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Is Jesus a Communist or a Capitalist?

A young man approached Jesus and asked him how to inherit eternal life.  Instead of a spiritual answer Jesus gave an economic reply.  He instructed the young man to sell all his possessions and give the money to the poor.

Jesus’ response would surprise almost anyone, but it was especially stunning for a very wealthy person.  And this man was very wealthy.

Was Jesus endorsing income redistribution?  Was he telling the man that he should give up his elite financial status and become part of the 99 percent?  Was he saying that economic justice should be top priority?  Is that not advice that Marx would appreciate?

What would the man do?  Apparently he was so attached to his great wealth that he could not bring himself to obey Jesus.  So he turned and went away sad.

The man’s love for his wealth is no surprise.  What is remarkable is that Jesus had nothing more to say to him.  He merely allowed the rich young man to choose his own gloomy destiny.

If Jesus believed in redistributing wealth, he certainly had a strange way of showing it.  He did not insist on passing a law that forced the man to give up his riches.  He did not start a revolutionary uprising among workers to take back what was rightfully theirs.  He did not even put up tents in the park and organize a protest against the injustice of economic disparity.

So Jesus agreed that the man had a right to own property, lots of property, when others were in desperate need, even though it could not bring him true happiness.  Jesus must be a capitalist.

But why did Jesus urge the man to sell all his property and give the money to the poor?  It was his wealth, after all.  Why not just give a generous donation and stay rich?  He could do more for the downtrodden by maintaining a healthy income stream, right?

As the rich young man walked away, Jesus turned to his followers and uttered one of his best-known sayings.  “Easier it is for a camel to go through the eye of a needle,” he said, “than for a rich man to enter into the Kingdom of God.”  That sounds bad for rich people.

On another occasion Jesus told about a wealthy man who ignored a dirty beggar named Lazarus.  But a great reversal took place in the presence of God.  The rich man found himself in torment while the poor man was comforted.

Is that a fair outcome?  The beggar was just a welfare case who refused to work, right?  Apparently the Lord expected the rich man to do more than trickle down on the poor man.

Jesus taught that nobody can serve both God and money.  He warned about the riches of this world, pointing out that material wealth is prone to theft and decay.  He told his followers to give, and if someone takes what belongs to them, do not demand it back.  Does that sound like capitalism?

Change the terminology to socialism instead of communism or to free markets instead of capitalism if you wish.  The point is the same.  Jesus cannot be recruited to promote our popular systems of macro-economics, unless he is severely edited.  And editing Jesus is difficult because, as he said, “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words (all of them) will never pass away.”

How are we to understand Jesus on wealth?  He did more than instruct that rich young man to give his riches to the poor.  Jesus urged the man to come and follow him.  Wealth was not the issue; it was a distraction from the issue.  The issue was, and is, following Jesus.

If we could undo all the economic injustice in this harsh world, but we did not become followers of Jesus, then our efforts would be of no lasting value.  If we could produce a great fortune that creates jobs and income for millions, but we did not become followers of Jesus, then our accomplishments would be trivial.

The rich young man did not like what Jesus had to say about wealth so he walked away.  He elevated his ideas and feelings about wealth above Jesus.  If we elevate our ideas about wealth above Jesus, whatever they may be, then we, too, have missed the point.

Instead of hearing only the words of Jesus that seem to support our preconceived ideas about wealth, let us hear all that he has to say.  When we do, we will find that Jesus Christ has much more to offer than economic freedom or fairness.  Jesus is more than a reformer.  Jesus is Redeemer.

– Richard Foster, Grace Baptist Church, Camden, AR, January 2012

Printed January 2012;  Camden News;  Camden, AR.

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Is Jesus a Liberal Or A Conservative?

Both liberal and conservative groups claim to represent the ideals of Jesus Christ.  But the two positions often adopt very different ideas about moral and ethical issues.  How can this be?  Is one side or the other simply mistaken?  Is one side or the other being dishonest?

The crowds were somewhat fickle about Jesus, sometimes following him in large numbers, other times abandoning him because his teaching did not tickle their fancy.  The rulers, however, quickly targeted Jesus as their enemy.  They had much to lose and so they could not afford to be lukewarm about this powerful preacher and miracle-worker.  They believed that he would undermine their authority and so they were looking for a way to destroy Jesus.

On one occasion these hostile rulers confronted Jesus with a quandary that they felt sure would at least embarrass the carpenter-turned-rabbi.  They presented him with a woman who had been caught in the act of adultery.  In front of witnesses, they asked Jesus what he thought should be done with her.  Should she be stoned to death according to the Law of Moses?  Or should she be shown mercy and set free?

The religious leaders who concocted this heartless trap for Jesus thought that they had backed him into an ethical corner.  If he agreed with stoning the woman, then he would come across as harsh and unforgiving to the everyday people who were helping to fuel his ever-threatening popularity.  More importantly, he would be endorsing an action that was forbidden by the occupying Romans.  Rome denied the Jewish people the authority to carry out capital punishment.  Jesus could then be painted as a subversive in the eyes of the Romans; and the Empire had zero tolerance for any movement that challenged their absolute authority.

On the other hand, if Jesus did anything but support the woman’s execution, he would be challenging the authority of God’s holy Law given through his revered servant Moses.  If the rulers could prove that Jesus broke the Jewish Law then his preaching ministry would be severely damaged in the court of public opinion.  So what could Jesus do?  Was it possible for him to uphold God’s Law and yet show mercy to the woman?

Jesus responded with some of his best known and often repeated words, “Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.”  Shocked into silence and shame, the hostile group dispersed.  Without witnesses the woman could not be condemned, according to the Law.  Jesus followed the letter of the Law and he spared the life of the woman.

Jesus then uttered words that should also be well known and often used.  He told the woman, “Go, and from now on sin no longer.”  With these words Jesus made it clear that the Law prohibiting adultery is good.  He did not justify her lifestyle.  He did not agree with her sexual immorality.  He encouraged her to make better choices.

Despite some liberal assertions, God’s grace does not proclaim a sinful activity to be upright.  God’s grace declares a sinful person to be forgiven, which requires a standard for upright behavior.  To the angst of some conservatives, God’s grace to sinners is immeasurable.  There is no three-strikes-and-you’re-out protocol in God’s Kingdom.  All who admit their mistakes and turn back to God find in him an apparently inexhaustible fountain of mercy.

No matter how utterly frustrating to liberal ideals, God’s standard for upright behavior never changes to accommodate popular culture.  No matter how endlessly aggravating to conservatives, God’s tolerance for repentant sinners never wavers.

So God’s standard for right human behavior is unchanging, but at the same time, his love for rebellious yet repentant people is unwavering.  These two characteristics of God seem irreconcilable to rigid right-left thinking.  Yet God’s holiness and God’s love met head-on at an old rugged cross just outside of Jerusalem.  The results are cosmic and eternal.

Unfairly condemned, the sinless Son of God voluntarily sacrificed his life.  In doing so, Jesus sealed both the honor of God’s righteousness and the salvation of his people.  Jesus is the guarantee that God’s standard for upright behavior is not broken, and yet God’s love for repentant sinners is not denied.

So, is Jesus a liberal or a conservative?  Yes, he is.  Jesus is the most liberal conservative to ever walk the face of the earth.  In Christ the simplistic human notions of liberal and conservative converge and become something far greater: God’s amazing grace.  How sweet the sound.

– Richard Foster, Grace Baptist Church, Camden, AR, September 2011

Printed September 16, 2011;  Camden News;  Camden, AR.
This article also won Award of Outstanding Merit at the Amy Foundation.

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