2. Christ on Economic Change
After 4000+ years of independence and struggling against the oppressive empires of the day, Israel and the Judaic communities that spread across the globe eventually found themselves integrated into part of the Roman Empire. The Roman empire was a largely agrarian culture with a heavy reliance on trade due to the use of roads and intercommunal travel. This eventually seeped into the arguably isolationist Israel, who, as more and more empires conquered and scattered the people, lost the economic and cultural integrity that made the nation stand out among all other Middle Eastern nations.
The Israelites of 0–33 AD lived in a period of political unrest. Many of the Israelites were attempting to resist the growing Roman presence in the countryside. Others were doing their best to coexist with them while waiting for the arrival of their Messiah, or king. The religious leaders, however, had been significantly corrupted, adopting practices that were not only contrary to the spirit of the Scriptures, but making compromises with their political overlords in ways that continued to water down the way the Israelites revealed their faith on an international level while adding unnecessary levels of rules and translations to daily practice, practices that often ended in profit for those in leadership.
That is when Jesus came into play. The 30 year old carpenter gained a mass following and spread ideas that were revolutionary for their time. Scholars throughout history have commented on Christ’s views on, well, everything. But here, we will focus on the topic of Christ’s view of money and of economics verse by verse.
First off, the teachings of Christ do not nullify the principles listed by ancient Jewish culture. Practices like the donations to the Temple are no longer necessary in light of Christ’s teaching about his substitutionary atonement. However, the principles of matter having value, or private property as a value or minimizing governing authorities still stand in some regard. But Jesus’ thought moved away from how to properly practice business and more towards private affairs and affairs of the “Kingdom of God.”
The first principle that Christ hits on is that of value. For the follower of Christ, financial and physical goods are a necessary tool for existing and communing with others, but not the highest desirable good. This is established in Matthew 6:21, where Christ teaches his followers “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” Christ is placing higher value on things of a higher metaphysical or moral element than that of the financial.
This was further emphasized in an incident with Christ in the temple that Mark notes:
41 Jesus sat down opposite the place where the offerings were put and watched the crowd putting their money into the temple treasury. Many rich people threw in large amounts.
42 But a poor widow came and put in two very small copper coins, worth only a few cents.
43 Calling his disciples to him, Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others.
44 They all gave out of their wealth; but she, out of her poverty, put in everything — all she had to live on.” (Mark 12:41–44)
Here, Christ showed that while the value of the finances was not to be dismissed, the Kingdom of God valued more of the person’s heart in the matter than the actual economic value in play.
Unfortunately for those who were considered wealthy, their value in light of the Kingdom of God was often hindered by their wealth. This is not necessarily because Christ cannot accept wealthy people into the Kingdom of God, but because, for many, wealth is a stumbling block that would replace a desire for the Kingdom of God.
We see this illustrated well by the incident in Matthew 19, where a young rich man approached Christ and asks “What must I do to acquire eternal life?” Christ’s answer? “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” (Matt 19:21) This call to action disarmed the man, eventually causing him to step back and follow his own path. But it revealed in the man’s heart an unwillingness to give up that wealth in exchange for that which Christ presents as far more valuable. Christ eventually reflects this further when he tells the disciples that, “No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.” (Matt 6:24) This created a distinct disconnection between the local religious leadership and Christ himself. In Luke 16:14–15, the author notes that
14 The Pharisees, who loved money, heard all this and were sneering at Jesus.
15 [Jesus] said to them, “You are the ones who justify yourselves in the eyes of others, but God knows your hearts. What people value highly is detestable in God’s sight.”
Christ himself saw that, while the men acting as religious leaders of the day were acting in a way that resembled Davidic Law and the Torah, the reality was far from the truth. They not only used wealth to exemplify themselves, but practiced charity as a sort of public relations move to garner the trust and love of the people. There are also implications of bribery and the use of religious imagery for sales, as revealed in the incident where Christ whipped salesmen out of the Temple courtyards in John 2:15. As he told those who were there “Get these out of here! How dare you turn My Father’s house into a marketplace!” While there is no explicit evidence to modern day readers, it’s clear in these scenarios that commerce drove, manipulated and in many cases ignored the religious practices of the day, rather than letting the faith influence the moral and economic practices of the day.
In the end, Christ himself fixated on two aspects of the financial world; its relation to self and its relation to the religious institutions of the day. He heavily encouraged followers to abandon any fixation on monetary issues and to seek things of a non-physical value. In relation to the temple, he resisted the growing desires of the physical to uphold the metaphysical virtues of the day.
Christ summarized it well in Matthew 13:44 when he told his followers “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field. When a man found it, he hid it again, and then in his joy went and sold all he had and bought that field.” In his eyes, seeking the things of the kingdom will be far more valuable than seeking the things of economic value.