Question: Was Jesus Christ a capitalist?
Answer: It will be my pleasure to address this interesting question today, especially since there have been some “fun” discussions in the public square about whether Jesus would be a capitalist or a socialist if he were alive today. Many of these have been driven by Pope Francis’s recent remarks about the redistribution of wealth—remarks which have been variously interpreted. But I can settle this question for you, because the Bible tells us an important thing about Jesus:
“Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.” (Hebrews 13:8, ESV).
Since time, circumstance and philosophy cannot change him, we do not have to bring him forward into our century—we can travel back into his. But let us do a little housekeeping before we proceed.
First, we do not want to force an anachronism upon this answer. The way we discuss capitalism, socialism and communism today is influenced in no small part by Karl Marx. But Marx was a nineteenth century philosopher, not a first century one.
Second, in spite of Stephen Colbert’s recent (tongue-in-cheek) statement that "[Pope] Francis is a Socialist and God's a Commie," God has no option to be a Commie…because he cannot not believe in himself—and no, I am not being funny here. Understanding what the Bible says about economics requires knowledge of what the Bible says about everything—and as a whole. Few commentators have shown me that they have this contextual grasp.
Third, Economics is a specialized and formal field of study. As such, words like capitalist have technical meanings which may or may not be equivalent to what you mean by the term. For purposes of this discussion then, let us free the term capitalism from its Marxian or technical particulars and use the term broadly to describe a free-market economic system that is roughly the opposite of socialism and communism, and one that works best when there is openness and concord among nations.
Even though we have stabilized the term capitalist, I’m still not sure what you are looking for. Frankly, when somebody uses that word, he is often picking a fight. So, are you wondering if the meek and lowly Jesus lived as socialist because he was generally altruistic and should thereby be our example? This seems to be the pivotal argument, so I have chosen to look at this. But before we do, we should determine categorically whether or not the first century Jesus lived within an economy that could be reasonably considered capitalistic.
Everyone who has ever drawn breath—even Jesus Christ, the Lord of Glory—lived within some kind of an “economy” while on the earth. The economy of a region is part of its cultural fabric. It is interwoven with religion, government, geography, agriculture, natural resources and the personalities of its people to form an infrastructure for commerce—sometimes foreign, but always at least domestic. Any number of forces can act upon it, so it is very complex. Yet the ancient economy is still (somewhat) observable and definable in terms that we would understand today. But a Palestinian Jew of Jesus’ time lived an administratively complex life, and we should examine this more closely.
Palestine and its residents, which included fragments of the nation Israel, had fallen under the rule of Rome—and Rome was good at administering an empire. But Rome did not integrate into their culture as much as it lay on top of it. The presence of soldiers and the burden of taxation were inescapable, but the day-to-day lives of the indigenous people went on as usual. For instance, the Jews still had their own sectarian rulers who continued to hold sway over the people (John 3:1) even though Rome ruled over them all. But Rome had no quarrel with Jesus—the Jews did. Pilate found no fault with him, and although he tried to distance himself from his own weakness with a symbolic washing of the hands, his agreeing to crucify a guiltless man was not Roman justice; it was a Jewish national sin. But let us take notice of the sign that Pilate placed above the crucified Christ. This told of the true nature of the region; he wrote it in Hebrew, Greek and Latin…and well…good for him! But Aramaic was the language on the street, and therein is the model for any economy: Just like the Aramaic language, in spite of many official declarations going on above—it still chugs along, making its own rules and using its own syntax.
The people of Jesus’ day subsisted on agricultural products. Tradesmen (like Joseph, the carpenter) were well-established by that time. Merchants shipped and received goods over the Mediterranean and the inland trade routes. Craftsmen sold their wares, labor was available for agriculture and other tasks and businessmen bought, sold and invested. They had as free an economy as do many nations today. So, yes, capitalism (although not then identified as such) was alive and well in the region. But what would this mean to Jesus?
I live in the USA. We are famously capitalistic in the broad sense. But what am I personally? Would you say that I am a capitalist because I live here? You’d have no right to say that. Unless we exchanged information about my personal economic philosophy, all you could say about me is that I live under a capitalist system. In like manner, that is all we can say about Jesus. He grew up in a tradesman’s household. Joseph traded time, skills and labor for the money, products or the services of others. Capitalism was Jesus’ situation, not necessarily his philosophy, and many of his teachings assumed its underpinnings without commenting on its intrinsic value. As such, we must look at the economic system as a mere platform for Jesus’ life; it was neither his purpose nor his focus. Therefore, it would be dishonest to ascribe an economic philosophy to him at this point in the discussion. That being said, Jesus did talk about money—a lot! So we must explore further.
Jesus did indeed teach the redistribution of wealth…but he was no socialist. Jesus taught that the redistribution of wealth by the individuals who owned that wealth was part of God’s provision for the poor. Providing for the poor has always been God’s job and not the government’s. Jesus merely taught what God the Father had already taught through the Law: People should redistribute their own wealth using godly vehicles such as tithes, the giving of alms, gleanings, forgiveness of debt, etc. Jesus affirmed direct giving—either to the poor themselves or to God’s agents at the Temple. God never purported to level the economy. He said that he would provide for the poor—a segment of society that will always be with us (Mat. 26:11). Legislative economic leveling meddles with God’s plan and is destructive to society, while voluntarily giving to the poor is merciful to people.
Furthermore, giving was an act of piety (the good kind). Done right and well, it is driven by obedience to God and/or the abundance of the heart. By way of comparison, taxes are paid as a duty, and I cannot stress this enough: There is no biblical warrant for the government to redistribute wealth. A Government’s job is to protect its citizenry by administering justice and punishing lawbreakers (Rom. 13:1ff.). Welfare programs (which are relatively recent developments) usurp God’s prerogative to provide through his people, and although they sound godly and merciful on the surface, they are a continuance of society’s concession to sin.
Socialism and communism are not only extra-biblical, they are anti-biblical—since they supplant government for God. Therefore, I feel confident in affirming that Jesus was “none of the above” when it comes to those two economic systems.
How about the other way? Some “preachers” make a living by saying that Jesus wants you rich! Doesn’t that speak to Jesus being a capitalist? Not at all. In fact, the idea that “Jesus wants you rich” is as anti-biblical as socialism.
God’s model for his people’s sustenance is shown graphically by the Manna in the Wilderness (Ex. 16:32). God provides adequately for the day. If you gather too much, it will rot and stink. Jesus connected back to the Manna via the Lord’s Prayer when he taught, “Give us this day our daily bread,” (Matthew 6:11), and he warned about laying up the wrong kind of treasures in the same sermon (6:19). He also connected the Manna to his own person when he said, “I am the bread of life.” (John 6:48). So, God the Father provided a model for the preferred method of sustenance: rely on God’s daily supply. Jesus taught the same but brought it to another level: He is the supply. Any system purports to replace God’s supply, our reliance on that supply or Jesus Christ himself, is anti-biblical.
I will remind any readers who have been sucked into the “prosperity gospel” that if prosperity is the measure of faith…then Jesus failed at faith…because he certainly failed at prosperity! He taught his disciples to go out with no extra supplies. He owned no home, and his only clothes were those on his back… (Soon to be taken away!) So he, in whose name those prosperity harlots preach, died with no assets—none! He neither taught prosperity nor did he model it. Therefore, if “Jesus wants you rich!” is what you take home after reading the Bible, then you are simply not processing words correctly, because specified prosperity is nowhere in its pages. Biblical prosperity is occasional, incidental and of relatively little importance.
The idea that really brought Karl Marx to the fore was his insistence that we were who we are because of economic systems, that is, we were both parts of and/or a cause of a system that was wreaking havoc on society. But God will not let us off so easily, because “the economy made me do it” will not fly with God. The Bible is clear that we are who we are because of the heart.
“Keep your heart with all vigilance, for from it flow the springs of life.” (Proverbs 4:23, ESV)
It is true that Jesus often talked about money, but he never did so for money’s sake. It was always—and I mean always—used as a vehicle to teach about higher things. This is the kind of overarching truth that people who do not know the entire Bible miss.
Jesus does not want us rich…and he does not want us poor…he wants us holy! (Lev. 11:45) Our prosperity is incidental. Marx thought that economic pressures accounted for everything—and society in turn assumed that everyone must fit into his description of the economic model. But since Marx and his ilk dismiss God a priori, they miss the most important system of all: theism. In this answer I have made arguments that biblical theism is (among other things) a valid economic theory, and that this is the theory that is taught in the Bible. So, was Jesus a capitalist? No. Jesus was a theist. Although he lived under a capitalistic system as a circumstance, he subscribed to economic theism as a philosophy.