I was wondering how long it was going to take before we heard the words, “class warfare,” in the national debate about our economy. As we continue to move deeper into election season, there will be plenty of rhetoric like this. Christians will try to get into the debate one way or another, almost too predictably at that.
Read Jesus’ own words on economic justice, like that in Luke 14:33: “So therefore none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions,” and we generally get two responses from Christians.
One response is to take Jesus literally and advocate for communist-style public policy, while the other response is to engage in watered-down discipleship couched in private philanthropist elitism.
Unfortunately, both of these responses fail to dig deeper into the cultural nuances of God’s Word. Just as “class warfare” is a relatively modern term, so too are the two options above–psuedo-socialist on the one hand, and private, individualist on the other hand–are ingrained, thoroughly western ideas.
Get at the history of some what Jesus was preaching, (like that in Matthew 19:21), and perhaps we can clear the air of some of our polarized partisanship and debates.
For one thing, wealth in the first century was a thoroughly communal construct. What that means is that one’s resources had little to do with someone’s private stash. What mattered most were the very public connections each family had within the community. Wealth depended on who you knew and with whom you ate supper.
Bible scholars such as Bruce Malina argue that people in Jesus’ society were always looking back and forth, as it were. Back to see who was behind them on the social ladder, and forward to see who they needed to befriend in order to keep progressing on that ladder.
This entire process played into the cultural dynamic of honor and shame, much like the honor and shame values indigenous in modern Oriental cultures today. The goal for the first-century family was to gain greater honor within the community by marrying the right people and choosing well-to-do benefactors. A person’s “wealth” was the sum of their resources and their honor.
Another important cultural key was how people in the first century saw resources in the first place. Theirs was a “limited goods society.” If you went to the market and purchased a can of green beans, that was one less can available for someone else. It’s not like today, where you go into Publix and the stocker can get more cans from the storeroom if you purchase all the cans on the shelf.
What this means is that when the wealthy in Jesus’ day accumulated resources, they were doing so at the detriment of the peasantry. In many cases, the very rich exploited the very poor (no middle class in Jesus’ day, mind you) in exchange for limited goods.
Jesus’ message, however, was one in which notions of honor went out of the window. He lived the life of a peasant, denied any honor attributed to his family by redefining who his family was (“My mother and brothers are those who do God’s will”), and ate with “tax collectors and sinners” on a regular basis.
He preached social justice that ran counter-cultural to the norms of his day, and also “blessed” the very people who represented “shame” in his society, like the meek and the “hungry” (Matt. 5). He told people to share so that goods would not be so limited after all.
If we can learn anything biblical about economic values, its that Jesus transcended class and preached Good News in which all people were to see themselves as gifted individuals partnering in a larger, God-centered family. This proclamation was not as private or individualized as some conservatives make it out to be; nor is it easily translated into public policy like some liberals might hope.
Rather, God’s economic justice lies somewhere in the middle. No matter where you fall on the political economic spectrum, Jesus’ call is always the same: “Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it” (Matt. 10:39).