074: THE PROPHETS ATTACK PROFITS

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A synopsis of  “The Illegitimacy of Wealth”,  p.22-24 and p. 48 ff of  José Porfirio Miranda’s “Communism in the Bible” Wipf & Stock (1982) (for more details on the author see Zingcreed Post ‘No Way, José’)

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When Jesus condemns wealth (i) (to be precise, the acquisition of wealth at other peoples’ expense – he’s not against wealth per se – (ii)  ) he is following the teaching of Moses and the Prophets in the Hebrew Testament (Old Testament). This is made explicit when a rich man asks that somebody go to warn his brothers on earth “so that they may not come to this place of torment as well” (Lk 16:28). The answer is “They have Moses and the Prophets” (Lk 16:29), meaning that anyone who has read them knows that (relative) wealth is immoral.

So let’s check it out. Chapter and verse, please; where precisely do “prophets” attack wealth/riches/PROFITS? Why? and what was the context of this religious dabbling in primitive economics and how can it possibly relate to our capitalist society today??

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Miranda throws down the gauntlet by asserting (p.49) “…the Bible condemns all profit without any exceptions, and profit is the essence and mainstay of capitalism- if profit were ever eliminated capitalism would disappear at the same moment.”  Goods are not produced to satisfy human needs but to make a profit for the manufacturer and his company’s shareholders. It was ever thus…more or less. 19 places in the Hebrew (Old) Testament condemn besa’ (profits); (yes, I am going to quote all 19 – so much for being a synopsis – Miranda doesn’t quote them all, only 2)

  • Exod. 18:21 “Select capable men…who fear God, trustworthy men who hate dishonest gain and appoint them as officials”
  • 1 Sam. 8:3 “But his sons did not walk in his ways. They turned aside after dishonest gain and accepted bribes and perverted justice”
  • Isa. 33:15-16  “He who rejects gain from extortion..will dwell on the heights. His bread will be supplied and water will not fail him”
  • Isa. 56:11 “They are dogs with mighty appetites; they never have enough;...each seeks his own gain”
  • Isa. 57:17 “I was enraged by his sinful greed. I punished him,… yet he kept on in his wilful ways”
  • Jer. 22:17 “But your eyes and your heart are set only on dishonest gain, on shedding innocent blood and on oppression and extortion
  • Jer. 51:13 “You who …are rich in treasures , your end has come, the time for you to be cut off”
  • Ezek. 22:13 “I will surely strike my hands together at the unjust gain you have made, and at the blood you have shed in your midst”
  • Ezek. 22:27 “Her officials within her are like wolves tearing their prey ; they shed blood and kill people to make unjust gain
  • Ezek. 33:31 “With their mouths they express devotion, but their hearts are greedy for unjust gain
  • Jer. 6:10
  • Jer. 6:13  “From the least to the greatest, all are greedy for gain; prophets and priests alike, all practise deceit”
  • Mic. 4:13 “…you will break to pieces many nations.You will devote their ill-gotten gains to the Lord”
  • Hab. 2:9 “Woe to him who builds his realm  by unjust gain…to escape the clutches of ruin”
  • Ps. 10:2-3 “In his arrogance the wicked man hunts down the weak, who are caught in the schemes he devises. He boasts of the cravings of his heart; he blesses the greedy and reviles the Lord”
  • Ps. 119:36 “Turn my heart towards your statutes and not towards selfish gain
  • Prov. 1:19 “Such is the end of all who go after ill-gotten gain; it takes away the lives of those who get it”
  • Prov. 15:27 “A greedy man brings trouble to his family, but he who hates bribes will live”
  • Prov. 28:16 “…he who hates ill-gotten gain will enjoy a long life”

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These verses are taken from the NIV translation (as it’s the only one I’ve got). Miranda comments that “gain” or “profit” is a more accurate rendering of besa’ than “unjust gain”, as all gain is automatically unjust. I think “Profiteering” might be closer. (Etymologically speaking, besa’ comes from a root meaning extraction with a knife). I find the verses have more of a contemporary ring if you substitute the word “profit” (or “profiteering” , of course) for “gain”. However I am not going to write them all out again…yet.
The greed of the wealthy doesn’t seem to have changed much in 4000 years! (See the Zingcreed Posts on “the crimes of the bourgeoisie”)

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The Bible itemizes its condemnation of the profit making process:
(1) Commerce
(2) Lending with interest
(3) The production process itself

(1) Commerce: (p.53)
(Still sticking with the prophets) “For the sake of profit, many have sinned; the one who tries to grow rich, turns away his gaze. Stuck tight between two stones, between sale and purchase, sin is wedged” (Ecclus. 27:1-2) i.e.

  • It is illegitimate to buy cheap and sell dear
  • Such profit-making is the source of the wealth that divides society into haves and have-nots

(2) Lending with interest: (p.54)
The Hebrew word for “interest” or “usury” is neshek, whose root means “to bite”. 9 times out of 10 the Bible condemns it. “Usury” is lending at very high interest, condemned unequivocally by the Bible, but then so is all interest including on loan of things as well as money. There is no such thing as non-usurious interest.
“Do not charge your brother interest, whether on money or food or anything else that may earn interest,” (Deut. 23:19)
“If one of your countrymen becomes poor and is unable to support himself, …help him…Do not take interest of any kind from him…or sell him food at a profit.” (Lev.25:35-36)
Miranda comments “Accordingly, the absolute biblical prohibition of interest-taking embraces also what today we would call collecting rent, or hire.”

(3) The production process itself:
   Until recently, the main productive activity has been agriculture. The whole of Job 24 gives a gut -wrenching account of the poverty and suffering of  the peasantry of his time. How little has changed, thousands of years later! No english land-owners starved during the irish Potato famine and no african politicians were going hungry when this photo was taken.

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Miranda switches from Job to James, as he is more explicit in condemning the acquisition of wealth by the agricultural entrepreneurs and in fact all rich people. Period. (No wonder Luther wanted this book removed from the Bible!)
“See, what you have whittled away from the pay of the workers who reap your fields cries out, and the anguish of the harvesters has come to the  ears of the Lord…” (James 5:4)
This “whittling away” of the produce of the workers’ labour is quite legal and systematic. Following both Jesus and the Hebrew (Old) Testament prophets James condemns expropriation of the surplus value  unequivocally, as it is  the source of the relative wealth differences between different strata of society.
“Is it not the rich who oppress you and who haul you before the tribunals?” (James 2:6)
“You (i.e. the rich) have lived on the earth in pleasures and luxuries, you have fattened your heart for the day of slaughter.” (James 5:5)

There are no loopholes in the Bible’s condemnation of profit. In its eyes all “differentiating ” wealth is acquired by immoral means – at some one else’s expense. Biblical style Communism is the only system that does not consist in the exploitation of some persons by others.

Related Zingcreed blogs:
Jesus and wealthy people
No Way José
The causes of poverty according to Clodovis Boff
Structural sin
Jesus’s communist brother James (i) his life
Crimes of the bourgeoisie #1: deforestation
Crimes of the bourgeoisie #2: toxic waste
Crimes of the bourgeoisie #3: american imperialism
Crimes of the bourgeoisie #4: resources go to the rich

Sources:
(i) e.g. (a) Mk 10:25 “It is easier for a camel to get through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.”
(b) Lk 6:24 “Woe to you who are rich, for you have already received your comfort.”
(c) Mk 10:21-23 “Jesus looked at him (the rich young man)…’One thing you lack’ he said, ‘Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor….’  At this the man’s face fell. He went away sad because he had great wealth.”
(ii) e.g. he doesn’t object to the expensive oil being rubbed on his feet at Martha and Mary’s house; he converts 6 20- gallon flasks of water into wine to help the wedding party go with a swing at Cana. (References on the way)

José Porfirio Miranda’s books: (I got them all cheap, second hand from Amazon in the States)
(i) “Marx and the bible. A critique of the philosophy of oppression” Orbis (1971) 338pp
(ii) “Marx against the marxists. The Christian humanism of Karl Marx” SCM (1978) 316pp
(iii) “Communism in the bible” Wipf & Stock (1982) 85pp
see also (iv) Bonino, José Míguez “Christians and Marxists. The mutual challenge to revolution” Hodder & Stoughton (1974) 158pp

Images:
top 7 from the Irish Potato Famine installation in Dublin (photos by P. Turner)

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