September 10, 2014| 0

Two Types of Profit: Just and Unjust (Jeremiah 6:13)

For from the least to the greatest of them, everyone is greedy for unjust gain; and from prophet to priest, everyone deals falsely.

Profit is the lifeblood of a business. It’s the sign of life in the corporate body and the breath that sustains the enterprise. That’s good. But according to the prophet Jeremiah, there is also a bad kind of profit: “unjust gain,” driven by greed.

When does profit cross the line? What separates good and just profit from the bad and unjust kind?

In a word, it’s violence. Unjust gains are gained by the unjust use of force. “Plunder” is a more literal translation of the word Jeremiah used here. In the Hebrew text, the phrase (botseah-botsah, בּוֹצֵ֣עַ בָּ֑צַע) could be translated as “to plunder plunder” or “to grab by force.” When a word is repeated like this in Hebrew, it amplifies the meaning. The key issue is profiting at the expense of another. This is a win-lose understanding of economics implying that the profit/gain is taken against another’s will. Of course that's the exact opposite of biblical justice. In God’s economy, grace abounds, righteous relationships benefit both parties, and exchange is inherently win-win. Covenant blessings are poured out, wealth and spiritual capital are built up, scarcities disappear, and accounts are reconciled. That’s a kingdom vision of economics and the context for justly-earned profits. In other words, justly-earned profits are received in grace and never taken by force.

It’s also interesting to note that there is no Hebrew word for “greed” in the text's original language. That is the translator’s attempt to convey the meaning of the sentence into English. The literal language in the Hebrew is not, “everyone is greedy,” but rather, “everyone plunders plunder.” It's a strong condemnation of gains taken by force, against the will and at the expense of the other.

Problems begin when business practices (“rent-taking”) ignore the best interests of the customer in order to increase profits through manipulation or extortion. We do well to honor God’s economics by not crossing that line.

This teaching may be applied to any business by examining the forces at work in a transaction. To the extent that force is used to coerce, manipulate, or perpetrate violence, the gains are unjust and ill-gotten. To the extent that market forces work to the benefit of both parties in a freely-given and wholesome exchange, the gains are just. Economic justice is realized in profitable trades which bestow grace on all parties. Just profits uphold human dignity and add to "shalom" in society.


© Bruce D. Baker, 2014

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