Reflection on Just Land Distribution in the Bible

17 May

by Jill Shook


Almost every nation has done some kind of major land reform in its history when extreme disparities of wealth threaten the nation’s stability. When there are extreme disparities, a nation is vulnerable to a revolution.  At times of greater equality in a nation, there is greater stability. All wealth is derived from the land and air—our food, our water, all the minerals and resources needed to build homes and sustain life.  When we abuse such resources, we hurt ourselves and our children’s future.

The Catholic priest, historian and writer Thomas Berry died at the age of ninety-four in 2009. The self-described “geologian” founded the Riverdale Center for Religious Research. In 2005, Berry told a reporter,

“If the earth does grow inhospitable toward human presence, it is primarily because we have lost our sense of courtesy toward the earth and its inhabitants.”


The Bible can be seen though a lens of a God seeking equality on earth—in relationships, in how money, goods and land are distributed. For example, in describing the purpose of in II Cor 8-9, in verse 8:13-15 Paul says:

“Our desire is not that others might be relieved while you are hard pressed, but that there might be equality.  At the present time your plenty will supply what they need, so that in turn their plenty will supply what you need. The goal is equality, as it is written: “The one who gathered much did not have too much, and the one who gathered little did not have too little.” 

Here Paul quotes “The one who gathered much did not have too much, and the one who gathered little did not have too little” from, Exodus 16:18, which summarizes the goal of the manna that God rained down on the people of Israel.  The people had been wandering in the wilderness and God supplied them with food and water. The food came in the form of Manna at night that looked like frost on the ground that each family would gather. The Manna spoiled when they tried to save it for the next day (except for the Sabbath). If they took too much in one day, when they measured it, they had enough, one Omer per person. The same happened if they gathered too little, they would have enough. This was powerful lesson on equality. 

In our first reflection together on April 22nd I did a scan through the Christian Scriptures on a theology of land and the rhythm of recycling land every 7 years laid out in Lev. 25. This recycling and rhythm of life brings health to our bodies, to society and to the earth itself. If you recall it goes like this: Every seven days we rest, and every seven years the land is to rest and lay fallow as farmer would say. That year there is also a forgiveness of debts. Then after seven times seven years, the land would go back go its original owner with a land redistribution enabling landless people to again have access to land.

This recycling of land is summarized in Deut. 15, and I want to share with you just part of this passage today beginning with verse 4.  As this is read, I want to us to reflect on three questions:

  1. What hits you as we read?
  2. How does this relate to utilizing underutilized land on your church campus for affordable


  1. What does it take to realize land redistribution in the US?

“There should be no poor among you, for the Lord your God will greatly bless you in the land he is giving you as a special possession. You will receive this blessing if you are careful to obey all the commands of the Lord your God that I am giving you today. The Lord your God will bless you as he has promised….

“……But if there are any poor Israelites in your towns when you arrive in the land the Lord your God is giving you, do not be hard-hearted or tightfisted toward them. Instead, be generous and lend them whatever they need. Do not be mean-spirited and refuse someone a loan because the year for canceling debts is close at hand. If you refuse to make the loan and the needy person cries out to the Lord, you will be considered guilty of sin. 10 Give generously to the poor, not grudgingly, for the Lord your God will bless you in everything you do. 11 There will always be some in the land who are poor. That is why I am commanding you to share freely with the poor and with other Israelites in need.

In summary, I want to quote from one of the Early Church fathers, Basil of Caesarea or
Saint Basil the Great, who lived from 330 – January 1, 379. He said this,

“The private appropriation of the koina, such as land, is robbery. Hence, continued excessive landownership is but fresh and continued theft. Indeed, the hoarding of other things, too, which one does not need, but what others do need, is itself a form of theft. “

This quote is from the book, Oppression to Jubilee Justice by Lowell Noble. I count it an honor to have known Lowell, a brilliant sociologist deeply in love with God. It was a privilege to do workshops with him and collaborate on writing a chapter with him. He worked closely with Dr. John Perkins, one of my life-long mentors.

I want to end this reflection by sharing briefly about another of my many favorite books, Ownership: Early Christian Teaching by Charles Avila. Avila attended seminary in the Manila, in the Philippines which had a beautiful expansive grassy landscape well cared by the gardeners. He began a series of conversations with the gardeners who were part of a land reform movement. They were all landless and kept in perpetual poverty because they had no opportunity to create generational wealth. Soon he realized that what they were saying about land was more biblical than what he was learning in the seminary. So, he researched what the Early Church fathers said about land and its fair distribution, and it was not insignificant. So, he wrote this book about it.

From the earliest days of the Early Church to what the Pope today has declared about making church land available to the poor, the just and fair distribution of land emerges as a foundational way of ending poverty, bringing about health and creating equality. 

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