Was Jesus a Socialist?by Duane Patterson on 06/23/11
In the past few years, especially since Obama was been elected president, we have heard claims by Liberal Christianity that Jesus was, in fact, a Socialist. One of the main issues they use to support this position is Jesus' attitude toward the rich and poor. They use scriptures such as "Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the Kingdom of God", (Luke 6:2) and the story of the rich ruler who Jesus instructs to give all of his money to the poor (Luke 18:22) as evidence of Jesus' endorsement of socialism. In their opinion capitalism is an economic system base on greed which allows the rich to get richer and does not allow the poor to improve their economic situation. This leads to their conclusion that a true follower of Jesus Christ could not possibly support our current capitalistic system and would naturally be a supporter of socialism. There are two basic problems with this analysis and conclusion. First, interpreting scripture in the context of our modern society leads to many misconceptions as to the true meaning of the scripture. Second, the idea that socialism is all about taking care of the poor is false. I will deal with these two issues separately.
The New Testament was written 2,000 years ago. The stories take place in a land half way
around the world from the United States and in a first-century Jewish
culture. For us to properly understand
the message of Jesus it is important for us to have knowledge of the historical
and culture context in which he lived. Jesus
was a Jewish man who spoke Hebrew or possibly Aramaic. He lived in first-century Galilee and Judea
under the imperial rule of the Roman Empire.
We cannot interpret the words of Jesus in the context of the 21st
century culture of the United States. We need to listen to Jesus' words not as
modern Christians but as first century Jews.
Socialism is a concept of our modern culture and is not a concept that a
fist-century Jew or Roman citizen would have comprehended. Defining Jesus as a socialist is an
anachronism and not useful for understanding Jesus or His teachings.
The Random House Webster's Collage Dictionary defines
socialism as follows: "A theory or system of social organization in which the
means of production and distribution of goods are owned and controlled
collectively or by the government."
Based on this definition Jesus' ministry would have been about a social
reorganization of first-century Jewish society in eastern Roman Empire. This is simply not the case. Jesus states the
purpose of his ministry very succinctly in Mark 1:14-15 - "Now after John was arrested Jesus came to Galilee proclaiming the good
news of God, and saying "The time is fulfilled, and the Kingdom of God has come
near, repent, and believe in the good news." Exactly how a first century Jewish person
would have understood what Jesus meant by stating that the Kingdom of God has
come near is still being debated by biblical scholars. In my reading of the literature I have yet to
find that socialist theory in any way helps us to understand this concept. Asking a rich person to give his wealth to
the poor and following Jesus in no way implies that Jesus is advocating that
the social system of first- century eastern Rom Empire be reformed into a
system where all means of production be owned by everyone or by the
government. The fact is that in first-century
Judea and Galilee most the means of production and distribution was owned by
the government (ruling class). This is
good evidence that the government owning the means of production and
distribution does not necessarily improve the plight of the poor. According to Jesus, giving one's wealth to
the poor was a way to build up treasures in Heaven for the person giving the
wealth. This was part of living an
ethical life style and being within the will of God. In Jewish thought of the day "entering the
Kingdom of God" was placing oneself under God's rule, that is, living your live
according to God's will.
Jesus' ministry was about repentance and how to be part of the Kingdom of God and not about reforming first century Judea and Galilee into a socialist society, a concept which no one in His society would have understood. He never taught that one should give their money to the government in order to alleviate poverty or to redistribute income to the poor. Jesus taught that His followers were to be generous givers to the poor and outcast because this is what God commands us to do.