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What did Jesus Believe About Wealth?

on Thursday, 01 December 1955. Posted in Societal debates

By Rev. Irving E. Howard

Someone has observed that no generation of Americans has thought more about freedom than ours, and none has shown a greater readiness to abandon it. This is especially true in the realm of economics. The crux of the problem of economic freedom is the nature of wealth and man's right to it.

In view of this, it is important to consider what Jesus thought about wealth. Since He was concerned with life and since economics is involved in the whole of life, we should expect to find economic implications in the teachings of Jesus. This expectation is not disappointed.

Consider Jesus' parable of the laborers in the vineyard (Matthew 20:1-6). Here is the story of an employer who hired a series of laborers at different hours of the day and at the end of the day paid them all alike. When those who had worked the longest complained because they had not been paid more than those who worked for an hour, the employer answered: "Is it not lawful for me to do what I will with my own?"

Whatever theological meaning this parable may have, it clearly assumes that a man has a right to his property. This is not a surprising assumption for Jesus to have made, for it was a central idea in the Ten Commandments and was a part of the Judaism of Jesus' time. Much so-called social legislation is in conflict with the teachings of Jesus on the question of property, for this kind of legislation is usually founded upon the assumption that a man's property or wealth belongs to the community, and that the community has a right to determine how it should be used. Jesus had a different idea; namely, that ultimately, all property belongs to God. More about that later.

Jesus also had a more constructive thought about the nature of wealth than "share the wealth." "Tax the Rich" legislation assumes that there is a fixed amount of wealth which must be more evenly distributed throughout the economy if we are to have a "just" social order. Our Marxian graduated income tax operates upon that principle.

Jesus' theory of the nature of wealth corresponds to that of the classical economists. Both were expounding something that is written into the nature of things and is therefore unchangeable.

The classical economists taught that there are four ways to get property or wealth. It may be created by the sweat of one's brow or the use of one's talents. It may be traded for, received as a gift or taken by force. In simpler days, when people were so naive as to believe the Ten Commandments, taking property by force was called "stealing." In more recent times, however, we have been led to think that what may be wrong for the individual is right for government. According to this philosophy, if by majority rule, the government takes property by force, the fact that the majority voted for it, makes it not an act of theft, but an expression of "social consciousness."

No one who is serious about the teachings of Jesus can ever be happy with this socialistic teaching. Not only did Jesus not believe in stealing, he did not believe that wealth was static. Study the parable of the ten pounds. Here Jesus told the story of a nobleman who gave his ten servants one pound each before he left for the far country. Upon his return, he called them to account. All but one had invested and increased his pound. This servant had hoarded his in fear that he might lose even that one pound. His lack of enterprise was condemned (Luke 19: 11-28).

Thus, from Jesus' point of view, if one man has less wealth than another, he may get more, not by robbing the man who has more, but by creating some for himself. The only limitation upon the amount of wealth in existence is in man's ingenuity for creation. In this parable, the more the servants made on their investments, the more they were applauded and there is no suggestion that there was anything immoral in their creation of wealth. Only sloth, fear and hoarding were condemned.

In "The Religious Foundations of Economic Progress," published in the "Harvard Business Review" of May, 1952, Kenneth Boulding, economist, commented upon the gospel of self help which has been largely lost from modern Protestantism. "Part of the cause," he wrote, "lies in sheer misunderstanding, stemming from failure to appreciate the ethical significance of economic progress, and a resultant economic ethic based on static assumptions, in which undue stress is laid on distributing a fixed sum of wealth fairly rather than on increasing the total to be distributed." We might add: "distributed by the method of the free market."

To be sure, Jesus' concept of wealth was in the framework of the Old Testament doctrine of the sovereignty of God: "The earth is the Lord's and the fullness thereof." Thus, man is a steward over his wealth and is obligated to use it to the glory of God. Man has an account to render.

However, he renders his account to God. If man is responsible to society, as suggested by the World Council of Churches, the door is opened to totalitarianism. Society can become demonic! Our Founding Fathers were aware of the danger of a despotism of the majority growing up among us, and therefore tried to construct a government of checks and balances which would restrain majorities by a concept of justice. They saw something beyond society as the source of man's freedom, dignity and responsibility!

In addition to His idea of stewardship, Jesus' attitude toward wealth was conditioned by an 'otherworldliness'.1 He was not primarily interested in this present world, but in a world to come.

Therefore, when a man came to Jesus saying: "Master, speak to my brother, that he divide the inheritance with me," Jesus rebuked the man and refused to be an equalizer of wealth. He continued by warning the man against covetousless.

Jesus had not heard about the Social Gospel, so his response to this challenge did not reveal an "enlightened social consciousness." It is odd that the covetousness Jesus warned against so frequenty has been turned into a virtue by the Social Gospel and Social Action movements in the modern hurch.

Jesus followed his warning against covetousness with the parable of the rich fool who built ever larger barns only to die suddenly unprepared for eternity (Luke 12: 13-21). To Jesus, wealth was a threat to the soul of the possessor, not a problem to be solved by social engineering. His focal point was always upon the individual rather than the group. While what he said to the individual had wide social consequences, he always started with the individual. So how to use wealth was a problem for the individual to solve with a sense of stewardship to God.

Consider the Rich Young Ruler who asked Jesus what he should do to inherit eternal life. Jesus recited the Ten Commandments to which the Rich Young Ruler replied: "I have kept these from my youth up." To prove that he had not understood the full implication of them, particularly of the first, Jesus replies: "If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell that thou hast, give to the poor... and follow me." Note that the point of emphasis in this incident was not upon the welfare of the poor, but upon the welfare of the Rich Young Ruler's soul. He had made a god of wealth (Matthew 19: 16-26).

Jesus was for neither the poor nor the rich. He was for all men as individuals. Most of all, he was for their spiritual development and commanded charity as a means to that development.

In Jesus' hands, the Old Testament doctrine of the sovereignty of God became a warm, personal faith in the providence of God. While expounding upon God's willingness to care for those who trust Him, Jesus enunciated one of the greatest truths of the New Testament: "Seek ye first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness and all these things shall be added unto you" (Matthew 6: 33).

The order of this verse is exceedingly important. Seeking the fulfillment of one's economic needs is not evil, but it must be secondary. When God is kept first, Jesus promises that man's economic needs will be met. Many historians have observed that at the root of the amazing economic development of western civilization have been deepseated religious convictions about God, man and the universe, especially the conviction that man is a morally responsible individual accountable to God and who therefore should be free to make choices and suffer the consequences. Thus, the futility of trying to transplant western know-how to lands which have not accepted the western knowwhy. When such countries master western knowhow without the religious world view which inspired it, those countries have invariably become a frankenstein of political despotism. All forms of coercive socialism, which put materialistic, economic considerations first and spiritual considerations last, invite disaster.

Man's accountability to God in the use of his wealth obligates him to practice charity which was the point of the story of Dives and Lazarus. The rich man in this story was punished, not because he was wealthy, but because he did not have compassion upon the beggar at his gate. Nevertheless, there is no suggestion in this story that Lazarus had any claim upon the rich man's wealth (Luke 16: 19-31).

Emil Brunner has stated it well in Justice and the Social Order: "(Man) is obliged, not by justice, but by compassion to give to those who are in need out of what is entirely his property, but those in need have no right to it...".

The best known example of Jesus' insistence upon charity is the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10: 25-37). A close examination of this story reveals that while it was given in answer to the lawyer's question — "Who is my neighbor?", it answered an unasked question — "Who is it that acts neighborly?" In The Peril of Modernizing Jesus, Dr. Henry Joel Cadbury made the point that Jesus shifted the emphasis from the recipient to the doer of the deed, but Jesus actually went beyond that. Jesus emphasized the motivation of the doer of the deed. The spirit of compassion was more important to Jesus than the act of getting a wounded man taken care of on the Jericho road.

These distinctions are vital. Too frequently we have made the mistake of thinking that Christian ethics is concerned only with the objective deed, the consequences, rather than with the subjective motivation.

It used to be the fashion to complain that the church had ignored the social implications of the teachings of Jesus. The complainers then proceeded to demonstrate that Jesus' teachings implied socialism. Now that many people are taking a second look at those teachings, they are finding that they do imply a social message, but that message is one of individual responsibility, freedom and the right to private property.

With a cry of alarm, ecclesiastical experts now warn that we must never seek to identify the ethic of Jesus with any civilization. Indeed! Is it permissible to discover that Christianity produced the healthy and admirable values in our society?

If teachings of Jesus are not relevant to the problems of life in any age, then Christianity is indeed bankrupt. But Christianity is not bankrupt! It is socialism that is bankrupt for new ideas. The teachings of Jesus are still relevant and contain the truth that makes men free. Man is a spiritual being, not a materialistic mechanism. Man is responsible to God beyond all other authorities. As such, man has inalienable rights to life, liberty and property, which rights no government can give and no government take away. This is the true Social Gospel.


This article is reprinted from the June 4, 1955, issue of Human Events (Washington, D.C.).

Rev. Howard was formerly pastor of the Hope Congregational Church, Worcester, Massachusetts, and is now on the staff of Christian Economics magazine, for which this article was written.

"Socialism, Communism, and Atheism are all of a piece, as are Christianity, private, decentralised property, and respect for family tradition as part of respect for the individual. There is no compromise possible — either there is no Christ, or, Socialism and Communism are of the Devil. The essence of them, without exception, is that the group giveth, and the group taketh away; blessed be the name of the group. Anyone with experience of life knows that the group giveth; yes, in exchange for the soul."

-The Social Creditor (Australia), Oct. 15.'

In reprinting Rev. Howard's essay, we make no claim to endorse his every thought; but it does contain much which is in line with Social Credit: the emphasis on the worth and sovereignty of the individual, and his right to own property.

Since this is the month in which we commemorate the birth of Christ, and inasmuch as Social Crediters are vitally interested in a social order in harmony with God's Law, it is fitting that such an article as this should be presented at this time.

-Editor

 

Social Objectives and Social Structure" (see page 5) deals with the disastrous consequences of carrying a perverted 'otherworldliness' too far.

God's Word tells us that man's welfare and happiness demand priority for the spiritual over the material; but it also warns that faith without works is dead. In other words, we should seek first to know God and His Truth and Law, and then mould and live our own lives and conduct our own social order in conformity with His spiritual or metaphysical prototype. If we truly love God we shall strive to live in this world — and live in association according to His example and commandments.

— Editor.


a

1.) Inasmuch as most of our production today is the result of society's inheritance of the skills, inventions and techniques developed and perfected by our forefathers, rather than the result of our own labour; there is a very cogent proposal advanced by Social Credit whereby, through the issuing of national dividends to each citizen, we all, as consumers, would be able to claim and enjoy our heritage. This in no way would affect man's fundamental right to private property, — Ed.

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