It is tiresome to keep hearing the regurgitated notion that capitalism is somehow inconsistent with Christianity, or even that Jesus was essentially a socialist. As a Divinity graduate, who studied the Bible as part of my degree, I am familiar with the Gospels as well as the Old Testament and can find nothing whatsoever to support this notion.
Jesus’ teachings were focussed first and foremost on spirituality, and he frequently stressed that a person’s behaviour and attitudes are a matter of individual responsibility, rather than drawing any conclusions about society in general. He determinedly abstained from making any political comments, although he lived at a time when his people were severely oppressed by Roman rule. He refused, for example, to be drawn into any criticism of the occupying forces or their masters, responding, when asked about whether it was right to pay taxes to Caesar, “Render to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.” Some people argue that he was political in his criticism of the ruling classes among his own people, but his criticism was aimed solely at the hypocrites who made it extremely difficult for people to find their way to God. He drove the money changers out of the Temple, not for any political reason but quite simply because they were charging people exorbitant amounts to enter their most sacred building.
It is true that he told the rich young man to give away all he owned to the poor, and later said, “It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven,” but he was speaking to one specific individual, who, as the Gospel explains, prized his money above all other considerations.
The God whom Jesus presents in the parables is anything but a socialist in terms of opposing capitalism and creating complete equality. In the Parable of Talents, for example, the master (i.e. God) gives each of his servants different sums of money and tells them to go away and use it. He does not give them the same amount; and he does not praise the one who made no return. On the contrary, he praises the servant who invested the money and made a fortune, and says that to those who have more will be given, and to those who have not, even the little they have will be taken away.’
Again, in the Parable of the Bridesmaids – those who prepared in advance by bringing with them extra oil for their lamps are praised, and when the foolish ones, who failed to prepare, ask them to share what they have, they are rewarded for refusing to do so!
It is very easy to make sweeping generalisations about how society should care for the poor or the sick, which makes the speaker sound caring but really has no meaning. I have known people, for example, who rant about the shame of a society that has so many homeless people, but when confronted by a homeless person, they do not lift a finger to help that individual person. I have known people who rant about the supposed collapse of the NHS, while failing to visit sick people in their own vicinity. Jesus’ teachings concerning how we live in our everyday lives, and how we relate to one another, had nothing to do with society at large, or politics or sentimental speeches, they were about the actions of individuals who recognise the likeness of God in one another. Jesus did not advocate taking from the rich to give to the poor – on the contrary, he advocated each person using his or her own talents to the full, in whatever occupation they are engaged. He did condemn envy and hypocrisy, and it seems to me that a good deal of socialism is based solely on envy.
Why, I ask myself, do certain socialist leaders feel such intense anger towards ‘the rich’? The answer that comes from history is very clearly illustrated by the Russian Revolution when those who raged against the Tsarist wealth seized power, and immediately moved into the palaces, drove the Tsar’s cars and sat in his box at the theatre. It is the politics of envy. In the Old Testament, wealth was a sign of God’s blessing – Abraham, Job, David, Solomon – all were described as extremely wealthy.
Jesus said, “You cannot serve both God and money...” and I would argue that a poor person is more likely to serve money than is a wealthy person. A wealthy person has the ability to use their wealth for good, and can spend their time doing whatever they feel they are called to do. A poor person, struggling to make ends meet, spends so much time thinking about money...and usually the lack thereof. Surely then, it is better to encourage capitalism, and the ability we all have to make money, rather than to rail against the rich, quite simply because we do not share their riches.
Ultimately, Jesus was talking about neither capitalism nor socialism. He spoke of spiritual matters, and how we translate them in our every day lives is a matter of personal conscience. Clearly, it is misguided to claim his teachings for one political viewpoint or another – in the same way as it has been wrong that, in almost every war, every nation and army has claimed that God is on their side.