|It Was Ever Thus
by Paul Walker
When Moses stood on the brink of the Promised Land he divided
the land equally among the people. According to Leviticus Chapter 25 he
also proclaimed that a Jubilee Year would take place every fifty years.
Every Jubilee the land was to be divided up again equally between
everyone. His aim seems to have been to prevent anyone becoming extremely
rich at the expense of the poor.
Most scholars judge that the Jubilee Year was never actually observed
by the Hebrew people.
Centuries later the prophet Isaiah recalled the Jubilee Year. He called
it "the year of the Lord�s favour" (Isaiah 61.2). He saw it as good news
for the poor. He imagined that when the Hebrew people returned from exile
in Babylon the land would once more be equally divided between everyone.
Most scholars think that Isaiah�s hopes were never fulfilled.
The author of Luke�s Gospel portrays Jesus as quoting the above passage
from Isaiah (Luke 4.19) as be began his ministry. Jesus seems to have been
greatly affected by issues of wealth and poverty. For example, he told a
rich young man to give all he possessed to the poor (Mark 10.21). Matthew
reports Jesus as saying that genuine riches ("treasure in heaven") depend
upon how we treat the hungry, the naked and those in prison. Jesus told
his followers to take nothing with them for the journey (Mark 6.8).
In line with the vision of Jesus in the gospels, the Acts of the
Apostles tells us that some early Christians
� had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods,
they gave to anyone as they had need � no one claimed private
ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in
common. (2.44-45 & 4.32)
This aspect of Christianity seems to have died an early death. When
Emperor Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the Roman
Empire, only a few retained the idea. By then the practice of holding a
common purse applied only to monastic communities.
This thread of faith running through the Bible has much in common with
a political ideology we have heard little of recently. Yet Karl Marx could
almost have been quoting Acts when he said
To each according to his needs, from each according to his
The French social theorist Pierre Proudhon wrote in his pamphlet
What Is Property? that "All property is theft." To some he might have
been recapitulating the idea from the Pentateuch that no human can be said
to personally own land.
Having pointed out all this, I don't want anyone to get me wrong. No
rational person would wish to see the Soviet Union as it was under Stalin
as a model for society. But the problem is that Stalin�s Russia has long
been used by those who oppose the redistribution of wealth as evidence
that this strategy cannot work.
However, since the Berlin Wall between East and West Germany fell, an
increasingly wide gap has opened up between rich and poor. Simultaneously,
religious fundamentalism has stepped into the ideological vacuum left by
the demise of Marxism.
Worse than that, the idea that human nature will not allow for a
redistribution of wealth seems to have been widely accepted. Witness
Christian communities calling for a fairer share of resources in South
America being viciously criticised by both the United States government
and the Vatican.
I can only conclude that those who criticise people for wanting greater
economic equity are also those who benefit most from the present
It was ever thus. I can imagine on whose side Jesus would have been.