Christians typically organize Jesus’ sayings on money and property in accordance with one of two models.
One of these models attributes to Jesus socialistic aspirations. In this framing Jesus rails against the rich as the defender of the poor and as the prophet who calls into being a more equitable society and a more just distribution of wealth. The reign of this Christ—established by divine decree, spiritual transformation, political action, or all of the above—will eventually unleash justice on the earth as an ever-flowing stream by casting down the bourgeoise so as to lift up the peasantry.
Another model views Jesus as a kind of Jewish wisdom sage, as the righteous teacher from the book of Proverbs. While Jesus himself may have lived as a poor, itinerant, and persecuted prophet, being, after all, the savior of the world, this more conservative Christ condemns neither wealth, nor property, nor the capitalistic spirit, in and of themselves. Rather, he teaches his followers to manage their resources wisely, charitably, and piously, all the while holding loosely (but not disdainfully) to worldly possessions and worldly status. “Whoever is generous to the poor” so the scriptures say, “lends to the Lord, and he will repay him for his deed” (Proverbs 19:17).
As dissimilar as they may seem, these two visions share a basic assumption about Jesus’ aims as a teacher. Whether we find in the Gospels a fiery communist (cf. Matthew 20:1-16) or a compassionate capitalist (cf. Matthew 25:14-30), Jesus remains for his modern admirers the great ethicist of all things—economic theory included. Jesus bestows upon us, as such, obligations to the poor, whether to overthrow the capitalistic structures that generate social inequalities or to alleviate the suffering of the destitute from within those capitalistic structures (perhaps, in part, as an evangelistic tactic—the comforting of the belly for the salvation of the soul).
As I have complained before many times now, both of these models leave the eschatological prophet of Nazareth half-dead on the side of the road as they go off in search of more convenient justifications for their ethical visions. It seems to me that acknowledging Christ’s imminent apocalyptic expectations is not only beneficial but crucial for interpretation here. Put simply, Jesus did not share our elongated view of history—a new age was about to dawn and entrance into that happy world required certain unusual procedures and precautions (cf. Mark 9:42-48).
On the question of money, this means that Jesus was not concerned with long-term economic justice. There was, for him, no long-term. God was about to judge and reconfigure Israel and the nations in accordance with long-held Jewish hopes. This historically-truncated context then would have formed the seedbed from which Jesus’ radical teachings on money (and everything else) sprouted.
It is from this purview, moreover, that Jesus understood his mission and the mission of his disciples. They would have to give up everything—family, property, work—so as to announce to Israel God’s impending actions. After all, they would “not have gone through all the towns of Israel before the Son of Man [had come]” (Matthew 10:23). Nothing in the world mattered at this critical moment except for the attainment of eternal life and the avoidance of Hell (i.e. Gehenna, cf. Mark 4:18-19).
From here we can briefly scan some of Christ’s pertinent teachings.
- No one can be a disciple unless he “gives up all [his] possessions” (Luke 14:33, cf. Luke 12:32-34, Mark 10:17-22, 8:34, Matthew 5:42).
- A disciple must not consider what he will eat or wear next. He should neither “sow nor reap” but rather, like a bird, accept daily bread as it comes from God (Luke 12:22-31). He must, moreover, not “store up treasures for [himself]” as a farmer stores up grain and goods in preparation for an uncertain future (Luke 12:3-21).
- A disciple must release “debts” from his debtors so as to be forgiven by God (Matthew 6:12). Other parables suggest the same idea: Followers of Jesus ought to cancel the financial debts they are owed (Matthew 18:23-33/Luke 11:4, Luke 7:40-43, cf. 4:18).1 It seems that early on this economic command was swallowed up by its spiritual counterpart (cf. Matthew 6:15).
- It is impossible for the rich to enter the kingdom of God. It is like camel trying to pass through the eye of a needle (Mark 10:25).
- A man who has left “home” and “fields” for the sake of the evangelistic mission will surely be rewarded in the age to come (Mark 10:29-30).
- The one who obtains God’s kingdom is like a man who “sells all that he has” in order to buy a field which hides treasure; he is like a man who “sold all he had” in order to acquire a pearl of great value (Matthew 13:44-46).
When such teachings are combined into a litany like so, it becomes clear that Jesus was primarily concerned with neither charity, nor equality, nor economic systems. What mattered, rather, was that his disciples, and indeed all Israelites, secured their spot in the soon-arriving kingdom. This required a rejection of the world as it currently existed, a leap into the unknown, and a taking up of the cross so as to die with the Lord’s favor. It required, in sum, financial and social dissolution—a willing entry into the wilderness, as it were. Those who stubbornly clung to their wealth on this eve of Israel’s redemption would find themselves (and their reputations) unable to pass from Egypt into Canaan—the proverbial camel would meet the proverbial needle (Mark 10:25).
1—Those seeking to reconstruct a Jesus who opposed slavery in some way should start here. Jesus’ teachings on debt and forgiveness may find their origin in Israel’s idealized year of Jubilee. Perhaps Jesus believed the release of Jewish slaves and the return of tribal and patriarchal land would inaugurate the Davidic kingdom of Israel’s golden age.