Almost everyone can tell when a synagogue or a church is in the final stages of decline. The impending extinction is usually caused by changing neighborhood demographics or sometimes by a leadership crisis but the signs are always conspicuous. Diminished attendance; few young women, a sad-looking facility showing signs of neglect. A roof needing repair, walls needing paint, and missing light bulbs reflect deferred maintenance.
Similarly, a country that is losing its vitality and sliding down into decadence reveals certain characteristics that serve as an early warning system. One surprisingly significant sign is hostility towards private citizens owning property. It starts off subtly by stressing the rights of renters rather than owners and then gradually grows to criticize landlords, owners of commercial and industrial property and others who have successfully acquired property. Eventually censure of property-owners turns into condemnation to justify government agencies raising property taxes imperiling ownership, and ultimately seizure of properties, always for the “public good” of course.
This pattern has nearly always accompanied the decline of empires, nations, and societies and can easily be observed today in Europe as well as in N. America. The growth of an economically viable society under stable and limited government is in itself something of a miracle. It is far from the natural order of things and to a great degree, depends upon a government not only refraining from confiscatory policies but actively protecting citizens’ ability to acquire and own property.
The Bible clearly reveals how emphatically God desires for people to own both real estate and movable property.
… nation shall not lift up sword against nation, nor shall they learn war any more. But each man shall sit under his vine and under his fig tree…
The prophet is not talking about people sitting under any old vine or fig tree but under their own. Furthermore, ancient Jewish wisdom declares that the proximity of the topics of war and owning their trees in these verses suggest that violence and war are best avoided by each citizen owning property.
Not only does God want all His children to own property, but He is apparently uneasy about ownerless property. Take a look at this:
When you encounter the ox or the donkey of your enemy wandering you shall surely return them to him.
Intriguingly, the same idea is repeated with some variation later in the Torah:
You shall not see the ox or sheep of your brother wander off, and ignore them; you must certainly return them to your brother.
Ancient Jewish wisdom teaches three timeless truths from these verses:
First: If you encounter obviously lost animals wandering around, you don’t have the right to ignore them. As soon as you spot them they become your business and you are obliged to take all necessary steps to restore them to them to their owners. God doesn’t care for ownerless property and He counts upon us to help owners retain their property.
Second: In Exodus, the second book of the Torah, we are directed to return lost property, even that belonging to our enemy. Surely we’d have been able to figure out that if we have to treat our enemy’s property this respectfully, then we need to do so for our brother’s property. Thus the verse mentioning brother in Deuteronomy, the fifth book, seems superfluous. The answer is that God is teaching us that by interrupting whatever you are doing and going out of your way to return lost property to your enemy (Exodus 23:4) you can eventually transform him into your brother. (Deuteronomy 22:1)
Third: By mentioning helping one’s enemy first, God is telling us that He wants us constantly to be working on overcoming our inbuilt, unworthy natural tendencies. A very understandable part of our beings exults at seeing our enemy’s valuable animals lost and wandering. “That will teach him to be such a scoundrel,” we self-righteously tell ourselves. Yet God tells us to work at overcoming our ignoble instincts.
The same applies to training ourselves never to become angry, not to be lazy, or any of the numerous other negative tendencies and instincts we possess. They may be natural to us, but that doesn’t make them permissible.
Another area where we need to overcome a natural tendency is envy, which leads us to equate poverty with virtue. It is a natural instinct but a wrong one to tell ourselves that those with far more property than we have must have ‘cut corners’ and must be greedy, unworthy folks.
By remembering that part of God’s plan for human interaction demands that people own property, we can, in our own small way, help to preserve our society. We can help curb the natural tendency of our culture, entertainment and politicians. By remembering the Biblical approach to humans and their property, we can, in our own small way, help our synagogues and churches remain fiscally healthy and reverse the societal decline that flows from envy and hatred of those who wisely own some property.
In case you’re wondering what inspired me to write this Thought Tool, it was partially the fascinating questions that my wife and I receive from readers asking about economic, family and social issues. We receive many puzzling and perplexing questions and we answer one a week. So many of you have expressed interest in this aspect of our work that we have published an irresistible anthology of 101 of the most intriguing questions we have received. It is easy reading that packs a punch and you can get it today.