Religion and Economic Justice

Teachings of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam

By Eric Stetson — July 12, 2019

(Note: This is the outline and notes of a talk that was given at the Oracle Temple Spirituality Salon in Independence, Virginia.)

Every religion has some version of the Golden Rule, i.e. treat others the way you would wish to be treated. Every religion teaches the importance of practicing kindness and compassion and being charitable toward people in need.

Economic justice is a major focus of religious ethics. In this presentation I will focus on teachings and practices that are designed to reduce poverty and economic inequality in the Abrahamic religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.



According to the Book of Deuteronomy and Leviticus, farmers should leave corners of their fields unharvested (pe’ah), should not pick up that which was dropped (gleanings), and should not harvest any overlooked produce that had been forgotten when they harvested the majority of a field. On one of the two occasions that this is stated in Leviticus, it adds that in vineyards, some grapes should be left ungathered, a statement also found in Deuteronomy. These verses additionally command that olive trees should not be beaten on multiple occasions, and whatever remains from the first set of beatings should be left. According to Leviticus, these things should be left for the poor and for strangers, and Deuteronomy commands that it should be left for widows, strangers, and orphans.

For example, Leviticus 23:22: “When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap to the very edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest. Leave them for the poor and for the foreigner residing among you. I am the LORD your God.”

The Book of Ruth (chapter 2) tells of gleaning by the widow Ruth to provide for herself and her mother-in-law, Naomi, who was also a widow.

In many parts of Europe, including England and France, the Biblically derived right to glean the fields was reserved for the poor; a right, enforceable by law, that continued in parts of Europe into early modern times. In Britain, this law wasn’t changed until 1788.

Sabbath Year

The sabbath year (Hebrew: shmita, literally “release”) also called the sabbatical year or shevi’it (literally “seventh”) is the seventh year of the seven-year agricultural cycle mandated by the Torah for the Land of Israel. During shmita, the land is left to lie fallow and all agricultural activity, including plowing, planting, pruning and harvesting, is forbidden by Jewish law. Any fruits or herbs which grow of their own accord and where no watch is kept over them are deemed hefker (ownerless) and may be picked by anyone.

Exodus 23:10-11: “You may plant your land for six years and gather its crops. But during the seventh year, you must leave it alone and withdraw from it. The needy among you will then be able to eat just as you do, and whatever is left over can be eaten by wild animals. This also applies to your vineyard and your olive grove.”

All debts, except those of foreigners, were to be remitted on the sabbath year.

Deuteronomy 15:1-6: “At the end of every seven years, you shall celebrate the remission year. The idea of the remission year is that every creditor shall remit any debt owed by his neighbor and brother when God’s remission year comes around. You may collect from the alien, but if you have any claim against your brother for a debt, you must relinquish it.”

“At the end of every seven years, you shall celebrate the remission year. … Every creditor shall remit any debt owed by his neighbor and brother.”

Jubilee Year

The Jubilee (Hebrew: yobel), which means “Year of Release,” is the year at the end of seven cycles of shmita (Sabbatical years), in other words it occurs once every 50 years. According to Leviticus, slaves and prisoners would be freed, and debts would be forgiven. For example, it says in Leviticus 25:10: “You shall make the fiftieth year holy, and proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants.”


The Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus

Jesus told a story about a rich man who did not show compassion to the poor and went to hell as a result. Luke 16:19-31:

There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury every day. At his gate was laid a beggar named Lazarus, covered with sores and longing to eat what fell from the rich man’s table. Even the dogs came and licked his sores.

The time came when the beggar died and the angels carried him to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried. In Hades, where he was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side. So he called to him, ‘Father Abraham, have pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this fire.’ But Abraham replied, ‘Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, while Lazarus received bad things, but now he is comforted here and you are in agony. And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been set in place, so that those who want to go from here to you cannot, nor can anyone cross over from there to us.’

He answered, ‘Then I beg you, father, send Lazarus to my family, for I have five brothers. Let him warn them, so that they will not also come to this place of torment.’ Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them listen to them.’ ‘No, father Abraham,’ he said, ‘but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.’ He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’

The Story of Jesus and the Rich Young Man

Jesus emphasized the great responsibility that rich people have to use their wealth to help the poor, and how difficult it can be for the rich to attain salvation because of their tendency to refuse to follow this teaching and instead hoard their wealth. Matthew 19:16-26 (same story also told in Mark and Luke):

A man came up to Jesus and asked, ‘Teacher, what good thing must I do to get eternal life?’ ‘Why do you ask me about what is good?’ Jesus replied. ‘There is only One who is good. If you want to enter life, keep the commandments.’ ‘Which ones?’ he inquired. Jesus replied, ‘“You shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, honor your father and mother,” and “love your neighbor as yourself.”’

‘All these I have kept,’ the young man said. ‘What do I still lack?’ Jesus answered, ‘If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.’

When the young man heard this, he went away sad, because he had great wealth. Then Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Truly I tell you, it is hard for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.’ When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astonished and asked, ‘Who then can be saved?’ Jesus looked at them and said, ‘With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.’

Scholars have pointed out that there was a very narrow gate into the city of Jerusalem called the “eye of the needle,” in which merchants would have to unload all the goods from a camel in order for the camel to be able to fit through the gate. So Jesus used this as a metaphor for how the rich will have to give up their worldly possessions in order to enter heaven.

Common Ownership

Contrary to the common perception today of Christianity as a religion associated with political conservatives and opposition to socialism, the early Christians actually were expected by their church to practice common ownership of property rather than glorying in the accumulation of wealth by particular individuals.

Acts 2:44-45: “All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need.”

Acts 4:32-37: “All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had. With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. And God’s grace was so powerfully at work in them all that there were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned land or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone who had need. Joseph, a Levite from Cyprus, whom the apostles called Barnabas (which means ‘son of encouragement’), sold a field he owned and brought the money and put it at the apostles’ feet.”

“No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had.”

The story of Ananias and Sapphira serves as a contrary example, showing what early Christians believed would happen to wealthy people who failed to share their wealth in common with the community. Acts 5:1-11:

Now a man named Ananias, together with his wife Sapphira, also sold a piece of property. With his wife’s full knowledge he kept back part of the money for himself, but brought the rest and put it at the apostles’ feet.

Then Peter said, ‘Ananias, how is it that Satan has so filled your heart that you have lied to the Holy Spirit and have kept for yourself some of the money you received for the land? Didn’t it belong to you before it was sold? And after it was sold, wasn’t the money at your disposal? What made you think of doing such a thing? You have not lied just to human beings but to God.’

When Ananias heard this, he fell down and died. And great fear seized all who heard what had happened. Then some young men came forward, wrapped up his body, and carried him out and buried him.

About three hours later his wife came in, not knowing what had happened. Peter asked her, ‘Tell me, is this the price you and Ananias got for the land?’ ‘Yes,’ she said, ‘that is the price.’ Peter said to her, ‘How could you conspire to test the Spirit of the Lord? Listen! The feet of the men who buried your husband are at the door, and they will carry you out also.’

At that moment she fell down at his feet and died. Then the young men came in and, finding her dead, carried her out and buried her beside her husband. Great fear seized the whole church and all who heard about these events.


The Islamic holy book, the Quran, emphasizes charity as an important practice for Muslims.

For example, Quran 2:177: “Righteousness is not that you turn your faces toward the east or the west, but (true) righteousness is (in) one who believes in Allah, the Last Day, the angels, the Book, and the prophets, and gives wealth, in spite of love for it, to relatives, orphans, the needy, the traveler, those who ask (for help), and for freeing slaves; (and who) establishes prayer and gives zakat…”

Zakat, which literally means “that which purifies,” is a form of alms-giving or charitable contribution. It is one of the fundamental teachings, or Five Pillars of Islam, and in fact is considered the second most important of the Five Pillars after Salat (prayer).

Zakat is mandatory for all Muslims who have beyond a certain level of wealth. It is customarily 2.5% (or 1/40) of a Muslim’s total savings and wealth above a minimum amount. Islamic scholars have different interpretations of the minimum amount and some other aspects of the law of Zakat.

In some Islamic countries even today (e.g. Libya, Malaysia, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, and Yemen), Zakat is actually collected and distributed by the government. Elsewhere it is voluntary but a religious duty for Muslims.

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