Jesus was not a Free-Marketer – No Matter What Tony Perkins Says
December 7, 2011 2 Comments
Recently, Tony Perkins has argued that Jesus taught free-market economics in a parable recounted in the Gospel of Luke (Luke 19:11-27). I admittedly find the parable one of the most confusing in the New Testament—as it seems to portray Jesus as an overbearing, hated, and vengeful dictator—and I do not intend in this response to argue about the appropriate interpretation of the passage. I know that most biblical scholars, and believe that most faithful Christians, clearly see through Perkins’ blatantly anachronistic interpretation of Jesus’ teaching about the interim period between his ascension and return. Rather, I take issue with Perkins’ willingness to pick and choose which teachings of Jesus he takes at face-value and which ones he ignores.
Admittedly, there are several biblical passages that seem to be able to support Perkins’ general point that a morally constrained participation in a market economy is not only allowable but can be virtuous. Most of those passages are found in Proverbs, however, and they are few and far between in the New Testament. The general picture of the accumulation of wealth in the New Testament—for Jesus, Paul, and James—is skeptical at best, and more often explicitly negative.
I am glad that Mr. Perkins has chosen a passage out of the Gospel of Luke to make his point because it provides a convenient way to rebut his argument. Luke is the favorite of the gospels among “social gospel” types because Jesus’ condemnation of the accumulation of great amounts of wealth is clear and biting. In Luke, Jesus clearly believes that the wealthy are guilty for their greed and (Jesus assumes) unjust gain.
For instance, the first passage relevant to this topic is especially appropriate at this time of year. It is found in the “Magnificat,” Mary’s song of joy about her unborn child (Luke 1:46-55). In this song Mary celebrates that Jesus will bring down the powerful from their thrones, lift up the lowly, fill the hungry, “and sen[d] the rich away empty (v. 53).”
Just a couple of chapters later we see the first sermon Jesus preaches in the Gospel of Luke (Luke 4:16-21). In this sermon he claims to have come to “bring good news to the poor,” free prisoners, give sight to the blind, and “let the oppressed go free.” In addition, Jesus said part of his mission was to “proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” This is a reference to God’s command to ancient Israel to practice a “year of Jubilee” which required that debts be forgiven, slaves be set free, and land redistributed to mitigate the perdurance of intergenerational injustices.
In chapter 6 Luke records an abridged version of Jesus’ famous Sermon on the Mount. Interestingly, Luke records that Jesus said, “Blessed are you who are poor” sans Matthew’s famous addition “in spirit.” Jesus also proclaims woe unto the rich and those “who are full now.” Jesus says in this sermon, by the most basic interpretation of the words he used, that the poor will inherit the Kingdom of God and the rich will not. (Luke 6:20-26)
Jumping ahead in Luke, and skipping a few more relevant passages, we come to the context in which Mr. Perkins finds his favorite free-market parable. Interestingly, it is preceded by several stories that do not mesh with Mr. Perkins delight over his surface interpretation of Jesus’ story that those who have will be given even more, which will be taken from those with less (presumably because they are lazy). The most blatant of these stories is the story generally titled “The Rich Man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31).” The message of this story from a surface reading—in which a wealthy man living in a gated community and a homeless man who begs outside said gates both die with the rich man in Hades and the poor man, Lazarus, communing with Abraham—is that the rich will be punished for their wealth and the poor rewarded for their poverty. The implication is that the rich man was rich because of or with indifference to Lazarus’ poverty. Though not explicitly stated, the implicit message is that Lazarus was poor, or at least as poor as he was, partly because of the actions of the rich man.
Following this story is the story of the rich young ruler (Luke 18:18-25). The story goes like this: A rich man asked Jesus what he needed to do to inherit eternal life. Jesus, after affirming that the young man adheres to basic commandments such as honoring one’s parents and not murdering, tells him to sell everything and give all the money to the poor. The young man could not bear to do it and left Jesus in a sad mood. The lesson that Jesus draws from this story is that it is nearly impossible “for those who have wealth to enter the Kingdom of God!” Strange, indeed, if just a couple of stories later Jesus encourages people to get rich and then get richer by taking the money of the less-well-off, as Mr. Perkins suggests.
Finally, directly before the parable Mr. Perkins shared, and soon after the story of the rich young ruler, there is another story of Jesus encountering a rich man seeking salvation (Luke 19:1-10). This man’s name was Zacchaeus. We do not know exactly what Jesus told Zacchaeus, but we know that Zacchaeus’ response was to give half of his possessions to the poor and pay back everyone he ever cheated four-times what he owed them. I think it safe to assume that Jesus told Zacchaeus to do something very similar to what he told the rich young ruler. Jesus’ message to the wealthy to give a significant portion of their wealth to the poor does not seem to have been a one-time thing.
In light of this brief analysis, it is safe to say that Mr. Perkins must badly be misinterpreting Jesus’ message in Luke 19:11-27, or else we can assume that Jesus was a little confused. Jesus’ message throughout the rest of Luke is clear: Those who continue to accumulate excess wealth while others live and die in poverty should repent by personally changing the balance of economic power by redistributing their own wealth or worry for their souls.
Mr. Perkins concludes by claiming that Jesus “rejected collectivism.” This is a funny thought considering Jesus lived a communal life dependent upon the donations of women and the occasional miracle to feed him and his disciples. Bible scholars universally agree that the biblical books of Luke and Acts were written by the same author and are companion volumes that must be interpreted together. Of course, Acts is famous for telling us that the earliest Christians “had all things in common” because they sold all their possessions and distributed “the proceeds to all, as any had need.” (Acts 2:44-45)
I am not making a claim that these passages provide some explicit teaching of Jesus on how modern-day America should order its economic life. I am saying, however, that Tony Perkins’ claim that Jesus does that is blatantly false, and if Jesus were to be doing such a thing it would not be the unrestrained free-market system Mr. Perkins envisions. A surface reading of Luke 19:11-27 can clearly be read in such a way as to support an unrestrained market. However, reading it in the context of Luke’s overall message makes such an interpretation implausible. My problem with Mr. Perkins argument is not so much that it is a misguided interpretation of scripture, since we all do this from time to time. Rather, it is that it is a blatant use of a proof-text to support one’s already held political-economic ideology. This is an abuse of both religion and politics and should be recognized as such by Christian and non-Christian alike. The social-ethical message of Jesus is not the message imposed upon him by Tony Perkins.