Let’s try to be fair image

Let’s try to be fair

Matt posed some good questions in his response to my last post, “When we talk about ‘income inequality’ do we mean a lack of equality or a lack of fairness? In building a ‘fairer society’ are we aiming for equality of opportunity, or equality of outcome? And how do we define what is fair anyway?”

Good questions, but first let me introduce Wayne Grudem to the debate. In his defence of business and more broadly American free-market capitalism in Business for the Glory of God, (a book I reviewed in 2008) Grudem includes a short chapter on inequality and makes some similar points to Matt. Why respond to one protagonist when you can respond to two?
Grudem opens with this headline statement, “Some inequality of possessions is fundamentally good and provides many opportunities for glorifying God, but also many temptations to sin; and some extreme inequalities are wrong in themselves.”
When I first read this I was slightly shocked, I had no problem identifying with the second half of that statement but I hadn’t considered that there could be a biblical argument for the first. Here is his case in a nutshell.
First, in heaven there are degrees of reward, some will be put in charge of ten cities and some merely five (Luke 19:17,19) and we’ll each receive a reward according to what we’ve done (2 Cor. 5:10). Not even the angels are equal what with archangels and everything so there’s inequality of authority and stewardship in heaven.
Secondly, moving from heaven to earth Grudem makes the same point that Matt made in reference to Usain Bolt, some of us are just born lucky. When it comes to abilities not everyone is born equal. For some their genes and brains mean they can cope with leadership, responsibility and wealth and some, well, can’t. In the arena of sport, as Matt demonstrated, it seems patently obvious that not everyone should get a gold medal, but what about in the rest of life? According to Grudem not everyone should be rewarded the same, ‘those with larger abilities will naturally gain larger rewards’ and that he says is only fair (p. 52).
Thirdly, ‘God has never had a goal of producing equality of possessions among people and he will never do so.’ To support this view he goes to the Year of Jubilee (Lev. 25), Corinth (2 Cor. 8) and Jerusalem (Acts 2:44-46) basically demonstrating that the early church weren’t communists but liberated free-marketers. ‘We should not think of all inequalities of possessions as wrong, or as evil. In fact, inequalities of possessions provide many opportunities for glorifying God.’
To his credit, like Matt, Grudem sees poverty as a result of the fall and that poverty will not last forever, there will be no poor in heaven. However, ‘the evils of poverty and excessive self-indulgent wealth must not cause us to think that God’s goal is total equality of possessions, or that all inequalities are wrong. Inequalities in abilities and opportunities and possessions will be part of our life in heaven forever, and they are in themselves good and pleasing to God, and provide many opportunities for glorifying him.’
Let me hit the easy targets first. Those with larger abilities should get larger rewards and that’s only fair. Hmm, I’m not so sure.
First you only have to look at the indolent children of many of the rich and famous to prove that larger rewards do not always come to the most able, or just watch X-factor. Fair? Hardly. For a biblical response just ask the older brother in Luke 15 if you think different. His basic complaint is that his useless younger brother was not deserving of his blessing in the first place and the fact that he got that and the party was, well, very unfair. 
Secondly, according to Jesus, Paul and James there are two systems of reward at work right now. One is temporary and the other eternal and they are often not connected. So what gets you a huge reward now may not get you a huge reward in heaven and vice versa. So while the world values the invention of iPods and iPads and richly rewards those who create them, heaven’s rewards are based on rather different criteria; such as generosity, sacrifice and service. ‘Accumulate the right sort of treasure’ is the most basic point.
But let’s get to the heart of the issue. It seems to me that Grudem reads Leviticus 25, Acts 2 and 2 Corinthians 8 as saying because we don’t all have the same amount of stuff and the Bible doesn’t say we should, then it’s clearly not for equality. But that’s not the Biblical vision of equality, which offers perhaps the more intriguing picture of manna from heaven (Exodus 16). Everyone gathered different amounts and yet everyone had enough and no one could store more than they needed. Heaven limited greed and created equality (2 Corinthians 8:15 a verse Grudem doesn’t quite get to).
I read those same passages as a consistent, systematic and repeated desire to limit inequality. Leviticus achieves that end through the means of the law and the church gets the same end through the agency of the Spirit. One institutes a radical equalising system and the other creates radically generous hearts.
So will there be inequality in heaven? Even granted that there will be varying levels of responsibility I’d be surprised if there was inequality of opportunity. Opportunity to do what, make your fortune? If first will be last and the reverse is also true then perhaps those who enjoyed their rewards in this life will be content with less in the next. So the master in his millionaire mansion may find that his eternal mansion not quite as roomy as his former servants and no one will be able to say that’s not fair.
This is part three of a series on poverty.

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