The Old Testament has some pretty hard-core, intense things to say about injustice committed by God's chosen people. But I had personally never heard anything about "economic injustice" in the New Testament, at the time when God's plan for redemption came through a Jesus and His heaven-anchored Kingdom. Is economic injustice still condemned in the New Testament? I personally think the best answer is to look at the topic of money, because Old Testament and New, God is surprisingly consistent about the principles behind using money. To look at "economic injustice" specifically, let’s study a passage in James, where he has some almost-hard-core-Old-Testament-prophet-ish things to say to some people in the early church:
And now, you rich people, listen to me! Weep and wail over the miseries that are coming upon you! Your riches have rotted away, and your clothes have been eaten by moths. Your gold and silver are covered with rust, and this rust will be a witness against you and will eat up your flesh like fire. You have piled up riches in these last days. You have not paid any wages to those who work in your fields. Listen to their complaints! The cries of those who gather in your crops have reached the ears of God, the Lord Almighty. Your life here on earth has been full of luxury and pleasure. You have made yourselves fat for the day of slaughter. You have condemned and murdered innocent people, and they do not resist you. (James 5:1-6 GNT)
Um. Wow. The first time I read this, I was shocked it was in the New Testament at all. In my decades in the church, I’ve never once heard a teaching on this passage. Maybe because not too many people would come to church for a sermon titled something like “Don’t Make Yourself Fat for the Day of Slaughter by Condemning and Murdering Innocent People.”
The first thing to recognize in this passage is not the money that’s condemned, but the way these particular, influential people are using it. What they are doing is absolutely terrible, not paying the people working for them. They are using their position as an employer to take advantage of someone in a weaker position, thus creating an environment of injustice and pain. This is completely against what Jesus had said about money:
"Stop storing up treasures for yourselves on earth, where moths and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal. But collect for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys, and where thieves don't break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. (Matt 6:19-21 HCSB)
The hearts of the people James addresses were clearly earthly focused instead of heavenly. Not only were these people hell-bent on gaining those destroy-able, steal-able treasures, but they were committing injustice in order to do that.
Injustice will find a voice
Their quest of storing up treasure for themselves on earth resulted in injustice, and that injustice found a voice. This passage doesn’t only highlight the pain of the victims, but it shows how dangerous it is to allow greed to manipulate you personally. To do this, James lists three voices that cried out when this economic injustice was committed:
1. Rust: The first voice is the rust, which readily volunteers as a witness to give the details of this injustice. Rust is a symbol here for the corruption of greed. In today's world we may shrug off the popular quote "Greed is good," but really, it's something Christians should take seriously. Greedy people are listed as among those who won't inherit the Kingdom of God (1 Cor. 6:10). Ouch. Not only will this corruption find its voice to use it against the oppressor, it will literally burn their own flesh. Double ouch. Look who is most harmed by this- the person who acts on the greed. Greed isn’t just bad for the person who on the receiving end, it will also devastates the person who acts upon it.
2. Wages: The second voice is the cries from the withheld wages. It’s not an employer’s charitable heart that makes him give a worker his wage. A person has earned the right to their pay, so they must be given it (see Luke 10:7, Romans 4:4). Jesus even affirmed how important this is (Matt 20:1-16). Those wages belong to the workers, yet the employers still keep them. So the imprisoned wages cry out against oppressive employer.
3. Exploited Workers: The final voice is from the victims themselves. In Deuteronomy, where the law lays out the rules about paying workers their daily wage before the sunsets, it says that if the employer doesn’t do that, then the worker “will cry out against you to the Lord, and you will be guilty of sin” (Deuteronomy 24:15 GNT). The pain that injustice causes is timeless, whether thousands of years ago in ancient Israel, in the first-century church, or today. The cry of the victim is heard by God (Psalm 10:17). God always listens to the pain caused by injustice—even when that pain is caused by other believers. He revealed Himself as a compassionate God whose ear is in tune with the pain of His people. This is an important perspective to have when living out God's justice in the world. You don't just answer to the law, you answer to the Creator of any person you have the opportunity to harm, even lawfully.
Committing injustice makes your own life loud. When you use your money to hurt or oppress someone, you invite the voices of corruption, injustice, and pain to cry out against you. It’s not a small matter. Allowing greed to manipulate your worldview will only hurt you into eternity.
Consider it from a selfish lens. You don’t want to partner with greed because it’s also destructive for you. God wants us to prosper within His design for us to live in relationally whole communities. When you allow greed to get you to take advantage of someone for your selfish benefit, the result is pain on the victim’s end and destruction on yours.
It’s easy when you see someone using their financial power to hurt someone to respond with “Money sucks! Get rid of all of it!” But money is not the problem. You can sin with your body, but that doesn’t make your body bad. You can also sin with your money. The power it gives you can be used to hurt and destroy others. Think of this: If someone uses a hammer to hit a little old lady on the head, does that make a hammer bad? Of course not. The twisted jerk who's using it to pound on the elderly is wrong. That same hammer can be used to build a house for the homeless. Money is a tool. It’s not bad itself, but you choose what to build with it.
Calling people out
The community that James is addressing would have known the Golden Rule and the “love your neighbor as yourself” command. Yet, they still needed to be told by someone with spiritual authority to stop committing this grave injustice. This is a good lesson. Even though we know Jesus’ commands, we still may have to call people out when they are letting their greed hurt others. And here, James uses the familiar dramatic language, similar to the Old Testament prophets. Using poetic, dramatized language to remind people that the injustice they are doing is hurting people is a formula that still works.
When Bartolome de las Casas, a missionary to the indigenous people in the New World, began to realize how wrong the things his home nation was doing to the indigenous, he recorded the stories and advocated for change. The “Christian” Spaniards were justifying killing and enslaving the very people Las Casas was trying to reach with the gospel. He called them out saying: “The reason the Christians have murdered on such a vast scale and killed anyone and everyone in their way is purely and simply greed.” People need to hear the truth, and sometimes Christians need to be reminded of that too because of how blinding greed can be. Today, Las Casas is recognized as the first advocate for Universal Human Rights. I love that the title goes not to an angry social critic or something, but to an evangelist who was willing to call out people of his own faith with truth.
If you have a lot of power and influence in the world, take the position it gives you seriously. You can oppress and hurt people with it. Don’t do that. Let your heart is shaped by your call to steward your resources with eternity in mind.
Most people have a hammer somewhere in their house, and almost everyone with a hammer would never consider using it to hurt a little old lady. They aren’t sitting around wondering what kind of damage they could potentially get away with, and don’t have to constantly fight the urge to use the hammer to destroy people. When you recognize that a hammer is a tool, and the purpose of it is to use it to build something, then that’s how you want to use it. It doesn’t take a lot of work for them to use that tool for what it’s designed for.
Keep your life quiet and peaceful: Stay far away from committing any injustice. Better yet, don’t even indulge greed.