Last time in this space, we talked about the Jubilee in the Old Testament and saw that it was an attempt to extend the Exodus and the grace God had shown Israel into history so that the Exodus was not a one-off event but a way of life. The Jubilee was ordered toward defending the least of these from oppression at the hands of the strong, just like the Exodus.
We noted that while the specific regulations of the Mosaic law cannot be applied in the circumstances of a different culture, age, and economic system, nonetheless it is vital to grasp that when Jesus launched his ministry, he identified himself with the Jubilee. That is, he did not inaugurate a Jubilee Year, but announced that he is the true Jubilee, just as he is the true Temple and the true Passover Lamb.
This means that we Christians cannot just blow off the Jubilee as an outmoded Old Testament thing any more than we can blow off the idea of sacrifice. Just as Jesus came not to abolish, but to fulfil the sacrifices of the Old Testament in the sacrifice of the Mass, so he fulfills, not abolishes the Jubilee. In him, supremely, debts are forgiven, slaves are set free, and justice is done to the poor.
It is tempting to evaporate all that into the ether by spiritualising riches and poverty. But James will have none of that rubbish:
“What does it profit, my brethren, if a man says he has faith but has not works? Can his faith save him? If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and in lack of daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what does it profit? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.” (James 2:14-17)
If we are too cheap to share our earthly wealth, we should not try to kid God about our eagerness to share heavenly treasure. As St John Chrysostom says, “If you do not see Christ in the beggar at the Church door, you shall not find him in the Chalice.” The rich, he says, exist for the sake of the poor, but the poor exist for the salvation of the rich.
This means that we have just as much an obligation to share our material gifts with our neighbour as our spiritual gifts. And that is doubly so if our material gifts are due to thefts committed by our ancestors. For the treasure we hold in such a case is treasure that belongs to the children of those from whom it was stolen.
Case in point: redlining. In the US after the Civil War, Jim Crow laws were instituted that inflicted a huge amount of economic hardship on people of colour. Among many unjust policies was redlining, where financial institutions drew red lines around minority neighbourhoods and refused them loans and insurance. This made home-owning and business start-ups much harder, thereby locking those people into poverty, while whites accrued wealth for themselves and their children. School districts were (and remain) funded according to the income levels in those respective neighborhoods, guaranteeing huge education and wealth disparities between them. The effects remain fifty years after redlining was outlawed.
This is why the Church teaches the reality of “structures of sin”: systems created by sinful humans that perpetuate evils down through generations. Our task as faithful Catholics is to work to destroy such structures of sin wherever we encounter them.
One key to approaching such structures is to analyse them in light of the first and second commandments. The law is made for human beings, not human beings for the law. Any system that perpetuates injustice is one that requires reform. And if we find that our focus is taken off the least of these and directed toward self-pity, we should interrogate that in light of the law of love and put the least of these, not our feelings, first.
The goal remains what it was at the Exodus and in the early Church:
“I do not mean that others should be eased and you burdened, but that as a matter of equality your abundance at the present time should supply their want, so that their abundance may supply your want, that there may be equality. As it is written, “He who gathered much had nothing over, and he who gathered little had no lack.” (2 Cor 8:13-15)