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Christ's Economic Thought: A Primer

By Jim West
April 01, 2004

The prominence of Christ’s economic thought is underscored by the incontestable fact that redemption itself is an economic concept. Paul wrote that “ye are bought with a price” (1 Cor. 6:20). Salvation is buying wine and milk without money and without price (Is. 55:1). Thus Christ canonized economics. This translates into our becoming His property, which includes His ownership of our purses, too.

It is not surprising then that Christ addressed a host of economic issues. He addressed money, property, coveting property, private property, waste, usury, debt, slavery, stewardship, eminent domain, taxation, riches and wealth, poverty, work, wages and salaries, tithing, giving, and the triple staples of food, shelter (housing) and clothing. Even when He was on the cross, He saw to it that His mother was both spiritually and materially provided for (Jn. 19:26). While the twelve apostles were serving their apprenticeship, He sent them out without scrip, silver, gold, or money so that they would trust in Him for these things (Lk. 10:4; 22:35). Before He began His public ministry, He was an accomplished carpenter in Nazareth. He may have owned His own home in Capernaum or Tyre and even lived in or rented a house in the Garden of Gethsemane (Jn. 18:4; Mk. 7:24; Mt. 17:24). Shortly after His birth God directed the “financiers” from the East who offered gifts that were certainly used to bankroll His flight to Egypt, until Herod the Great died. He was both a provider and a consumer. He provided for His disciples and He ate and drank with them. This was true before His resurrection and after when He prepared fishes and bread for Peter and John (Jn. 21:9). The foundation of His material concern was His incarnation. Because all (material) things were made by Him (Jn. 1:3), and thus all “very good,” He chose to become flesh and blood. Therefore Christianity is irreducibly incarnational; this means that the temporal and economic concerns of God’s people are not trifles. Christ came to fulfill the law, which includes the Property Commandment: “Thou shalt not steal.”

Since the economic concerns of Christ are total, it is not easy to know where to begin our primer. So, let us begin chronologically with His famous statement about bread during His temptation in the wilderness. After Satan tempted Him to command that the rocks become bread, Jesus rebuked the Devil, “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds out of the mouth of God” (Mt. 4:4). The original setting of this statement concerns those who complained about the shortage of victuals in the howling wilderness (Dt. 8). In answer to their grievous griping, God sent the Wonderbread, or maybe angel’s food cake. This largesse teaches us to live according to every word that proceeds from God’s mouth. The bread did not just vindicate that God’s Name is Jehovah-Jireh, that is, the Lord who provides timely rams in the thickets for His Abrahams and Isaacs. Rather, the word of God dispatched the bread. God spoke and set their tables. Thus, God’s people were schooled in the wilderness. The bread that we eat is not the patented product of the “incredible bread machine” of capitalism, or the result of our own brawn that we have earned in the salt mines of life, but the result of God’s providential word. Our bread does not come to us in a vacuum, but from God’s word (Is. 55:11ff.). When we pray, “Give us this day our daily bread,” we recognize that God alone spreads our tables and causes our cups to cascade with wine. Man is not just economic man; man is what he is because he lives by God’s providential word.

Christ Promises Us Staples
Very much related to this is Christ’s promise of food, shelter, and clothing in the Sermon on the Mount (Mt. 6:25ff.). He commanded: “Seek ye first the kingdom of God and his righteousness and all these things will be added unto you.” The context features Christ’s condemnation of mammonists, who are enslaved to their wealth (Mt. 6:24). One trait of a mammonist is that he constantly worries because his god is “uncertain.” This anxiety stems from his wretched unbelief. Christ’s cure for mammonism is a paradox: the solution to worry is worry. He tells us that if we are going to be worried that we should worry about our relationship to God’s Kingdom and God’s righteousness. The imperative, “Seek ye first,” means to eagerly, even worriedly, search after God’s Kingdom and righteousness. Of course, the Kingdom refers to the rule of God in the Person of Christ, who is the King of the Kingdom. And, the “righteousness” refers to the righteousness of God’s law. When we make the commandments of God our chief “worry,” then and only then will “all these things be added unto you.” That is, the food, shelter, clothing, and housing will be added. Some commentators interpret this last clause as an expression taken from the Jewish marketplace where it was common for the seller to “add unto you” an extra portion according to his gracious will. But the worship of the god mammon dices us so that we abandon God’s rule and righteousness. And the result of this insanity is that we slay ourselves! The Greek word for worry is most instructive: it literally means “a piece.” A mammonist so worries that he actually divides or chops up himself (e.g., ulcers, etc). The Greek word for worry describes the effects of worry! Worry is a sword that slices us to pieces.

Years ago I read a newsletter that had as its caption Matthew 6:33. Occasionally, the newsletter would accentuate the negative. You know, “the light at the end of the tunnel is a gorilla with a flashlight or a train,” etc! In despairing, perhaps even cynical moments I used to call it The Titanic Gazette. I think the problem was that I treated Matthew 6:33 like springboard preachers use Scripture. A springboard preacher announces his text and then leaps from it altogether. That is, the text is a pretext for him to say whatever he wants to say. On the contrary, Matthew 6:33 should quicken us to heartily trust God’s promises. We have a precept (“Worry about the Kingdom and His righteousness”) and a promise (“all these things will be added unto you”). This adding is demonstrated repeatedly in our lives, sometimes by what the Puritans called “remarkable providences.” One such was the Lutheran musician Johann Sebastian Bach, who often walked fifty kilometers to Hamburg to hear J.A. Reincken, organist of the Katharinen-Kirche there. One day he returned from the recital quite penniless and rested outside an inn. Hungry, someone threw two herring heads onto a trash pile. Reluctantly, Bach examined the rancid offering to see if any part was edible when he found a coin in each head! He “wined and dined” and was able to make another trip to Herr Reincken. We can augment to Bach’s experience the feeding of the five thousand, which is Christ’s only miracle that is recorded by each of the evangelists. The five-thousand sought first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness to the point of physical exhaustion, and then “all these things” were added unto them.

Christ and Money
Christ also viewed life as a stewardship. Good stewardship involves: (a) money, (b) property, and (c) individual gifts or endowments. Regarding money, Christ had much to say. First, He did not condemn money per se. He even received entertainment in the homes of the rich, such as Zacchaeus and Simon, and was buried by the wealthy Joseph of Arimathea. He ate the Last Supper in a “large furnished room” provided by rich friends (Mt. 27:57ff.). He received the alabaster box of priceless ointment with thanksgiving. He spoke favorably of Abraham, the greatest of the Old Testament believers, but who was also “exceedingly rich” (Gen. 13:2). Money, whether it be in coin or in cattle (as it was for Abraham), is to be viewed as a trust over which we are stewards under Christ’s authority. The steward is to supervise and apportion the foodstuffs of his Master. The steward knows that all of life is a sacred stewardship; the property that he “owns” belongs absolutely to his Master. This translates into our using His monies for the glory of our Master in heaven. Therefore Zacchaeus gave one half of his goods to the poor and even made four-fold restitution when necessary (Lk. 19:1-10). Thus money does much good, when wisely and lovingly used. Christ even commands us “to make friends by the mammon of unrighteousness” (Lk. 16:9)!

A classic quote from Augustine compares love and money. He wrote the following brain-twister: “Money is made smaller if you give it away, but love grows. We show more kindness to a man when we give him money if we do not ask it back, but we do not give love unless we require it to be repaid. When money is received it stays with him who receives it and leaves him who gives it, but love does not leave the man who gives it, and if it is not repaid, still it stays with him, and he who receives it does not possess it unless he gives it back.” Augustine’s thrust is that nothing on earth lasts except love.

Nevertheless, Christ did condemn “the love of money,” which is covetousness (just as we should reject the statement of the 13th century theologian Caesar of Heisterbach, who said, “Religion brought riches and riches destroyed religion”). Neither money nor riches are radioactive. Christ’s command to the rich young ruler to go and to sell all and give to the poor was not a justification to found a religious order like the Franciscans when St. Francis “embraced the ragged bride of poverty.” Christ was preaching the Tenth Commandment, “Thou shalt not covet.” His intent was to prosecute the idolatrous heart of the rich young ruler. The ruler who claimed to follow God’s law perfectly needed to understand that the difference between God and goldis one letter: and that his god was the latter. The Tenth Commandment prosecutes our coveting our neighbor’s house, wife, or any of his property; yet, it does not condemn our coveting a wife or house like our neighbor’s. Certainly, Christ does not command His people to de-capitalize themselves; but He does command us to mortify our Midas-hearts. Thus, the cliché: “He has a heart of gold,” can describe either a Midas or a Zacchaeus.

Property and Socialism
The premise of socialism is that private “property is theft.” According to this definition, not even God, who is the creator and owner of property, would be guiltless (Ps. 24:1).

Likewise, Christian socialists incessantly toot that material things are “dangerous things.” For example, socialist Ronald Sider in his writings, which include Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger, repeatedly opines that “possessions are dangerous.” He then deduces that the best thing to do with the lion’s share of these possessions is to give them away, either personally or by passively acquiescing to confiscatory, governmental taxation. This “Robin-Hood-with-a-Sheriff’s-Badge” mentality not only conflicts with Christian love, which is free and voluntary, but with our calling to be God’s stewards. All that we own is a sacred trust bestowed by our God. We receive His monies and we must invest them. The way to give more is to invest more. Stupid philanthropy in the name of love is a masquerade for irresponsible “thoughtless benevolence.” (Some have rightly called the doctrine of the redistribution of the wealth as the ethic that produces “the greatest unhappiness for the greatest number.”)

An old illustration about statist redistribution is worthy of our primer. If a person owned two cows and lived under the following governments, the following results would ensue:

Under Socialism: You would be forced to give one cow to your neighbor.

Under Hindu Socialism: You worship both cows and starve to death.

Under Communism: You would be forced to give both cows to the State, and the Party would give you some of the milk.

Under Fascism: You could keep the cows, be forced to give some of their milk to the State, and the State would sell the milk.

Under (American) Welfarism: The Government shoots one cow, milks the second, and then pours the milk down the drain.

Under Nazism: The Government shoots you and seizes both cows.

Under Capitalism: You sell one of your cows and purchase a bull.

Of course, it would make no sense for the property that is claimed to be both “theft” and “dangerous” to be redistributed. The reason is that we would imperil the lives of our neighbors! The late David Chilton spoke sarcastically but keenly of the decapitalization-mentality. Chilton wrote: “What seems most strange is that Sider goes on to request us to share these dangerous things with others.”1

Investing Your Talents
Christ not only spoke about property and money, but also “talents.” This is shown in the parable of the talents in Matthew 25. “Talents” is not only a monetary term, but also represents our God-bestowed gifts and abilities. The parable portrays the Christian life as a trusteeship; all of us differ in our endowments, but everyone in the parable receives something. One received five, another two, and one received only one. There is inequality in the distribution. The reason for the unequal apportionment is due entirely to God’s good sovereignty. Thus, that God gives endowments should preclude discontent and irresponsibility. The two good servants in the parable were thankful and responsible to their master. Both strove to double their talents. And Christ eulogized them both with the words, “Well done.” They finished their work. It was not, “Nice try,” or “Well begun,” or “Well intended.” On the contrary, the bad servant who received one talent was also expected to invest. But fearful and lazy, he hid his talent. His sin of omission was the basis of his condemnation (sins of omission are common in Christ’s parables). Because he had no sense of life as a calling from God, he hid God’s talent. And instead of investing his talent with the bankers for interest, his biography was “I hid thy talent” (notice: thy talent).

Now, when his master called him to give account, the one-talented servant blamed his master instead of himself. It was then that his master took the one talent and re-distributed it to his first servant, who now owned ten talents! In other words, he further propertied the propertied. He said: “For everyone that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance; but from him that hath not, even that which he hath shall be taken away” (Mt. 25:29). Thus in this parable Christ actually sides with the industrious propertied and condemns the fearful propertyless. The central point is that the lazy servant was not condemned for dishonesty, but for lack of productivity. He could have and should have loaned his money to the bankers. What we learn here is that not only does God bless us with monies, but He also blesses us with abilities and gifts. These, too, must be used for God’s glory. If we allow them to atrophy, then God will judge us.

Rewards for Good Stewardship
The final feature of Christ’s economic teaching is that He promises us material blessing when His commandments are obeyed. For example, the command to honor our parents is annexed with the promise of long life and peace (prosperity) (Eph. 6:2-3; Mt. 15:4; Mk. 7:20). Also, Christ commanded: “Give, and it shall be given unto you; good measure, pressed down, and shaken together, and running over, shall men give unto your bosom. For with the same measure ye mete withal it shall be measured to you again” (Lk. 6:38). This does not mean that we earn a reward; but it does mean that God gives a reward. Nor does it mean that economic prosperity is automatic in every case (Heb.11:36ff describes the lot of the “others,” who are reduced to sheepskins, goatskins, and destitution). However, the exception does not destroy the rule; rather, the exception makes the rule. One of economist Gary North’s most celebrated statements is the following: “Why is it that Satan’s earthly followers, who violate God’s principles for successful living, supposedly will remain in control of the world until the Rapture? Are we supposed to believe that Satan’s principles produce personal failure but cultural success, while biblical principles produce personal success but cultural failure? Does this make sense to you? It doesn’t to me.”2

While emphasizing God’s gracious rewards when we obey His commandments, William Tyndale, who repudiated chance, nevertheless, zeroed in upon the prosperity of Joseph with this humorous translation of Genesis 39:2: “And the Lorde was with Joseph, and he was a luckie fellow.” Yes, indeed, we are “luckie fellows” when our ever-present God rewards us with prosperity! For as Charles Spurgeon said: “You have not the world, but you have the Maker of the world, and that is far more.” And this Maker of the world entrusts us with a part of His world so that we might glorify Him.

Notes

1. David Chilton, Productive Christians in an Age of Guilt Manipulators (Tyler, TX: Institute for Christian Economics, 1982), 38.

2. Gary North, “A Letter to Charismatics,” as cited in , Gary Demar and Peter Leithart, The Reduction of Christianity (n., p. :Dominion Press, 1988) 132.

 



Topics: Economics, Theology

Jim West

Jim West has pastored Covenant Reformed Church in Sacramento for the last 18 years. He is currently Associate Professor of Pastoral and Systematic Theology at City Seminary in Sacramento. He has authored The Missing Clincher Argument in the Tongues Debate, The Art of Choosing Your Love, The Covenant Baptism of Infants, and Christian Courtship Versus Dating. His latest book is Drinking with Calvin and Luther!

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