Injustice, Greed, the Common Good and Integrity (Jeremiah 5-8)

Bible Commentary / Produced by TOW Project

Injustice 

Failing to acknowledge God as the source of good harvests, the people of Judah soon lost any sense of accountability to the Lord for how they worked. This led them to oppress and deceive the weak and defenseless:

They know no limits in deeds of evil; they do not judge with justice the cause of the orphan, to make it prosper, and they do not defend the rights of the needy (Jer. 5:28).

They have held fast to deceit, they have refused to return. I have given heed and listened, but they do not speak honestly; no one repents of wickedness, saying ‘What have I done!’ (Jer. 8:6)

What ought to have been done for the good of all in God’s land was done solely for individuals’ own profit and without fear of their God for whom they were called to work. So God withheld rain, and they soon learned that they were not the source of their own success. There are parallels here in the economic crisis of 2008 – 2010 and its relationship to compensation, honesty in lending and borrowing, and the rush to make a quick profit at the cost of putting others at risk. It is important not to be simplistic — today’s major economic issues are too complex for generalized maxims drawn from Jeremiah. Yet there is a connection — complex though it is — between the economic well being of people and nations and their spiritual lives and values. Economic well being is a moral issue.

Greed

God calls people to a higher purpose than economic self-interest. Our highest end is our relationship with God, within which provision and material well-being are important, but limited, matters.

I remember the devotion of your youth, your love as a bride, how you followed me in the wilderness in a land not sown. Israel was holy to the Lord, the first fruits of his harvest (Jer. 2:2-3)

Jeremiah looked around and found that greed — unbridled pursuit of economic gain — had displaced the love of God, as the people’s chief concern. “From the least to the greatest, everyone is greedy for unjust gain; from prophet to priest, everyone deals falsely” (Jer. 8:10). No one escaped Jeremiah’s condemnation for their greed.[1] The prophet was not partial to the rich or the poor, the small or the great. We see him running “to and fro through the streets of Jerusalem” to find even “one person who acts justly and seeks the truth” (Jer. 5:1). First he asked the poor, but they are found to be hardened (Jer. 5:4). Then Jeremiah turned to the rich, “but they all alike had broken the yoke, they had burst the bonds” (Jer. 5:5).

As Walter Brueggemann states, “All persons, but especially the religious leaders, are indicted for their unprincipled economics…. This community has lost every norm by which to evaluate and assess its rapacious and exploitative greed.”[2] The people’s hearts were inclined toward getting rich rather than fearing God and loving others. Whether done by the rich (the king, Jer. 22:17) or the poor, such greed aroused divine wrath.

The Common Good

God’s intention is that we live and work for the common good.[3] Jeremiah criticized the people of Judah for failing to care for others who could not offer some economic benefit in return, including orphans and the needy (Jer. 5:28), aliens, widows, and innocents (Jer. 7:6). This is above and beyond the accusations he made against breaking specific elements of the Law, such as stealing, murder, adultery, swearing falsely, and worshiping false gods (Jer. 7:9). Jeremiah made this charge against particular individuals (“scoundrels are found among my people,” Jer. 5:26), against all individuals (“all you people of Judah,” Jer. 7:2), against the leaders of business (the rich, Jer. 5:27) and government (judges, Jer. 5:28), against cities (Jer. 4:16-18, 11:12, 26:2, et al.) and against the nation as a whole (“This evil people,” Jer. 13:10). Every element of society, individually and institutionally, had broken God’s covenant.

Jeremiah’s insistence that work and its products serve the common good is an important foundation for business ethics and personal motivation. Whether an action contributes to the common good is just as important as the whether the action is legal. It may be legal to conduct business in ways that detract from the common good, but that does not make it legitimate in God’s reckoning. For example, most companies are part of a supply chain leading from raw materials to parts to assemblies to finished goods to the distribution system to consumers. It may be possible for one player in the chain to gain power over the others, squeeze their margins, and capture all the profits. But even if this is done by legal means, is it good for the industry and the community? Is it even sustainable over the long term? Or it may be legal for a union to preserve benefits for current workers by negotiating away benefits for new workers. But if the benefits are needed by all workers, does this really serve the common good? These are complex issues, and there is no rigid answer to be found in Jeremiah. The relevance of Jeremiah is that the people of Judah, for the most part, thought they were living according to the Law, including presumably its many economic/workplace regulations.[4] But God still found them unfaithful in their workplace and economic activity. They followed the regulations of Law, but not its spirit. Jeremiah says that doing so ultimately prevented the whole people from enjoying the fruit of their labor in God’s land.

Like the people of Judah, we all have chances either to hoard or to share the benefits we receive from our jobs. Some companies concentrate bonuses and stock options in the hands of senior executives. Others distribute them broadly among all workers. Some people try to take full credit for every accomplishment they had a hand in. Others give credit to co-workers as liberally as possible. Again, there are complex considerations involved, and we should avoid making snap judgments of others. But we could ask ourselves a simple question. Does the way I handle money, power, recognition and the other rewards of my job benefit primarily me, or does it contribute to the good of my colleagues, my organization and my society?

Likewise, organizations may lean either towards greed or towards the common good. If a business exploits monopoly power to extract high prices or uses deception to sell its products, then it is acting on greed for money. If a government exercises power to promote the interests of itself over its neighbors or of its leaders over its citizens, then it is acting on greed for power.

Jeremiah takes a broad understanding of the common good and its opposite, greed. Greed is not restricted to gains that violate some particular law. Instead, it includes any kind of gain that ignores the needs and circumstances of others. According to Jeremiah, no one in his day was free of such greed. Is it any different today?

Integrity

The word “integrity” means living life according to a single, consistent set of ethics. When we follow the same ethical precepts at home, at work, at church and in the community, we have integrity. When we follow different ethical precepts in different spheres of life, we lack integrity.

Jeremiah complains about the lack of integrity he sees in the people of Judah. They seem to believe that they can violate God’s ethical norms in work and daily life, then come to the temple, act holy and be saved from the consequences of their actions.

Will you steal, murder, commit adultery, swear falsely, make offerings to Baal, and go after other gods that you have not known, and then come and stand before me in this house, which is called by my name, and say, “We are safe!”—only to go on doing all these abominations? Has this house, which is called by my name, become a den of robbers in your sight? You know, I too am watching, says the Lord. (Jer. 7:9–11)

Jeremiah is calling them to lives of integrity. Otherwise their piety means nothing to God. “I will cast you out of my sight,” God says (Jer. 7:15). Our hearts are not right with God just because we go to the temple.  Our relationship with him is reflected in our actions, in what we do every day, including what we do at work.

See, e.g., Jer 2:30-32, 3:25; 7:21-24; 11:7-8; 22:21.                                                                                                                       

Walter Brueggemann, A Commentary on Jeremiah: Exile & Homecoming (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1998), 72-73.

The Steering Committee of the Theology of Work Project was not of one mind about using the term “common good” to describe Jeremiah’s insistence that work and products of work should benefit people in society generally (or at least certain people in society) rather than only the workers or those holding power.

The majority favored using the term “common good” to describe Jeremiah’s point because its plain-English meaning seems to describe the situation accurately and succinctly. Moreover, the term is used in major English translations of the Bible, such as the NIV, NASB, RSV and NRSV; for example, in Nehemiah 2:18 and 1 Corinthians 12:7.

The minority did not favor using the term because it does not appear in any English translation of Jeremiah, nor is there any Hebrew term in Jeremiah that roughly corresponds to it. If the majority is correct that it describes Jeremiah’s point, it must be said the Jeremiah himself doesn’t describe it that way himself. Moreover, the term has acquired a specialized meaning in certain schools of philosophy, theology and politics that goes far beyond any plain-English meaning that might pertain in Jeremiah. Using the term can give the erroneous impression that such philosophical-theological-political schools of thought are taught, per se, by Jeremiah.

In accordance with the majority opinion, we have used the term in this article. However, we do not mean to take a particular political position or to read post-Jeremiah philosophy or theology into the text of Jeremiah. Rather, we use it simply to refer to Jeremiah’s proclamation that God intends each person’s work to contribute not only toward meeting their own needs, but toward meeting the needs of others as well.

In contrast to some of the other prophets (e.g., Ezekiel 45:9-12), Jeremiah does not suggest that merchants he came in contact with were using unjust weights and measures, which would have broken the Law as found in Leviticus 19:36.