Jesus of Nazareth is a figure who is often emulated for his emphasis on kindness, mercy and love, but many of his disciples seem to miss a very large part of his teachings in their attempts to mimic his virtues.
Many of Jesus’ ideas would be considered controversial in the modern world, but his attitudes regarding economics would be especially radical, aligning less with the conservative views of many of his followers and more with the far-left views we now call communist.
However, the mainstream interpretations of Jesus’ philosophy seem to ignore or undermine his economic ideals, most often in the interest of preserving capitalism. American history has given us many examples of Biblical interpretations being used to excuse harmful institutions such as slavery and attempt to de-radicalize the image of popular figures such as Martin Luther King Jr. It is only responsible that we separate Jesus’ relationship with money from that of any churches who stand to profit financially from more capitalist interpretations of his words.
We can read stories about Jesus’ emphasis on communal practices, like sharing meals and labor and starting the tradition now referred to as “communion.” We can also see that he has a particular interest in the needs of people who his society would rather abandon such as women who had committed adultery and those with leprosy or physical disabilities.
He tells his followers to forgive their debtors, that they should not store up treasures on earth and that they cannot serve both God and money. In Matthew 21, he becomes so enraged by people using a temple for economic exchange, he starts flipping tables.
In Matthew 19, a rich man approaches him for instruction and Jesus tells him to give up all his possessions and give the money to the poor.
“It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the Kingdom of God,” Jesus said in Matthew 19:24 NIV.
This notion that a rich person would have to stop being rich in order to follow him is explicitly incompatible with capitalist thinking. Why make people choose between following him and pursuing wealth unless he dislikes the effects of wealth and hopes to counteract them in some way by encouraging an alternative lifestyle among his followers?
Despite the context and direct nature of his statement, it seems to be interpreted quite differently by many wealthy and influential Christians who have yet to give up their possessions.
Under capitalism, interpretations favored by rich people are given more of a platform. This has created the exact type of hierarchy among Jesus’ fans that he devoted so much time to warning against. His attempts to redistribute power are often downplayed, and this is interpreted instead as a story about how nobody is perfect.
SIUE is home to a large Christian population, including 20 Christian organizations, whose members I sincerely hope will avoid such a convenient dismissal of this issue. All of us at SIUE, Christian or otherwise, should question the motivations of our sources. Information is never presented without an agenda, and it is alarmingly common for information to be presented in deceitful ways.
An idea as simple as “love your neighbors” can be used to promote the exact opposite message. I hope that any readers seeking to understand Jesus’ words will think critically about their own ideologies as well and whether they align more closely with the whitewashed commercial version that grants wishes or the radical political figure portrayed in the Bible.