Markets and Morality

Rendering Unto Caesar: Was Jesus A Socialist? (Part 1)


Tax and Fiscal Policy

On June 16, 1992, London’s Daily Telegraph reported this astonishingly bold remark by former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev: “Jesus was the first socialist, the first to seek a better life for mankind.” Perhaps we should cut Gorbachev some slack here. A man who climbed his way to the top of a stridently atheist empire with a sorry track record on human rights was probably not a Bible scholar. But surely he knew that if socialism is nothing more than the seeking of “a better life for mankind,” then Jesus could hardly have been its first advocate; he would, in fact, be just one of several billion of them.

You don’t have to be a Christian to appreciate the errors in the Gorbachev canard. You can be a person of any faith or no faith at all. You just have to appreciate facts, history, and logic. You can even be a socialist — but one with open eyes — and realize that Jesus wasn’t in your camp.

Let’s first define the term socialism, which the Gorbachev comment only obfuscates. Socialism isn’t happy thoughts, nebulous fantasies, mere good intentions, or children sharing their Halloween candy with one another. In a modern political, economic, and social context, socialism isn’t voluntary like the Girl Scouts. Its central characteristic is the concentration of power to forcibly achieve one or more (or usually all) of these purposes: central planning of the economy, government ownership of property, and the redistribution of wealth. No amount of “we do it all for you” or “it’s for your own good” or “we’re helping people” rhetoric can erase that. What makes socialism socialism is the fact that you can’t opt out, a point eloquently made here by David Boaz of the Cato Institute:

One difference between libertarianism [a personal choice and liberty-based system] and socialism is that a socialist society can’t tolerate groups of people practicing freedom, but a libertarian society can comfortably allow people to choose voluntary socialism. If a group of people — even a very large group — wanted to purchase land and own it in common, they would be free to do so. The libertarian legal order would require only that no one be coerced into joining or giving up his property.

Government, whether big or small, is the only entity in society that possesses a legal monopoly over the use of force. The more force it initiates against people, the more it subordinates the choices of the ruled to the whims of their rulers — that is, the more socialist it becomes. A reader may object to this description by insisting that to “socialize” something is to simply “share” it and “help people” in the process, but that’s baby talk. It’s how you do it that defines the system. Do it through the use of force, and it’s socialism. Do it through persuasion, free will, and respect for property rights, and it’s something else entirely.

So was Jesus really a socialist? More to the main focus of this essay, did he call for the state to redistribute income to either punish the rich or to help the poor?

I first heard “Jesus was a socialist” and “Jesus was a redistributionist” some forty years ago. I was puzzled. I had always understood Jesus’s message to be that the most important decision a person would make in his earthly lifetime was to accept or reject him as savior. That decision was clearly to be a very personal one — an individual and voluntary choice. He constantly stressed inner, spiritual renewal as far more critical to well-being than material things. I wondered, “How could the same Jesus advocate the use of force to take stuff from some and give it to others?” I just couldn’t imagine him supporting a fine or a jail sentence for people who don’t want to fork over their money for food-stamp programs.

“Wait a minute!” you say. “Didn’t Jesus answer, Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s when the Pharisees tried to trick him into denouncing a Roman-imposed tax?” Yes indeed, he did say that. It’s found first in the Gospel of Matthew, 22:15–22, and later in the Gospel of Mark, 12:13–17. But notice that everything depends on just what truly did belong to Caesar and what didn’t, which is actually a rather powerful endorsement of property rights. Jesus said nothing like “It belongs to Caesar if Caesar simply says it does, no matter how much he wants, how he gets it, or how he chooses to spend it.”

The fact is, one can scour the Scriptures with a fine-tooth comb and find nary a word from Jesus that endorses the forcible redistribution of wealth by political authorities. None, period.

“But didn’t Jesus say he came to uphold the law?” you ask. Yes, in Matthew 5:17–20 he declares, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.”3 In Luke 24:44, he clarifies this when he says, “Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms.” He was not saying, “Whatever laws the government passes, I’m all for.” He was speaking specifically of the Mosaic law (primarily the Ten Commandments) and the prophecies of his own coming.

Consider the eighth of the Ten Commandments: “You shall not steal.” Note the period after the word “steal.” This admonition does not read, “You shall not steal unless the other guy has more than you do” or “You shall not steal unless you’re absolutely positive you can spend it better than the guy who earned it.” Nor does it say, “You shall not steal, but it’s OK to hire someone else, like a politician, to do it for you.”

In case people were still tempted to steal, the tenth commandment is aimed at nipping in the bud one of the principal motives for stealing (and for redistribution): “You shall not covet.” In other words, if it’s not yours, keep your fingers off of it.

In Luke 12:13–15, Jesus is confronted with a redistribution request. A man with a grievance approaches him and demands, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me.” Jesus replies thusly: “Man, who appointed me a judge or an arbiter between you? Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; life does not consist in an abundance of possessions”. Wow! He could have equalized the wealth between two men with a wave of his hand, but he chose to denounce envy instead.

“What about the story of the Good Samaritan? Doesn’t that make a case for government welfare programs or redistribution?” you inquire. The answer is an emphatic “No!” Consider the details of the story, as recorded in Luke 10:29–37: A traveller comes upon a man at the side of a road. The man had been beaten and robbed and left half-dead. What did the traveller do? He helped the man himself, on the spot, with his own resources. He did not say, “Write a letter to the emperor” or “Go see your social worker” and walk on. If he had done that, he would more likely be known today as the “Good-for-nothing Samaritan” — if he were remembered at all.

The Good Samaritan story makes a case for helping a needy person voluntarily out of love and compassion. There’s no suggestion that the Samaritan “owed” anything to the man in need or that it was the duty of a distant politician to help out with other people’s money. Moreover, Jesus never called for equality of material wealth, let alone the use of political force to accomplish it, even in situations of dire need.

This article was first published by the Foundation for Economic Education (FEE). It is also available as an e-book and in MP3 format.

President, FEE

Lawrence W. (“Larry”) Reed became president of FEE in 2008 after serving as chairman of its board of trustees in the 1990s and both writing and speaking for FEE since the late 1970s. Prior to becoming FEE’s president, he served for 20 years as president of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy in Midland, Michigan. He also taught economics full-time from 1977 to 1984 at Northwood University in Michigan and chaired its department of economics from 1982 to 1984.

1 thought on “Rendering Unto Caesar: Was Jesus A Socialist? (Part 1)”

  1. Posted 12/06/2016 at 16:43 | Permalink


    The Gospel of Mark was written before The Gospel of Matthew.



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