted in the underlying fact that God labored to create all things, and that He owns all land, all seed, and all minerals (Haggai 2:8) by right of creation. And so whatever wealth is produced by using God’s labor is subject to the Kingdom tax, or tithe, along with certain other payments such as the token first fruits offerings and the third-year tithes.
The Problem with Usury
Lawful wealth is created by labor; usury gives the wealthy an unfair advantage over the poor. Usury does not create wealth; usury simply takes a portion of the wealth that others are creating through their labor. In other words, while labor itself increases the total amount of wealth in the world, usury simply shifts existing wealth from the laborer to the non-laborer. Hence, over time the rich get richer, and the poor get poorer.
Jesus told a parable in Luke 19:12-27, where usury is mentioned. But because of Jesus’ use of irony, some have taught that Jesus condoned usury, thus putting away the law that forbids it. This cannot be the right interpretation, of course, because Jesus condemned those who would put away the law (Matthew 5:17-19).
The parable is about “a certain nobleman” going on a journey to receive the right to become king of a certain kingdom. This nobleman obviously represented Jesus, whose right to rule was being challenged by the chief priests in the temple. He was soon to ascend to heaven in order to appeal His case to the Father.
As the nobleman prepared to leave, he entrusted his servants with his money and told them to do business during his absence. When he left, his enemies also sent a delegation to the same king, saying, “We do not want this man to reign over us” (Luke 19:14). This pictures a court case to determine whether or not the nobleman had the right to rule the kingdom in question.
The nobleman ultimately won his case, and “after receiving the kingdom,” he rewarded his servants according to the success of their labor. However, the servant who had been given one mina to invest, did not increase his master’s wealth at all. Being afraid that he might be punished if he lost money on some investment, he buried it, saying in Luke 19:21,
21 for I was afraid of you, because you are an exacting man; you take up what you did not lay down and reap what you did not sow.
Some people misunderstand the nature of Christ (the nobleman). They fear His wrath and so they become unproductive in the work of the Kingdom. Fear brings paralysis. In the parable, this unproductive servant thought that the nobleman was “an exacting man.” The Greek word is austeros, from which we get our English word, austere. It means “harsh, rough, or rigid.” In other words, he thought Jesus was a harsh tyrant with a bad temper.
Jesus’ response is seen in Luke 19:22, 23,
22 He said to him, “By your own words I will judge you, you worthless slave. Did you ‘know’ that I am an exacting man, taking up what I did not lay down, and reaping what I did not sow? 23 Then why did you not put the money in the bank, and having come, I would have collected it with interest [usury]?”
In other words, if the man really “knew” that Jesus was a tyrant and a thief, reaping what he did not sow, then why did he not loan out the money at interest? Tyrants and thieves, after all, do not follow the moral standard of the divine law. They see nothing wrong with charging interest on money, even though it is theft in the sight of God.
Jesus was not legalizing usury; He was condemning it as a practice of the world’s system of economics. Usury was legal in most other countries, including Babylon, where the going rate was 30 percent in ancient times. Usury is theft, because it profits without labor and reaps what it did not sow. It increases personal wealth by taking the labor of others. Usury centralizes wealth in the hands of the few, instead of increasing the total amount of wealth in the world.
By contrast, of course, the parable shows us that God will indeed reward His servants for their labor as they increase His assets in the Kingdom of God.
There are other lessons in this parable, but they are not relevant to our current study of God’s labor laws.
This is part 6 of a series titled "God's Labor Laws." To view all parts, click the link below.