What the Bible has to say about inequality

A new report from the Institute for Fiscal Studies says some people are earning vast amounts of money while others are under extreme financial pressure. What might the Bible have to say on the matter? Mark Woods explores.

Is inequality a bad thing? Some of it's inevitable – people have different abilities, some professions are better paid, family background means some people will get a better start in life than others. But is there such a thing as too much inequality?

Judging by a study from the Institute for Fiscal Studies, there may well be. It highlights the vast amounts of money earned by some people while others are under extreme financial pressure. From 1994 to 2017 it's the richest households that have increased their earnings most, while the average chief executive of a FTSE 1000 company now earns 145 times the average salary (in 1998 it was only 47 times). There's a widespread perception that inequality has gone too far.

Meanwhile, male life expectancy in disadvantaged areas is 10 years less than in rich areas, with a range of health factors affecting poor people. The IFS report warns of 'deaths of despair' among the poorest people because of addictions and suicide, and says this extreme inequality is 'making a mockery of democracy'.

Warnings about inequality tend to be 'weaponised' quite quickly by both the Left and the Right. Both of these make wider points about how society should be organised, and both appeal to complex economic arguments around whether things should change or stay the same.

Does the Bible have any wisdom to offer? It's certainly true that we can't appeal to it in support of any particular programme or ideology. Sincere Christians have thought through what the Bible says very carefully and come to different conclusions about the best way to achieve a just society. But it does seem to be critical of vast differences in wealth where these highlight the plight of very poor people, and it frequently speaks of the responsibility of the rich towards the poor.

For instance, Exodus 22.25 says, 'If you lend money to any of my people who are poor, do not act like a moneylender and require him to pay interest': in other words, the rich shouldn't take advantage of people who are already poor to make them poorer.

Leviticus 19.10 says, 'Do not go back through your vineyard to gather the grapes that were missed or to pick up the grapes that have fallen; leave them for poor people and foreigners. I am the Lord your God': in other words, maximising profit for the rich at the expense of the poor is forbidden.

Leviticus 25.35 says, 'If any Israelites living near you become poor and cannot support themselves, you must provide for them as you would for a hired worker, so that they can continue to live near you': in other words, if someone can't work and has no money, they should still be able to have a good standard of living.

These are challenging verses. There are others that highlight injustice when rich people abuse their power, like the powerful story of King David and Nathan the prophet in 2 Samuel 12.

The overall message of the Bible appears to be that while it's not wrong to be rich, it comes with responsibilities towards those who are poor – a theme Jesus draws out in the Parable of the Rich Fool, who tore down his barns to build bigger ones instead of becoming rich towards God (Luke 12.13-21). And Jesus also warned of the moral hazard run by rich people in his famous saying: 'It is much harder for a rich person to enter the Kingdom of God than for a camel to go through the eye of a needle.' Riches are powerful temptations.

So the Bible is clear enough about this: rich people are responsible for poor people, and if they're taking that responsibility seriously they themselves are going to become poorer. Whether that happens through taxation or through personal generosity is a wider question. But where there are extremes of inequality, the Bible urges us to ask serious questions of those who have fabulous wealth while others live in grinding poverty.


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