Condemnations of economic sins can be found in the Old Testament, the New Testament, the Book of Mormon, and the Doctrine and Covenants. Indeed, I think it would be safe to say that preoccupation with economic sin is one of the major themes of the scriptures. This is interesting since we seem to have a tendency to read around these statements, preserving our opinion that the commandments are largely about sexual morality, honesty, obedience to leaders, and so forth. Yet, as the citations below will show, economic matters are in fact a central topic of the standard works.
Reading the Old Testament makes clear that economic sin was a major theme in the Mosaic Law. We have the mental image of that law as having been all about temple sacrifice, ritual purity, and sexual restraint. But in fact, a major component of the law had to do with economic mercy toward the poor and the socially disadvantaged. Consider the following examples, which require interest-free loans to the destitute, charitable donation of food, support for widows and orphans, and equitable wages and work conditions.
If thou lend money to any of my people that is poor by thee, thou shalt not be to him as an usurer, neither shalt thou lay upon him usury. (Exodus 22:25)
And six years thou shalt sow thy land, and shalt gather in the fruits thereof: but the seventh year thou shalt let it rest and lie still; that the poor of thy people may eat: and what they leave the beasts of the field shall eat. In like manner thou shalt deal with thy vineyard, and with thy oliveyard. (Exodus 23:10-11)
If there be among you a poor man of one of thy brethren within any of thy gates in thy land which the LORD thy God giveth thee, thou shalt not harden thine heart, nor shut thine hand from thy poor brother: but thou shalt open thine hand wide unto him, and shalt surely lend him sufficient for his need, in that which he wanteth. (Deuteronomy 15:7-8)
And I will come near to you to judgment; and I will be a swift witness against the sorcerers, and against the adulterers, and against false swearers, and against those that oppress the hireling in his wages, the widow, and the fatherless, and that turn aside the stranger from his right, and fear not me, saith the LORD of hosts. (Malachi 3:5; see also 3 Nephi 24:5)
In fact, the Old Testament is full of similar statements. Both the Law and the Prophets seem to consider inadequate economic deference to the poor and the disadvantaged to be a sin at least on the order of sexual misbehavior.
The New Testament, of course, continues and builds on this Old Testament tradition of emphasizing economic sin. Let us briefly consider two of the more famous economically-significant passages in the New Testament.
Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin, and have omitted the weightier matters of the law, judgment, mercy, and faith: these ought ye to have done, and not to leave the other undone. Ye blind guides, which strain at a gnat, and swallow a camel. (Matthew 23:23-24)
This passage makes reference to the weightier matters of the law–which, as discussed above, largely involve economic issues such as mercy in lending, making judgments on behalf of the poor and the socially excluded, and generally biasing society in favor of the powerless. In fact, Jesus specifically refers to such themes in this passage when he mentions judgment and mercy. A major sin of the Pharisees, then, was ritual observance coupled with neglect for the poor and the disadvantaged.
Jesus said unto him, If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell that thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come and follow me. But when the young man heard that saying, he went away sorrowful: for he had great possessions. Then said Jesus unto his disciples, Verily I say unto you, That a rich man shall hardly enter into the kingdom of heaven. And again I say unto you, It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God. (Matthew 19:21-24)
The economic content of this passage is obvious, indeed, so obvious that a great deal of reinterpretive effort has been made over the years to reduce the economic implications of this statement. My suggestion is to let such efforts at revising the New Testament message go and to simply hear the words of the text.
Other New Testament material has also traditionally been interpreted in ways that tend to reduce the economic importance of statements that actually contain a great deal of economic content. For instance, consider the following famous quote:
Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal: but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust doth corrupt, and where thieves do not break through nor steal: for where your treasure is, there will your heart be also. (Matthew 6:19-21)
We often read this statement as if it were only about our emotional and social priorities: don’t get too emotionally attached to the standards of this world and the praise of other people, because these things end whereas heaven doesn’t end. But in actual fact the quote is literally about economic behavior. Jesus is cited as instructing us not to acquire economic fortunes, telling us instead to invest in spiritual things. In light of the other scriptural material cited in this post, it would seem that one obvious way of investing in spiritual things–which the author of these words likely had in mind–is to give our wealth to the poor and the socially excluded.
These quotes–while far from exhaustive–are probably sufficient to demonstrate that the New Testament reinforces and enhances the Old Testament condemnation of economic sin.
The Book of Mormon likewise builds on our understanding of economic sin. In the context of the final speech of King Benjamin, we are given a lengthy discourse on our economic duties with respect to the poor and the powerless. This is an especially significant statement because it is by far the longest description in the speech of a sin that could cause us to lose our eternal reward.
And also, ye yourselves will succor those that stand in need of your succor; ye will administer of your substance unto him that standeth in need; and ye will not suffer that the beggar putteth up his petition to you in vain, and turn him out to perish. Perhaps thou shalt say: The man has brought upon himself his misery; therefore I will stay my hand, and will not give unto him of my food, nor impart unto him of my substance that he may not suffer, for his punishments are just–but I say unto you, O man, whosoever doeth this the same hath great cause to repent; and except he repenteth of that which he hath done he perisheth forever, and hath no interest in
the kingdom of God. For behold, are we not all beggars? Do we not all depend upon the same Being, even God, for all the substance which we have, for both food and raiment, and for gold, and for silver, and for all the riches which we have of every kind? And behold, even at this time, ye have been calling on his name, and begging for a remission of your sins. And has he suffered that ye have begged in vain? Nay; he has poured out his Spirit upon you, and has caused that your hearts should be filled with joy, and has caused that your mouths should be stopped that ye could not find utterance, so exceedingly great was your joy. And now, if God, who has created you, on whom you are dependent for your lives and for all that ye have and are, doth grant unto you whatsoever ye ask that is right, in faith, believing that ye shall receive, O then, how ye ought to impart of the substance that ye have one to another. And if ye judge the man who putteth up his petition to you for your substance that he perish not, and condemn him, how much more just will be your condemnation for withholding your substance, which doth not belong to you but to God, to whom also your life belongeth; and yet ye put up no petition, nor repent of the thing which thou hast done. I say unto you, wo be unto that man, for his substance shall perish with him; and now, I say these things unto those who are rich as pertaining to the things of this world. And again, I say unto the poor, ye who have not and yet have sufficient, that ye remain from day to day; I mean all you who deny the beggar, because ye have not; I would that ye say in your hearts that: I give not because I have not, but if I had I would give. And now, if ye say this in your hearts ye remain guiltless, otherwise ye are condemned; and your condemnation is just for ye covet that which ye have not received. And now, for the sake of these things which I have spoken unto you–that is, for the sake of retaining a remission of your sins from day to day, that ye may walk guiltless before
God–I would that ye should impart of your substance to the poor, every man according to that which he hath, such as feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting the sick and administering to their relief, both spiritually and temporally, according to their wants. (Mosiah 4:16-26)
This is, in my opinion, one of the most direct and unavoidable discussions in the entire scriptures on the topic of economic sin. The Book of Mormon, of course, contains several other statements on related issues; for example, we are told that, in the semi-millenial ideal society following Christ’s visit, the Book of Mormon people "had all things common among them" (4 Nephi 1:3)–implying that other, less communal societal arrangements are imperfect and thus a form of economic sin.
All things considered, it seems safe to conclude that the Book of Mormon makes more explicit and more rigorous the principles of economic sin taught in the Bible.
Finally, the Doctrine and Covenants continues this line of prophetic argument. In a previous post, I have included the following citation:
But it is not given that one man should possess that which is above another, wherefore the world lieth in sin. (Doctrine and Covenants 49:20)
My interpretation of this statement and its context is that its strong condemnation is specifically targeted at social and economic systems that provide unequal access to food resources. In effect, it is an economic sin to have enough (or too much) to eat when others are starving.
To this, I will add two other strong, explicit statements on economic sin (pausing to note that the Doctrine and Covenants contains many more). These statements originated during the period of time when the church tried to regulate its economic affairs through the Law of Consecration. That law, of course, has never been repealed and is still in force on all members of the church who have passed through the temple. Likewise, these statements have never been either decanonized or officially repudiated. (See also the discussion related to these quotes here.)
Nevertheless, in your temporal
things you shall be equal, and this not grudgingly, otherwise the abundance of
the manifestations of the Spirit shall be withheld. (Doctrine and Covenants 70:14)
For if ye are not equal in
earthly things ye cannot be equal in obtaining heavenly things; for if you will
that I give unto you a place in the celestial world, you must prepare
yourselves by doing the things which I have commanded you and required of you. (Doctrine and Covenants 78:6-7)
As in the other three books of scripture discussed above, it seems clear that the Doctrine and Covenants condemns as sinful those economic practices that involve withholding our wealth from the poor and the socially excluded. In fact, they go farther, instructing us to seek absolute equality in earthly things as a prerequisite to achieving celestial spiritual status.
I wonder if these economic messages, which permeate our scriptures, are given their due air time in modern Latter-day Saint meetings. When was the last time you heard a Sacrament Meeting talk on our duty to give to the poor or on the gospel requirement that we structure our society to achieve material equality? As noted above, the Pharisees were condemned at least in part because they obsessed on the non-economic parts of the Law of Moses but neglected the commandment to help the poor and the oppressed. Could we be in danger of becoming modern Pharisees?
P.S. This jeremiad serves as notice that Serenity Valley and I are at this point somewhat settled after our move.