Jesus and Rich People

So how did Jesus feel about rich people?  That doesn’t sound too hard to answer.  I’ve got some proof texts right here.  I hope they are the same as your proof texts.

We don’t have Jesus’s words to consider, of course.  We have his teachings as they have been preserved in several traditions.  We have, in other words, four different notions of how Jesus answered that question.  Jesus has the most bitingly negative view of wealth in Luke’s gospel, so let’s look at that one as an example.

I’ve been listening to Raymond E. Brown’s lectures on the Gospel According to Luke.  I’d have to say that I’m a fan.[1]  Some day, I may come to disagree with how Brown goes about understanding the gospels, but for the moment, he is my standard for both accuracy and relevance.  When I hear another view, the first thing I do is to check to see whether it is compatible with what Brown says.

I know that’s cheap.  It’s a little like an intellectual infatuation—I am aware that the Latin fatuus, on which the word is based, means “foolish.”—but I have high hopes for it anyway.  My hope is that as I continue to read other scholars, I will come to see that Brown is really good on this question, but not so good on that one.  I have followed this same process in each new field of academic study and it has worked the same way each time.  The person I choose first winds up as scaffolding and he finds a place for everyone, even his worst critics.

Here is what Brown says about Jesus and rich people.  He points out that the Jesus of Luke’s gospelrich fool 1 is really hard on rich people; much harder than the other gospel writers are.   In this post, I would like to just pick one instance and play around with it a little.

Here is a parable Luke records (Chapter 12), but which does not appear in the other gospels. 

16 And he told them this parable: “The ground of a certain rich man yielded an abundant harvest. 17 He thought to himself, ‘What shall I do? I have no place to store my crops.’

18 “Then he said, ‘This is what I’ll do. I will tear down my barns and build bigger ones, and there I will store my surplus grain. 19 And I’ll say to myself, “You have plenty of grain laid up for many years. Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry.”’

20 “But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?’

21 “This is how it will be with whoever stores up things for themselves but is not rich toward God.”

So here are two really good questions.  What did this parable mean to Jesus?  What does it mean to us? 

To answer these questions, some notion of what an economy is must be filled in.  Jesus and all of his contemporaries understood that there was a fixed amount of wealth.  The world of economic transactions is, in other words, a zero sum proposition.  What I have, I have because I took it from you; what I get, you lose.

Rather than picturing this narrative as a harvest, which can be stored and used over long periods of time, it might help us to picture it as a the body of a freshly killed animal.  Because there is no refrigeration, whatever is not consumed immediately is going to rot.  The rich man can have as large an appetite as he wants; he is not going to be able to eat the whole animal.  His options are sharing it or wasting it.  In this parable, he chooses to waste it.

That new setting provides a way for us to better appreciate Jesus’s scorn.  Using the hunter imagery, it is easier to see that the man should have shared the kill with his neighbors.  It also suggests that being “rich toward God” (v. 21) is one outcome and “sharing with your neighbors” is the other.  God is a God of sharing with your neighbors.  When you keep it all for yourself, therefore, you are not only denying your neighbors, but God as well.[2]

So what does this mean to us?  We don’t share Jesus’s presuppositions about the economy.  Capitalism has a way of making the market larger, under some circurich fool 3mstances, so it is possible for my wealth and your wealth to increase at the same time.  As a result of the actions I take, I get richer and so do you.  The metaphor of the economic “pie” is often used.  If you can make the pie bigger—or “higher,” as George W. Bush used to say—then both of us can have more pie.

Imagine, for instance, that the point of the story about building a new barn was that this farmer employed a lot of workers in construction of the barn, that the delayed sale of the wheat brought increased revenues, and that the taxes on those revenues supported three new centers for transitional youth.  This is a ferocious adulteration of a simple metaphor.  Let me be the second to admit that (second only because you probably made that observation while I was finishing the sentence).  On the other hand, my story, like Jesus’s story, has a point.  It is that “sharing with the neighbors” can look very different in a society in which economic activity can benefit everyone (although not equally) and in which there is a government which has at least some redistributive functions.

So.  Would the Jesus who condemned the greedy farmer condemn the keen-sighted entrepreneur?  He might.  I’m really not sure.  But if he did, it would be on grounds other than those presumed in his story.  And what about the farmer’s reception in the next world, where God relies on the judgments made by the poor to make up His mind about the rich?  Certainly we can say it is more complex. 

This is not the case of the hunter who, having killed more than he can eat, would rather see the excess rot than share it with his hungry neighbors.  This farmer did what he did because of greed—it is the only motive capitalist theory recognizes—but by that greed, he benefitted many of his neighbors, who otherwise would have received very little benefit. Rather than giving out a dole of grain, he employed workers, made profits, and paid taxes.  Presumably, those who benefitted would, when the farmer died that night, recommend to God that he be shown mercy.

On the other hand, one thing you can be sure about, if we are talking about capitalism, is that some rich fool 2will benefit and some will lose.  Capitalism is a truly awful distribution mechanism and it would not be too much to say that it eats (some of) its children.  Capitalism guarantees that many will be worse off.  That is how the price of labor is set.  What will those, the marginalized, say to God when the farmer dies and faces the judgment?  And what will God do, faced with benevolence from some of the poor (the winners) and malevolence from others (the losers).[3]

Let’s go back to Luke.  The set of questions with which I finished the paragraph above are really bad questions.  They are bad because they impose some modern ways of understanding economic activity that are foreign to the world Jesus was talking about.  They also impose the categories of economic actors—like proletariat and bourgeoisie— that would have been entirely foreign to the First Century.  That means that “building a new barn” is not necessarily a good thing or a bad thing.  It is not like eating all the kill you can hold and allowing the rest to rot, which is always a bad thing.

Anyone who wants to be a learner from Jesus—and that is what “disciple” means—is going to have to figure out what Jesus would say to you on Facebook when he heard about the new barn.  That’s actually what a learner would want to know.

[1] I got my introduction to Brown’s way of approaching scripture maybe twenty years ago.  I got his book The Birth of the Messiah.  There are two accounts of Jesus’ birth: Matthew and Luke.  I opened up Brown’s book and saw that the whole book was divided into two parts.  The first half was about Matthew; the second half about Luke.   It was love at first sight.

[2] Luke tells some other stories which, according to Brown’s understanding, have the same point.  The poor are going to be in heaven.  When you get there, they will testify in your favor or against you and God will listen to what they have to say.  The parable of the rich man and the beggar at his door makes this point.  So, in its own odd way, does the parable of the sleazy steward.  Both are in Luke 16.

[3] If you are following Mitt Romney’s dichotomy of “makers” and “takers,” the farmer represents the 53% who actually make the economy work and both kinds of workers are the 47% who are “takers.”  Just so you know.

About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
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