Pope Francis called for “the legitimate redistribution of economic benefits” on Friday, arguing that the Bible demands an economic system that cares for the “poorest and those most excluded.”
Francis made the comments while speaking before a gathering of several United Nations agency leaders, including U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. As he reflected on the U.N.’s target for Future Sustainable Development Goals, the first Latin American pope asked those present to resist participating in an “economy of exclusion” and to strive to have “a real impact on the structural causes of poverty and hunger.”
“In the case of global political and economic organization, much more needs to be achieved, since an important part of humanity does not share in the benefits of progress and is in fact relegated to the status of second-class citizens,” Francis said.
Francis grounded his argument in the biblical story of Zacchaeus, a rich (and likely corrupt) tax collector who dramatically altered his economic behavior after encountering Jesus Christ. According to Luke 19:1–10, Zacchaeus was overcome by Jesus’ kindness, prompting the wealthy man to publicly proclaim that he would give half his possessions to the poor and pay back anyone he defrauded four times over.
“…Zacchaeus made a radical decision of sharing and justice, because his conscience had been awakened by the gaze of Jesus,” Francis said of the story. “This same spirit should be at the beginning and end of all political and economic activity.”
The Zacchaeus story is but one of many instances where the Bible demands for the redistribution of resources to those in need. In Matthew 19:21, Jesus tells a young man “If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven,” and in Luke 3:10–11, he proclaims to an assembled crowd “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” In addition, one of Jesus’ most famous miracles is a the “feeding of the multitude,” or where he and his disciples manage to feed five thousand hungry people with five loaves of bread and two fish.
Francis’ words speak directly to growing concern over economic inequality. In the United States alone, the richest 1 percent of the population — a group which controls about 40 percent of the country’s wealth and owns about half of all stocks, bonds, and mutual funds — saw their income grow by 86.1 percent between 1993 and 2012. In that same time period, the incomes of the rest of the country — the bottom 50 percent of which own only .5 percent of investments — grew just 6.6 percent. This sort of wealth disparity is also a global problem: according to a recent study by Oxfam, the 85 richest people on the planet are worth nearly as much as the poorest 50 percent of the world’s population.
Pope Francis has made moral economics and concern for the poor a chief focus of his ministry since he ascended to the papacy in March 2013. Stories abound of him dining with the homeless and sneaking out of the Vatican to serve the needy, and he even published an entire apostolic exhortation on just economic practices late last year. In it, he argues that trickle-down economics has “never been confirmed by the facts” and asks “How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points?”