I’ve always believed that Satan and his minions work hardest on Sunday mornings. How many of you can recount horror stories about trying to get everyone in the family ready for church, and arriving there completely flustered and unprepared to worship? It made you long for the days when you got up late on Sunday morning, had breakfast in your bathrobe and read the Sunday paper while classical music played in the background – OK, so that was our routine before I came back to the Lord after a 12-year hiatus, and brought my wife and children with me.
So I approach Sunday mornings fully aware that Satan doesn’t want me to go to church, and even if I get that far, he certainly doesn’t want me to worship and plunge headfirst into the presence of the living God. That’s why when a message from a Facebook friend landed in my private mailbox, with a shared post from “Being Liberal” that began, “Some humor to start your Sunday morning…”, and his comment “Kinda have a point there?”, I knew Satan was trying to get under my skin.
I responded to my friend’s message with a lengthy reply, but I mistakenly clicked on a status update that flashed on my screen, and I lost everything I had written! You are crafty, Lucifer, but I don’t give up so easily. I’m going to church with an anticipatory mind and heart, and, when I return, we will have words!
Ahh, that was refreshing! So, what was the “humor” that Satan tried to use to stir up my anger? It goes something like this:
Church. Where Republicans go to worship a long-haired socialist hippie who condemned the rich and told people to pay taxes.
Let me first say to my friend in response to his half-question, half-statement, “Kinda has a point?”, the answer is “No, they don’t.” In fact, this pithy and cutting comment is a gross misrepresentation of my Lord and Savior and His teachings, and I admit I was disappointed that my friend “liked” the post. I’m going to assume, however, that he was amused by the sarcasm and isn’t embracing the substance of the comment. It’s deeply flawed theology, and illustrates the extent to which man has allowed worldly thoughts to corrupt the holiness and purity of God’s redeeming message for all mankind. But rather than take offense, I think it’s a teachable moment. Regrettably, it’s easy to come up with short and provocative slogans to make an ideological point, yet impossible to respond to them in kind without doing the message, and the messenger, a great disservice, and I earnestly seek to do justice to Jesus, for He is worthy of my best. So I hope you’ll indulge me as I break down this statement and expose it as a byproduct of politics, not faith.
It is vital to make the point at the beginning of my explanation, rather than the end, that Jesus is neither a Democrat nor a Republican, neither a liberal nor a conservative. These narrow and confining labels are infinitesimally small and cannot contain the Son of God. He was born and raised, and He ministered, in the midst of a conquered nation chafing under the rule of an autocratic regime, and had His aim been to be political, He could have done what so many other self-proclaimed messiahs had done before Him, and stir the people to dissension and rebellion against their masters from Rome. As Gamaliel pointed out in Acts 5:34-39, these false messiahs were all killed, “and all who followed…were dispersed and came to nothing” (Acts 5:36, English Standard Version).
Gamaliel warned his fellow Pharisees, however, to “‘keep away from these men [the apostles of Christ] and let them alone, for if this plan or this undertaking is of man, it will fail; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them. You might even be found opposing God!’ So they took his advice” (Acts 5:38-39). Over two thousand years later, this small Jewish messianic sect outlasted all the others, is the single largest faith in the world, and continues to grow in spite of the world’s opposition and, in many cases, outright persecution.
Perhaps the Roman prefect for the province of Judea, Pontius Pilate, had shared with the wise old teacher the words Jesus told him while he was interrogating Him before His scourging and crucifixion:
Jesus said, “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from the world” (John 18:36).
Jesus disappointed and even angered many of the people of His day when they realized He hadn’t come to be a king or a conqueror or an avenger to drive out the hated Romans. Simply put, he eschewed politics because He had a much higher calling. So from the start, the snarky statement that tries to tie Jesus to a political agenda, in this case socialism, should be viewed with contempt.
We can set aside the contention that Jesus had long hair, since his physical appearance isn’t described anywhere in the Bible or in antiquity of which I’m aware, and the Eurocentric image we’ve come to associate with Him may not even remotely resemble Him. We can also safely conclude he wasn’t a hippie, since much of the libertine behavior which characterized the hippie movement of the 1960s and 1970s would have violated His commands for how to live a holy life.
Let’s look at the two Bible verses that socialists often use to reach the conclusion that Jesus was a socialist:
Jesus said to him, “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me” (Matthew 19:21).
And all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need (Acts 2:44:45).
What is missing from these two accounts, the first being Jesus’ instruction to the rich young ruler, and the second being a description of the early church, to qualify them as socialism is the presence of a coercive central authority to enforce distribution of goods to the needy. Each of these verses represents either a request or a voluntary act, not the “legalized plunder” that Frederic Bastiat described as the sine qua non of socialism. Jesus never embraces coercion of any kind, not even in the interest of adding to His number of followers.
Moreover, the emotional fuel which drives socialism is covetousness, which Jesus condemns as sin:
And he said to them, “Take care, and be on your guard against all covetousness, for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions” (Luke 12:15).
Jesus was echoing the Tenth Commandment, which states, ““You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male servant, or his female servant, or his ox, or his donkey, or anything that is your neighbor’s” (Exodus 20:17). I like to describe covetousness as a “gateway sin” which leads to bitterness, hatred, theft, even murder. Another word for covetousness is greed, and while greed is often associated with capitalism by liberals, it is not unique to capitalism, and it existed at the dawn of time, before the concepts of capitalism and socialism were even understood. It was greed to be like God that led to original sin, and greed is not a matter of possession, but of appetite. There is no difference between one who covets what another has, or one who covets more of they already have.
This is why the church for centuries has criticized the coercive nature of collectivist governments, and instead promoted, embraced and participated in civil society, which Charles Krauthammer describes as “those elements of the collectivity that lie outside government: family, neighborhood, church, Rotary club, PTA, the voluntary associations that Tocqueville understood to be the genius of America and source of its energy and freedom.”
The “voluntary associations” that Alexis de Tocqueville described in his seminal work, “Democracy in America,” characterized America as unique in the world. Even to this day, our charity and generosity know no peer in the world and, ironically, the people who are implicitly criticized in the comments above are consistently revealed in multiple surveys and studies to be the most charitable and generous by several orders of magnitude.
Civil society flows freely from the heart and will of people seeking to make the lives of those in their communities better. Where it is allowed to work, it has thrived. In 2 Corinthians 9:7, the apostle Paul writes, “Each one must give as he has decided in his heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.” Unless and until my taxes and how they are distributed become a matter of personal choice rather than coercion under the threat of punishment, there is no correlation whatsoever between the kingdom of God and this ideology spawned from the kingdom of man.
I should add that Jesus wasn’t a capitalist, either. In fact, socialism and capitalism are flawed philosophies in that they reduce mankind to purely material beings, our contentment or lack thereof defined primarily or exclusively by the acquisition and possession of property. We are not purely motivated by economics, and any worldly system that is designed strictly around an economic model cannot succeed. That is why capitalism in America, at its best, is one leg of a three-legged stool comprised of ordered liberty – the rule of law – and virtue. Taken together, these three components are the secret of America’s success and, to the extent that any of them have been weakened, we are suffering the consequences.
Not only is Jesus not a socialist, he did not condemn the rich. In fact, Jesus condemned no one who earnestly sought him. The story of the rich young ruler is usually where liberals get the notion that Jesus condemns the rich:
As Jesus started on his way, a man ran up to him and fell on his knees before him. “Good teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
“Why do you call me good?” Jesus answered. “No one is good—except God alone. You know the commandments: ‘Do not murder, do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not give false testimony, do not defraud, honor your father and mother.’
“Teacher,” he declared, “all these I have kept since I was a boy.”
Jesus looked at him and loved him. “One thing you lack,” he said. “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”
At this the man’s face fell. He went away sad, because he had great wealth.
Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God!”
The disciples were amazed at his words. But Jesus said again, “Children, how hard it ise to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.”
The disciples were even more amazed, and said to each other, “Who then can be saved?”
Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but not with God; all things are possible with God.”
And Jesus said to his disciples, “Truly, I say to you, only with difficulty will a rich person enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.” When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astonished, saying, “Who then can be saved?” But Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible” (Mark 10:17-27).
Jesus didn’t condemn the rich young ruler for being rich. In fact, the verse says, “Jesus looked at him and loved him.” Moreover, Jesus’ ministry on earth was supported by many rich friends, including Lazarus, Martha and Mary, perhaps his best friends on earth outside of the twelve who traveled with him. Two wealthy members of the Sanhedrin who were secretly disciples of Jesus, Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus, secured Jesus’ body, prepared it for burial and provided the tomb which was to be his temporary resting place.
In Paul’s letter to Timothy, he states, “…[T]he love of money is a root of all kinds of evils. It is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pangs” (1 Timothy 6:10). It’s not the money – it’s the love and craving of it and, again, one doesn’t have to be rich in order to crave money. In effect, it becomes our object of worship rather than Christ, and that is what He condemns.
Jesus’ sorrow over the rich young ruler was because his wealth was more important to him than his salvation. In the same chapter where Jesus spoke of how hard it is for a rich man to enter heaven, He also said, “no one who has left home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for me and the gospel will fail to receive a hundred times as much in this present age: homes, brothers, sisters, mothers, children and fields” (Mark 10:29-30), so He promises that if we surrender everything to Him, we will receive much in return, even “in this present age…and in the age to come eternal life” (Mark 10:30). The Bible makes a similar promise in Malachi 3:10, “Bring the full tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house. And thereby put me to the test, says the LORD of hosts, if I will not open the windows of heaven for you and pour down for you a blessing until there is no more need.” The Lord has no problem with blessing us abundantly if we use our blessings for His purposes, and His glory. That doesn’t always mean material wealth, but I believe it means if we surrender all to Him, He will provide for our needs, and equip us for the work we are to do for Him.
I’m glad you’re still with me, because we’re at the finish line. Regarding the last supposition of this otherwise deeply flawed comment, it is probably derived from this account in the gospel of Mark:
And they sent to him some of the Pharisees and some of the Herodians, to trap him in his talk. And they came and said to him, “Teacher, we know that you are true and do not care about anyone’s opinion. For you are not swayed by appearances,c but truly teach the way of God. Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not? Should we pay them, or should we not?” But, knowing their hypocrisy, he said to them, “Why put me to the test? Bring me a denarius and let me look at it.” And they brought one. And he said to them, “Whose likeness and inscription is this?” They said to him, “Caesar’s.” Jesus said to them, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” And they marveled at him.
Note that the question posed to Jesus was not, “Should we pay taxes?” In fact, the Jews paid temple taxes, property taxes, customs taxes and others in addition to the tribute tax owed to the Roman Empire. The question was, “Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?” They were trying to trap Him in the hope they could convince the Romans He was a threat, but He saw through them. Note that He asked them for a coin of the realm, and asked them about the likeness and inscription on it. His answer to them, in effect, was “It has Caesar’s image and words on it, so give it back to him, but give to God those things which are His.” Jesus’ lesson wasn’t about taxes, and there is nothing here to appease high-tax, low-tax, or no-tax advocates. It was challenging the questioners about what belongs to God versus what belongs to man. Caesar claimed to be a god, but Jesus, fully God and fully man, said, “He can have his coin, but everything belongs to God.” That is why “they marveled at him.”
There are very few Republicans who oppose all taxation, and and the overwhelming majority of us lawfully pay the taxes we owe, so the implication that we are disobedient is patently false. That doesn’t prevent us, however, from petitioning our government for fewer or lower taxes, an option the Jews of Jesus’ day didn’t have, and the debate over how much taxation is appropriate for the government to perform its essential functions, and what those functions should be, can and should continue.
At the end of the day, this statement was meant to inflame rather than inform, yet I am confident and grateful that Jesus transcends these small-minded attempts to put Him in a box of man’s making. Try as we might, His Kingdom is still not of this world, and we would do well to stop trying to make it all about us.