Trickle Up: U.S. Housing and the Biblical Call to Redistribution of Wealth

by Sam Greenlee
Guest Contributor

A couple of years ago, when we were trying to find a home to buy, we hoped to purchase a fixer-upper that would require us to take on less debt. There were plenty available, or so it seemed.

Time and time again our offers lost out to investors who had cash in hand and were looking to make a profit by flipping or renting out the homes. We often lost to investors who were actually making offers lower than our own, because their cash offers didn’t carry the risk of the loan falling through in the escrow process.

While we love the home where we eventually ended up, we found that we had to purchase a home that was near the top of what we could possibly afford. It didn’t have much left to be done and so there wasn’t a sure profit left to be squeezed out of it by investors.

This house and the one at the top of the post are ones Sam Greenlee and family considered but could not purchase due to the issues described in the post.

But the pattern emerging over those months after the couple dozen offers we put in was this: if a wealthy person with capital on hand wanted the same house, they would get it — usually at a discount.

And this is the pattern of the world. A person’s wealth tends to become more wealth. Because wealth means power, and opportunity, and access, the tendency is for wealth to work its way up toward the wealthy.

We see the evidence of this accumulation everywhere. The top 1% wealthiest Americans have more wealth than the bottom 90% of Americans combined. The bottom 90% of Americans carry 73% of debt (see these articles and reports: Oxfam, Vanity Fair, CNBC, The New York Times, The Atlantic).

The global picture is even more astonishing: just eight individuals currently own more than the combined wealth of half of the human population.

While the Bible is no more a textbook on economics than it is a scientific journal, it’s worth noting that these patterns were observable and obvious to ancient people as well. The Torah teaches that all property is ultimately the Lord’s and that God does not desire that it accumulate into the hands of the few out of the hands of the many.

And so the people of ancient Israel were instructed to follow certain practices to break the cycle of growing inequality:

  • All debts were cancelled every seventh year.
  • Real property was returned every fiftieth year to those who’d had to sell it: the year of Jubilee.
  • If they could pay off the adjusted value, people were allowed to redeem the property they sold off at any point.
  • It was not permissible to charge interest on a loan.
  • Those who had sold themselves into servitude were to be liberated every fiftieth year. They were also to be treated respectfully, as hired hands, and could purchase their own liberty or have their liberty purchased by a relative at any time.

As would be noted later on, in Proverbs 22:7, “The rich rule over the poor, and the borrower is the slave to the lender” (NRSV).

In the midst of this reality, we find that God would not have people ruling or lording over one another, but rather living in brother- and sisterhood. And so instructions were made to see to it that wealth was routinely and regularly redistributed from the wealthiest to the poorest, to ensure that all would have enough.

What would it look like for us to begin implementing this type of wealth distribution and redistribution in our watersheds? How might we care for our places and our neighbors differently if we lived in an economic system like that suggested in the Torah? How can we begin, in small ways, to shift our neighborhoods toward a more just, community-based, and place-based economic system?

Recognizing we live in a world wherein the principle of those instructions is so routinely ignored, let us join together with Mary’s song of hope as she announced her pregnancy:

[The Lord] has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty. (Luke 1:49-53, NRSV)


Bio: Sam Greenlee lives in the Oak Park neighborhood of Sacramento, CA, with his wife and daughter. This puts him in Maidu territory and within the watershed of the Sacramento River. He enjoys working with his neighbors to see their community flourish and is slowly working toward planting a new congregation.

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