- Last Updated on 07:58 AM 02/05/14
- BY By Dane Skelton
By Dane Skelton
None of the problems of economic justice we face are new. Every advanced civilization has had to deal with them. The wisdom to solve them was revealed long ago.
Recent news reports indicate that 2014 will be “the year of income inequality” for the Obama administration. The gap between the rich and the poor and “social mobility,” the ability to move up the economic ladder, will be major themes in the President’s State of the Union Address.
The topic interests me on a number of levels, one of which is because I’m still meditating my way through the book of Proverbs, and as it turns out, Proverbs (not to mention the rest of the Bible) has a lot to say about income inequality. It just does it without the PC label. In Proverbs the rich are the rich, and the poor are the poor, except when they’re something else, which we’ll come to in a moment.
According to Proverbs, it’s smart politics to address the needs of the poor. “Leadership gains authority and respect when the voiceless poor are treated fairly.” (Pr. 29:14 The Message). “He who gives to the poor will lack nothing, but he who closes his eyes to them receives many curses.” (Pr. 28:27). It’s also godly to treat the poor with justice. “The righteous cares about justice for the poor, but the wicked have no concern.” (Pr. 29:7). (Note: It’s fascinating, when you read Proverbs carefully, to realize how often Jesus quoted or paraphrased this book).
It’s a good bet that we are going to be inundated with heart rending video vignettes about the poor over the next 12 months, and that’s not an altogether bad thing. Some of us need to work on our compassion muscles.
But there is another side of the wisdom coin when it comes to thinking about the rich and the poor. Proverbs has that covered as well, revealing in the process where much of poverty comes from. Here is Proverbs 26:13-15 in Eugene Peterson’s pungent paraphrase:
Loafers say, “It’s dangerous out there!
Tigers are prowling the streets!”
and then pull the covers back over their heads.
Just as a door turns on its hinges,
so a lazybones turns back over in bed.
A shiftless sluggard puts his fork in the pie,
but is too lazy to lift it to his mouth.
And here is chapter 24:30-34:
One day I walked by the field of an old lazybones,
and then passed the vineyard of a lout;
They were overgrown with weeds,
thick with thistles, all the fences broken down.
I took a long look and pondered what I saw;
the fields preached me a sermon, and I listened:
“A nap here, a nap there, a day off here, a day off there,
sit back, take it easy—do you know what comes next?
Just this: You can look forward to a dirt-poor life,
with poverty as your permanent houseguest!”
Those of us in vocational ministry often work with the poor. It doesn’t take long to realize that people arrive in poverty for a variety of reasons, some that have nothing to do with laziness.
Many poor people work very hard and struggle to get by. For these people I am glad that the USA has a social safety net, one of the very best in the world in fact. And note: it was the Biblical ideal of compassion that gave rise to the idea for things like Social Security, Food Stamps and unemployment insurance.
But a social safety net is one thing. Incentivizing indolence is something else. It is no secret to the employers in Halifax County and to the insurance companies that write disability policies and to the pastors and social workers who try to help that our community has a real problem with what today we call entitlement, but the poets of ancient wisdom called laziness.
Justice means justice for everyone, those who pay taxes and create jobs as well as those who have fallen into poverty. It’s important to remember that as we embark on a year of income inequality stories and to keep in mind that for every one minute vignette we see about a desperate poor person who can’t find a job, there is another story, probably unpublished, about an employer who cannot find hard-working, reliable employees.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This commentary was written on Jan. 28, 2014, prior to the State of the Union Address.