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Was Jesus a Socialist or a Capitalist?

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Was Jesus a Socialist or a Capitalist?

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Sometimes it seems like everyone wants to argue about politics and economics. With so many different ideas debated back and forth it can be difficult to know what the Bible teaches about many issues. Even Christians argue over whether Jesus was a socialist or a capitalist. Both sides quote the Bible to prove their beliefs.

Jesus is our example of how to live as God designed us to live. He taught about taking care of the poor, the value of work, the evil of greed and principles on how to manage money. His teachings are practical and help us make good decisions and live happier lives.

But are His teachings based on socialism or capitalism?

The simplest definition of capitalism is individuals—or businesses formed by individuals—control industry, trade, property and wealth. Theoretically, all people benefit from the competition between businesses. The simplest definition of socialism is the state controls industry, trade, property and wealth in an attempt to create equality.

Let’s look at two parables Jesus gave that are often used to “prove” that He was a socialist or a capitalist.

The Parable of the Talents

Jesus told the story of a rich man who goes on a journey and gives “talents,” a portion of money, to three servants and expects them to use his resources wisely. Each one receives a different amount. When the rich man returns, two of his servants have done well in managing what had been given to them and the rich man rewards them.

Then the third servant, who had received only one talent, said, “‘Lord, I knew you to be a hard man, reaping where you have not sown, and gathering where you have not scattered seed. And I was afraid, and went and hid your talent in the ground. Look, there you have what is yours.”

The rich man calls the servant lazy and punishes him (Mathew 25:14-30). Because Jesus’ story involves a business owner, employees and greater rewards for better work, this parable is often used to teach that Jesus was a capitalist.

The Parable of the Sheep and Goats

Jesus gave another parable during the same discourse—where he talks about sheep and goats. In this parable Jesus points out two kinds of people. One group He accepts at His return as King of Kings and the other He rejects.

Jesus commends those who treated Him with kindness: “. . . for I was hungry and you gave Me food; I was thirsty and you gave Me drink; I was a stranger and you took Me in; I was naked and you clothed Me; I was sick and you visited Me; I was in prison and you came to Me.”

The people the King praises ask Him, “When did we do this to you?”

He answers, “I say to you, inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me” (Matthew 25:31-46). This parable is sometimes used to support the idea that Jesus was a socialist because of His moral instructions to share wealth and take care of the poor.

What is Jesus teaching in these two parables?

Jesus introduced the Parable of the Talents with, “For the kingdom of heaven is like a man traveling to a far country, who called his own servants and delivered his goods to them.” When you read the parable, and study the life of Jesus, it is obvious that He is teaching about how He would leave His disciples and return in the future. It is a parable about stewardship. Jesus was encouraging them by showing that each disciple would receive unique abilities and opportunities to do God’s work in their lives until He returns. As followers of Jesus Christ this lesson applies to every one of you. He wants you to recognize what God has given to you and to spend your life serving God.

Jesus introduced the Parable of the Sheep and Goats with “When the Son of Man comes in His glory . . .” and the parable of the talents with “the kingdom of heaven is like . . .”

In this parable Jesus teaches that His followers must show compassion to those who are sick, hungry and poor. He expects them to reach out to those in need with personal, hands-on action.

Both parables were given to teach about the Kingdom of God and practical Christian living, not modern economic systems.

An Example in the Book of Acts

After Jesus’ death and resurrection, many of His followers gathered in Jerusalem. What they did has been used to support the idea that the first Christians were socialists living in a commune.

The book of Acts records that they “. . . were of one heart and one soul; neither did anyone say that any of the things he possessed was his own, but they had all things in common. Nor was there anyone among them who lacked; for all who were possessors of lands or houses sold them, and brought the proceeds of the things that were sold, and laid them at the apostles’ feet; and they distributed to each as anyone had need” (Acts 4:32-35).

At this same time a man named Ananias and his wife Sapphira sold some property and brought the money to the leaders of the Church. Their motivation wasn’t really to help those in poverty, but to be honored as special people. They lied about how much they had received and only gave some of their profit to the poor.

Peter knows what they had done and tells Ananias, “. . . why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and keep back part of the price of the land for yourself? While it remained, was it not your own? And after it was sold, was it not in your own control? Why have you conceived this thing in your heart? You have not lied to men but to God” (Acts 5:3-4).

Peter tells Ananias that he had a right to own land. It was not a moral requirement to sell it and give all the profits to the Church. The sin of Ananias wasn’t owning land. It was the sin of lying.

The letters of Paul and James describe congregations that aren’t living in the same communal way of the Jewish Christians in Jerusalem. These letters contain a lot of instructions on the relationship between rich and poor people, and between employers and employees. The example of the Church in Jerusalem was never presented as a model for all congregations.

Economics of Jesus

Jesus forcefully teaches against greed and the oppression of the poor. He also teaches against envy, which is discontent and resentment because someone else has something you think you deserve. Also, when Jesus walked the earth neither socialism nor capitalism existed as economic systems. Although some people try to, Jesus can’t be classified as a socialist or a capitalist!

It is amazing what we see in the life of Jesus. He had no moral conflict in owning a small business and making money from it (He was a carpenter). He also became an itinerant preacher traveling from town to town with little financial support. He could be seen comfortably eating at a banquet in the home of a wealthy person; spending time with the poor; and turning over the tables of the money changers in the temple.

He did all of these actions to teach us about the Kingdom of God and how we are to act as His disciples in this world. You can’t imitate Jesus’ teachings without knowing His teachings. I encourage you to set aside some time each day and read through the Gospels—Matthew, Mark, Luke and John—and learn the practical way of life taught by Jesus Christ.

His most important teachings about money are in the Sermon on the Mount where He said: “So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own” (Matthew 6:31-34 New International Version).

No matter what type of economy we live in—capitalist, socialist or something else—we must put our efforts into living a Christ-like life, and put our trust and faith in God to provide our every need!  CC